Reviews | Before “Dune”, Frank Herbert learned from Native Americans
In Brian Herbert’s understanding, the environmentalism of “Dune” was partly based on conversations between his Mr. Hansen and his father. Mr. Hansen himself felt he had “contributed many ideas” to the novel, his widow, Joanne Hansen, told me. “They explored the idea of Dune, a waterless planet,” she said. “They spent a lot of time talking about it.” Ultimately, she continued, her husband felt that “Dune” contained many ideas that Frank Herbert “expanded” on.
Mr. Herbert’s fascination with Indigenous societies shines through in his novel. “Dune” follows Paul Atreides, a young man from another planet, as he navigates the parched planet of Dune. Paul’s guide is an old country-born man, Stilgar, who teaches him to live off the land, just as Henry Martin taught a young Frank Herbert. The people of Stilgar, the Fremen, shape their society around the giant sandworms that swim in the waves of the Dune Desert – much like the whales the Quileutes still harpooned in living memory. As he learns Fremen ways, Paul comes to reject the imperial society he was born into and, in a sequel, despises “believers in manifest destiny”.
Indigenous peoples were on the cutting edge of environmentalism in Mr. Herbert’s day, and they still are. And, as Howard Hansen predicted, the scale has widened. It is no longer just wilderness that must be defended, but also the delicate balance of gases in our common atmosphere. Here, Indigenous activists have been indispensable, leading the resistance to fossil fuel extraction, for example during the huge protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Fossil fuels and the damage they cause are very important to the Quileutes, who face some of the worst climate change. Rising tides, combined with a deforested landscape that no longer retains moisture, have put La Push at risk of catastrophic flooding. The Quileute Nation is now soliciting donations for its ‘Move to Higher Ground’ campaign to move its coastal school to safety.
There is a painful irony here. Seeing what logging had done to La Push, Howard Hansen warned Frank Herbert that the world could become a “desert”. With input from Mr. Hansen, Mr. Herbert wrote a novel, “Dune,” imagining just that. The novel proved prescient, helping readers to think about the environment not just at the level of lakes or forests, but of entire planets.
Today, as predicted, the Earth’s climate is changing. And La Push drowns.
Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern and author of “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States”.