Embracing an Indigenous Worldview of Climate Change

Three indigenous people offset a nature scene

For Indigenous Peoples around the world, climate change has long been more than an abstract, futuristic possibility.

Image: © 2022 Mer Young/UUA

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Some twenty years ago, in a nondescript conference room with high ceilings and Berber carpet, I witnessed an Alaska Native Elder cry while discussing climate change. This Elder and her community have been living on the land—and existing off of it—for eons. She described changes many of us would find too subtle to notice—changes in seasonal migration patterns; changes in stark contrast to their memories before the impact of chemical pollution, which has thinned the eggshells of native birds; changes since spring started arriving too early, thawing the ice and putting the community at risk.

As an Alaska Native (Denaakk’e) myself, I’d listened to Elders tell similar stories, but this moment is crystallized in my mind for its juxtaposition between an Indigenous worldview and the western contemporary environment it was being shared in. The Elder had traveled from home to the National Tribal Conference on Environmental Management in Reno, Nevada, to share her story. She was doing more to combat climate change two decades ago than most people care to do today, despite the plethora of scientific evidence showing catastrophic climate change, as well as the fires, tornados, and temperature changes that nearly everyone is experiencing.

Three indigenous people offset a nature scene
Righting the Relationship

Mer Young, a descendant of Chichimeca and Apache Tribe (Ndé), created this illustration, which celebrates the diversity of Indigenous peoples. It features (from left): an Inuit woman, a Guarani woman, and a Diné (also known as Navajo) youth. The landscape incorporates Denaakk’e land/waters, and the Carpathian Mountains, to illustrate that European settlers traveled from their lands to invade Turtle Island (the Americas).

© 2022 Mer Young/UUA

For Indigenous Peoples around the world, climate change has long been more than an abstract, futuristic possibility. It has been a reality affecting the harvesting of our traditional foods and our ability to hunt and fish, affecting our ability to live on our ancestral homelands, and changing a way of life that we have been living since time immemorial. The importance of an Indigenous worldview is illuminated by the impacts of climate change, and climate change is exacerbated by the western world’s historic and contemporary reliance on imperialistic endeavors to extract resources in the name of capitalism. But we cannot drink oil nor can we eat money. Indeed, Elders all over Turtle Island tell stories of a time to come when the world will be forced to return to Indigenous ways, a time when the world will need our ways in order to heal itself.

Food for Thought

If you are asking what you might do to assist Indigenous communities in restoring a right relationship with the earth, perhaps begin with educating yourself about the land you inhabit. Whose ancestral homelands are you reading this article from? What, if any, Indigenous-held land remains in your state or region? How can land be returned to Indigenous stewardship in your area? What other forms of liberatory actions can we as a society engage in? For example, shareholder activism is gaining momentum and we can all learn more about how to divest our finances from institutions that support and engage in destructive resource extraction. See “Banking on Climate Chaos Fossil Fuel Finance Report 2022”: tinyurl.com/BOCC22.

I do not speak for all Indigenous Peoples. However, as an Indigenous woman, and in my professional work as an Indigenous scientist and attorney advocate, I feel compelled to share my general perspective on what I believe an Indigenous worldview has to offer the world.

At the center of this worldview, all things are connected and interconnected, dependent and interdependent. There is no separation from what some might call the “natural” world and what some call the “spiritual” world. Rather, these two entities coexist and are inseparable. Under this worldview, each natural formation or animal has power, mana, or a spirit, and therefore is a relative to us requiring respect, stewardship, and honor. Many Indigenous communities refer to themselves in their own languages as what roughly translates to “the People” (Denaakk’e, Diné, Dene), and we the People, too, are part of this natural world. All power, whether within the People or the natural world, is sourced from the earth itself. In this way, the relationship between the People, the earth, and the natural world is governed by, and requires, respect and stewardship to keep the relationship right. If there is an imbalance in this relationship, it is because respect has not been paid.

Thus, under an Indigenous worldview, if we are experiencing drought, fires, and natural disasters, it is because of our disrespectful actions. One can easily begin to see how commodification of land and provoking imbalance spurred by resource extraction are at odds with this worldview. What is being returned to the land? How are we paying respect or stewarding a right relationship? We are taking and providing nothing in return.

Recognition of the need for a return to, and an uplifting of, Indigenous worldviews is increasing. For example, the 30x30 Initiative plans to conserve 30 percent of the earth’s land and water by 2030. However, as numerous organizations have pointed out, this initiative must make room for Indigenous-led conservation in order to ensure conservation is equitable, sustainable, and locally led and designed by the original stewards of the land.

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples represent only 6.2 percent of the population but manage about 25 percent of the land, which in turn contains 80 percent of the global biodiversity. Indigenous-led conservation seems particularly possible in the United States with the appointment of Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous woman at the helm of the Department of the Interior. Haaland (Pueblo Laguna) has created initiatives to restore Tribal homelands, research harms from boarding schools, establish a climate task force, and remove derogatory federal place names.

Indigenous-led movements worldwide seek to protect water from pollution and land from deforestation and desecration. From Standing Rock to Oak Flat to Mauna Kea, Indigenous Peoples are seeking to return to a right relationship with the earth. It is not a movement based in a moment but a reconciliation to a stewardship that has existed for generations.

The ask from Indigenous Peoples is simple but comes with a complex answer: Let us steward the land. Let us right the relationship. Assist us in these endeavors. Return to us our stolen land, ancestors, languages, and children so that we can heal ourselves and the earth.

We need not continue to extract, take, remove, sell, covet, own, profit, or destroy. Another story is possible if we just listen to the past and allow it to take us into the future.

Enaa baasee’ (many thanks) for taking a moment to read, lead, and share.

Suggested Reading

  • Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, Richard K. Nelson (Univ. of Chicago, 1983)

  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013)

  • We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms & The Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies, Cutcha Risling Baldy (Univ. of Washington, 2018).

  • Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance, Nick Estes (Verso, 2019).

  • As Long as The Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press, 2019).

  • “Data for Progress, Indigenous-Led Conservation: A Pathway Towards 30x30,” Julia Jeanty (November 2021): tinyurl.com/Pathway30x30

  • “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,” Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs (May 2022): tinyurl.com/FIBSIreport

  • “Indigenous Peoples’ Leadership and Free, Prior and Informed Consent are Fundamental to 30x30 Initiative,” (Cultural Survival, June 25, 2021) tinyurl.com/30x30article

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