Europeans historically have viewed nature as something to be conquered and exploited.
Only in recent decades has the white man given serious thought to protecting the environment.He could learn a lot from American Indians, says the chairman of the Paiute Indian Tribe in southwestern Utah.
"We have a reverence for the land and the natural environment," said Alex Shepherd. "The Native American traditions do not instruct us to subdue the earth."
Unlike Europeans, who valued nature primarily as a means for amassing wealth, Indian traditions "do not teach exploitation and liquidation of our natural resources," said Shepherd, the keynote speaker at a pollution-prevention conference this week at Sundance. (Please see accompanying story.)
"It is fitting and appropriate that America's rather-late arriving concern with environmental stewardship should look to the wisdom of the Native Americans," said Shepherd, who is also the chairman of the Utah Tribal Leaders.
One of today's most pressing environmental problems, especially for Indians, is poverty, he said.
"People lacking economic opportunity are willing to make environmental sacrifices that a more affluent society would never accept."
For example, some tribes, such as the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico and the Skull Valley band of the Goshutes in Tooele County, are looking to nuclear-waste storage as a solution to their economic problems.
But Shepherd finds himself caught between his belief in Indian sovereignty and his fight against "environmental discrimination," in which environmental problems are dumped on the poor or politically weak.
"Placing hazardous waste in an area because people are poor and desperate for employment constitutes environmental discrimination."
Noting that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is opposed to the Goshutes' plan, Shepherd said he will support the governor only if the state can offer the Goshutes an attractive economic alternative.
On a national note, Shepherd said he favors efforts to reform public land management.
"It is no longer appropriate, if indeed it ever was, to subsidize the depletion of limited resources," Shepherd said. "The bottom line in grazing reform and revision of the 1872 Mining Law is that we must not shortsightedly liquidate the resources our children deserve to inherit."