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Common Ground

Bill Kight

A few interesting stories from the recent tsunami in Asia could be dismissed without much thought. After all, we don’t live anywhere near the ocean so why worry about huge waves?Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me but the story in the Denver Post last week confirms what I believe about indigenous people. Their ancestral wisdom passed down from ancient times teaches important lessons about survival.Jeremy Meyer’s article told of the small group of Moken people called “sea gypsies” who inhabit the Surin Islands National Park in Thailand.Their stories handed down for generations told of “waves that eat people.” More than mere lore, they contained information that “if the water goes down rapidly, it means a bad thing is going to happen.”The fact that all 196 people in their village escaped to high ground is due to their paying attention to what is going on in the natural world around them. They saw the sea recede and escaped death.As part of Nature, animals are also sensitive to signs occurring in the world around them, especially when danger is headed their way.After the tsunami, Mr. Ratnayake, Deputy Director of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department was quoted as saying, “No elephants are dead. … I think animals can sense disaster. They have a sixth sense. They know when things are happening.”Experienced firefighters know that strange animal behavior often occurs immediately before a wildfire “blows up” into huge flames and makes a fast-moving run. In safety briefings I have often told firefighters that if they see animals and birds suddenly head away from the area fleeing from the fire, they’d better follow.That’s not to say that all animals can escape fast moving fires. I came upon what remained of a good-sized buck stuck in a piñon tree, caught in midair. He had lodged in the tree while looking back at the fire behind him. His huge rack had trapped him, his head still turned.Animals play an important role in indigenous people’s lives for the lessons they can teach us about nature, disaster and folly.In listening to stories from native elders throughout North America, it is fascinating that most of the stories are told using animals as the main characters.As modern Americans we are often too busy and disconnected from Nature to notice and pay attention to warning signs of impending danger.Who needs Indian animal stories and who has time to listen to or read them?Starting to teach a new group of students in CMC’s Indians of North America class, I wonder if with humor and from my heart I can convey in one semester the powerful elders’ ancient wisdom that nature has taught them.Yesterday I received news that an elder from one of the villages I visited this summer in Alaska had passed away. What stories were buried with him that our world could use? We’ll never know. Nature and elders have much to teach us if we only knew how to listen.Writing from over 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his stories with readers every other week.


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