Why There Are No Climate Change Deniers on Indian Reservations

Valerie Goodness

While Native Nations are far from being monolithic, there is one thing that forced assimilation cannot take from us, as Natives; our coevolved connection to nature. We all know that there is a settler colonialist darkness hovering like a vulture, set out to divide us for one purpose; to take. From creating blood quantum rules and silencing strong Indian voices to intellectual property theft, the chipping away of our identity and everything that makes us who we are is, by design, to take our lands and resources. Here is why I believe Climate Change can be one catalyst in uniting Tribal Nations of Turtle Island.

In order to understand how Native Americans recognize climate change, where so many non-Natives cannot, we have to acknowledge that coevolution and sacred place matters. Native Americans are genetically connected to their ecosystems within their sacred space and that space is Turtle Island. That is the largest difference between Indigenous people and those who are new arrivals; thousands of years of belonging here. It takes thousands of years to become genetically connected to ecosystems and their services. Our women are even closer to nature within that sacred temporal and spatial realm. The givers of life, Indigenous women and our Earth Mother are even more aware to the minute changes within our ecosystems. Through this connection our women brought these changes to the attention of our communities and Tribal Nations. The Tribal Nations have been trying to bring climate change to the attention of the occupying colonizers, decades before Al Gore made his movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Everything is connected and in a compartmentalized non-Native world, those connections are difficult to see. Dr. Don Grinde has written about disconnection from nature in his book, “Ecocide”. Disconnection from a nature, where one has not coevolved, contributes to that compartmentalized world view. Warped value agendas come out of that disconnection. For Native Americans, everything within our ecosystems have value, because everything is connected to those ecosystem services in some way, even the most insignificant or inconvenient. Gregory Cajete writes about Native Science and traditional ecological knowledge which includes reciprocity where great care is taken in knowing and understanding nature’s connections and how one can mitigate and give back for what is taken for the needs of the Tribal Nations, or commons. The commons are lands or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community. In a compartmentalized disconnected worldview the goal is the exploitation of nature in ways that generate the least cost. Giving back or mitigating exploitation is costly where exponential profit is the goal. It then becomes more profitable the more disconnected from nature a non-Native society becomes. The value of the commons becomes diminished which is what Garrett Hardin warned in his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Fikret Berkes makes it clear that the “Tragedy of the Commons” does not normally apply to Indigenous commons, in his book “Sacred Ecology”; which is why the World Wildlife Fund says that the last remaining sustainable lands are Indigenous lands. Charles Menzies attributes healthier and sustainable Indigenous territories and their natural resources to traditional ecological knowledge in his book “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource management”.

Therefore we must ask what all of this means for climate change and why are Indigenous people more aware of it and how it is affecting their commons? Why do so many non-Native Americans choose not to acknowledge climate change? Native Americans notice when their ecosystem commons are changing and search to recognize what the causation is. This is beyond spirituality or Native American fetishes this is about being one with the universe which includes climate, sea levels, plant and animal movements and their seasonal reproduction or lifecycles and all of their connections. Let’s say dandelions are blooming earlier, and for some Tribes, this was an indicator of when the sturgeon run, most Native Americans will notice changes in those connections. Climate change is important to Native Americans because those changes will affect the human and non-human relationships within their territories. Much has been written about Native peoples diagnosing these changes from noticing tree displacement, bird migration shifts, invasive species encroachment changes, fish die offs, sea star and coral die offs, Mycorrhizal abnormalities to weather changes bringing abnormal rain and flooding or the warming temperatures melting permafrost and glaciers. Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island noticed long before western scientists and there was no denial that Climate change is real because all of nature has value, not just that which can be commoditized. Now that western science has caught up with Indigenous awareness, many decades later, western scientists are being confronted by the same corporate denialist rhetoric that have silenced Native peoples for generations.

Western science is stuck with the corporate political stalemates, but Indigenous peoples have an edge. We can decolonize. We know what we need to do to adapt and change. We know what we need to fight. Because the same climate change creators are the same environmental polluters and are the same land and resource thieves as well as the same food and medicine intellectual property rights violators. We can reject them from our territories much easier than our non-Native climate denier neighbors. This is our unifying moment. We can only be sovereign if that sovereignty includes decolonizing from that which our ancestors fought. In peace and beauty we can choose technology that helps our people but does not hurt our ecosystems or our water, or our food or the ozone or that which contributes to climate change. We can do this in solidarity.

Valerie Goodness, Tsalagi and Dakota Ojibway, is a co-founder of TEK Initiative and NSF IGERT. She is a Ph.D. Fellow for Natural Resource Sustainability and Traditional Ecological Knowledge American Studies at the University at Buffalo.

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