The Origin of the Tree Hugger Narrative

The Origin of the Tree Hugger Narrative

If a tree is saved even at the cost of one's head, it is worth it" - Amrita Devi

The WOC Behind the Tree Hugger Narrative

by Michael A. Estrada


Preface

The importance of reclaiming histories within any social space cannot be underestimated, and for the environmental movement it's never been more critical that all voices are brought into the narrative whether they are past or current, forgotten or remembered.

The story of the original tree huggers — Indigenous Indian women — not only inspired generations of would be tree huggers through their dedication, lives, and activism, but also illustrates today what it means for an influential history to go erased from a movement; contributions and leadership that have largely been forgotten. Indeed, their story is one that represents a habitual pattern within the environmental movement at large: ignoring, erasing, or forgetting how folx of color have significantly contributed to “environmentalism” throughout all of history and still lead the movement today.

While we’ll see how this origin story came to inspire the West and eventually infiltrate many of our minds into evoking connotations of a white hippy in the 70s and not WOC, we’ll state it clearly here for the record: Women of Color were the first and original tree huggers.

Let’s dive in.


 
 

Honoring Histories

In traditional environmentalism, white-dominated narratives control the discussion, imagery, story, and, without a doubt, the most influential environmental organizations in the U.S. and abroad. At its core, this is problematic because those who are most impacted by environmental degradation and injustice (of any kind) are often not the ones leading the discussion on how to affect positive change, whether from an organizational standpoint or from a storytelling one (in some spaces, this is now referred to as impacted leadership, or the idea that those most impacted by an issue should be the ones leading the solutions to solve the problems). This can lead to a one-sided discussion when it comes to environmentalism and begs the question about the shaping and direction of the movement.

The term tree huggers embodies what it means for a term created by and for women of color to completely transform into another history into itself, with the original meaning left discarded and forgotten. The original tree huggers were in fact indigenous Indian women who sacrificed their lives in order to protect their trees and community, as opposed to whatever image you might conjure in your head.

For many of us, the words tree hugger have always produced the image of the classic, white hippy, or of white environmentalism as a whole; maybe even J. Hill on the treetop. It has become an embedded image within the public imagination. At times, it can even signal a derogative term for someone who cares about the environment a little too much. However, the real history counters this and resurfaces its original usage: a term that was created in honor and firstly attributed to indigenous women of color (WOC) in the 18th century.

We thus begin our series on women of color's leadership in the environment with the story of the First Tree Huggers, and reclaiming the word for what it truly was and is: a movement led by women of color to protect their environment and their community.

A Brief History on the First Tree Huggers

India, September 1730

Soldiers arrived at Khejarli, the village of the Bishnoi people, with orders from the ruler of Jodphu to cut down trees for the construction of a new palace. The Bishnoi (meaning 29 from the 29 principles through which the Bishnoi abide) are a religious, desert-dwelling sect who have lived in India's Rajasthan desert for centuries.

Instead, a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi immediately ran forward to protect the native, khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria). She did so by hugging the tree, and refusing to move. When she was decapitated as a result, her 3 daughters promptly took her place. When they too were killed in the same manner, other Bishnoi (from the same village and surrounding villages) continuously took their place until, in an event that would come to be known as the Khejarli Massacre, 363 Bishnoi had sacrificed their lives for the defense of their trees.

Upon hearing of their sacrifices, the ruler Maharaja Abhay Singh intervened and rescinded the original order, calling for a permanent ban to prevent any future felling of the trees. A temple was later erected in honor of the 363 Bishnoi who gave their lives, and today Bishnoi continue to make the pilgrimage every September to honor this history.

 

 

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200 Years Later

The history of the Bishnoi (a.k.a the OG tree huggers) became the key inspiration and impetus for non-violent protests against deforestation over 200 years later, in what is now known as the Chipko Movement in Northern India. The now broadly used tree hugger term entered our collective psyches through the popularization of the Chipko Movement, (chipko, "to hug" or "to adhere"), and took place roughly from 1973 to 1981.

Importantly, popularization is used here intentionally. The reason being that the movement was quickly subject to appropriation. In many cases, the retelling of the Chipko Movement is simplified or told as an aside, and it is arguably why, roughly 40 years later, the mainstream, collective imagination doesn't pair tree huggers with indigenous Indian communities (including ourselves), but with white, American environmentalists.


The Chipko Movement, and the Popularization of Tree Huggers

Uttarakhand, India: 1973 to 1981

Leading up to the year 1973, Uttarakhand was subject to significant environmental degradation from commercial logging. The Chipko Movement was born through a response by the local people to protect their livelihood and communities. An organized grassroots effort, it was notably not one but a series of demonstrations against commercial logging that went on for eight years in separate locations throughout Uttarakhand. The organizing was led by the women from the separate villages, and included such efforts like the coordination of rotating day and night shifts, where villagers swapped places to make sure the trees were not felled in the middle of the night.

The international attention it garnered and inspired — alongside the praise it received within India itself —  can be largely attributed to a few reasons:

  1. Its element of non violence,
  2. The leadership and bravery of the Women who stepped forward (alternating day and night) to hug the trees and place themselves between the would be loggers,
  3. And finally, the ability for the story to travel as fast as it did. The Chipko Movement took place in the 70s as opposed to the early 1700s.

Eventually, after years of dedication, the Indian government would cede and halt any commercial logging for 15 years (some sources say permanently). The Women of the Chipko movement would go on to garner international attention for their efforts, and globally evoke the usage of the term tree huggers, morphing and changing until its usage today, and however you may think of the word now.


The origin of the term tree huggers is but one instance of deleted history, and an unfortunate norm when it comes to the environmental history we're often taught or see lauded. Black, Indigenous and People of Color have always had a deep relationship with the environment and ecological community around them. The traumatizing effects of the voluntary and involuntary diaspora notwithstanding, our presence, ingenuity, and leadership is ingrained in the environment and protection of the planet. Our experiences parallel that of the planet’s, and as a result it is crucial that we reclaim these erased histories so that we may better honor one another, heal one another, and build a more just and resilient future for everyone.

Ultimately, these stories are not only important because they exemplify the innate, human resiliency that has inspired generations of would-be activists around the world, but it also — and perhaps even more importantly — challenges us to ask ourselves where else are we missing or forgetting crucial histories? Where else are we erasing the contributions and legacies of peoples; where else have we perhaps missed a crucial piece in the building of our collective movements? Where else may we find not a new solution to the crisis at hand, but rediscover one steeped in the heritages of our ancestors?

Our stories are bright and brilliant; here's to reclaiming our pasts so that our futures may become stronger for all.


 
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Michael (he/him/his) is a writer and photojournalist from California. He is a first-generation Salvadoran American and UCLA alumnus, and has previously worked in ecological restoration, language tutoring, environmental education, and even as a bike messenger. His work focuses on the intersections between race, environment, and social justice, and has been published and/or supported by folks such as Outside, Loam Magazine, National Park Service, and the Pew Research Center. In 2017 he founded Brown Environmentalist, and currently works as a freelancer and on retainer for multiple organizations. Find his work @mikey.ae and occasionally in different spaces like the PGM ONE Summit.