Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Indigenous stewardship helps climate change efforts

 November 14, 2023 at 3:18 PM PST

S1: It's time for Midday Edition on Kpbs. Today we are talking about climate change and climate justice through the lens of indigenous cultures. I'm Jade Hindman. Here's the conversations that keep you informed , inspired , and make you think. We'll talk about adaptation as a response to climate change and land management.

S2: If native people understand anything , it's it's about resilience. And and that means a lot of different things for native people.

S1: Plus , we'll talk about the fight for environmental justice through activism and how stewardship of the environment is cultural for many indigenous nations. That's ahead on Midday Edition. It is part of many indigenous cultures to live in harmony with the land and its resources , which is different from the relationship the dominant Western culture has in the face of climate change. There is an effort to learn more about how the first stewards of this land took care of it. Here to delve into that cultural connection is Dina Julia Whitaker. She is an author , journalist and lecturer of American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos. She is a descendant of the Colville Confederate tribes in Washington state. Her most recent book , As Long As Grass Grows The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice From Colonization to Standing Rock , looks at the story of native peoples resistance to environmental injustice and land incursions. She joins us now to talk more about our changing environment and climate through the lens of indigenous culture and knowledge. Dina , welcome.

S2: Thank you. Good to be here.

S1: Glad that you're here. So indigenous nations were the first stewards of this land in America and have a cultural relationship with it. Can you talk about that connection with the land ? Yeah.

S2: You know , a way to understand it is that is just to say that the condition of being indigenous is , is of being original to a place , and it's that condition of being original. The original inhabitants of any given environment or ecosystem is what shapes who native people are. It gives birth to their languages. It gives birth to their to their worldviews and the way that they see themselves in those places. So these are relationships of kinship. Sometimes we use the word kin centric to emphasize that these relationships are relationships for native people where they believe and see themselves as relatives to their environments. And so that is a very different paradigm than the one that we see in dominant society , like the US , where the relationship to land and place is really a commercial , monetized relationship that's extractive. It's built on , you know , capitalist views of land as property. And and so that sets up a very different dynamic. And so , you know , indigenous people's relationship is very different from that of settler or immigrant populations.

S1: And it's interesting. I mean , you say that it is sort of cultural from settlers , I guess , the idea of extracting and exploiting the resources.

S2: And there's a , you know , how far do you want to go back ? I mean , one of the ways that I talk about it , and I'm not the only one , but a way to understand those relationships can be understanding the rootedness in , in Judeo-Christian and these sort of religious. These religious imperatives that get handed down starting in the book of Genesis , in the Bible , where , you know , God commands humans to have dominion over all the animals and the natural world. And so that sets up a dynamic that gets played out over and over and over again. This this is a hierarchical relationship where humans are at the top of the food chain and and everything is in service. Everything human or non-human is in service to the human. And and so , you know , it gives it gives rise to a very different relationship. That's very extractive relationship and ideas about ownership of the land. So , you know , that's what makes the most sense to me. The , you know , in terms of explaining the origin of it.

S1: And in contrast to that , you know , indigenous nations also have a very spiritual connection to the land. Can you talk about the spiritual connection there ? Yes.

S2: And the spiritual connection is something like it's pretty , it's kind of slippery. And the word spiritual can sometimes be a little too fuzzy , a little too , you know , hard to grasp or full of presumed meaning. And when I use the term spiritual , I use it in the way that I write about it in the book is by explaining that for indigenous people , there is spirit invested in everything in the natural world. So that and that's a type of agency. So in the same way that humans are said to be , to have spirit , to be animated by spirit , all elements of the natural world are as well. And so are seen as equals. They're seen. And that's why you have this relational , you know , approach to it and relationship to it. So , you know , when you live in a worldview where everything around you is imbued with spirit , then that is the spiritual foundation for everything. And , you know , of course , that gives rise to religious systems. And that's not even the right word , but spiritual practices and religious practices based on that understanding of the world and your relationship to it. Right.

S1: Right. It seems like there is this harmony that exists between indigenous nations and the land , the resources , the species that that live on it and in it , and it's cultural. So talk to me more about sustainability as well.

S2: And and the reason is because they enacted these worldviews that understood the limits of the ecosystems that they inhabited. And when you live with with this kind of regard for other non-human life , you understand that you you have to guarantee its abundance for future generations. That means you're not going to over populate. You're not going to exploit the land in ways that will , you know , compromise future generations. And to that point , I also want to make sure to to say that native people did exploit the land. I want to dispel this myth that native people , you know , lived with no impact on the land. That's actually not true. They lived in ways where they they actively use land management techniques that ensured abundant food production , abundant production of other kinds of materials needed for daily life. And there are examples in history with evidence that that native people sometimes did over exploit resources , you know , combined at times with droughts. And , you know , and we see the disappearance of some societies like the Cahokia civilization , also the Anasazi and the Hohokam people in the southwest. You know , scholars are still trying to answer questions about what happened to those societies. Those were very complex societies. They developed , you know , advanced technologies , you know , for very high population cultures. And and there's evidence that they , you know , there was probably misuse of the land. And so , you know , native people have made mistakes , but generally. He learned from those mistakes , which is why , you know , there were millions of people on the continent when Europeans arrived in in the 15th century or 16th century.

S1: I think that's also an interesting point you make about the overexploitation and learning from those mistakes.

S2: One of the most obvious ones that come to mind is burning , prescribed burning. And that was practiced all over the continent , especially here in California. The idea of fire is medicine on the land is diametrically opposed to what we live with now , which is fire is something to be avoided at all costs. When Europeans arrived here , they knew that that there was fire on the land all the time and they didn't understand it. And so by the time , for example , in California , when California becomes a state in 1850 , and then at the turn of the century when we get the creation of a forest service , we have these ideas by the by the time we get there , you have these very Eurocentric ways of managing the land. And it's all based on this utilitarian concept , especially around forests. And forests are there for timber production. And so timber production timber has to be protected. It has to be guarded because it's it's an asset. It's a resource that generates revenue. And that means , you know , Indians can't be going around burning up the forests , you know ? So that ends up becoming part of the ways that the federal government forcibly dominates native people. And , you know , as a result , you know , over 100 a period of 125 years , you have this , this runaway growth of forests , this , this viewpoint that the forests have to just be allowed to be in their natural state. Well , now we have over a century of forests completely growing wild and all this , you know , underbrush building up , which is fuel for these extreme fires that we have. And that's really what explains predominantly why we have these , these extreme fires. And of course , now it's fueled by climate change in a warming , warming environment. And , you know , but but it really begins because of the mismanagement of forests , which is all tied to to getting eliminating indigenous land management practices from the land. Right.

S1: Right. And not just indigenous voices in land management.

S2: You know , the framing of how we all adapt to climate change. You know , I don't know how much mitigation doesn't really seem to be working. We don't have a system globally for for reducing greenhouse gases. And that's , you know , that's mitigation. You know , we like to think about resiliency. And if native people understand anything it's it's about resilience. And and that means a lot of different things for native people. A lot of the conversation is going back to , you know , bringing indigenous knowledge onto the land and land management practices and all these different ways , you know , bringing back fire on the land , rejuvenating salmon populations , rejuvenating other kinds of aquatic life and other , you know , all these different ways that that scholars and , and practitioners are talking about what it means to have indigenous knowledge drive , you know , how we approach the land , how we approach our environmental concerns. So that's really that's really what it looks like. And , you know , and it's really a lot less than , you know , compared to dominant society , which seems to focus more on the technology. You know , how we're going to technologies our our way out of climate change. Personally I don't see that happening. You know , that leads to a lot of greenwashing about , you know , sustain , you know , this buzzword sustainability and how we we think we're going to survive into the future. But , you know , that's a whole other conversation. And , you know , that's really not one that native people are having. I think that we know that , that we're not going to technologies ourselves out of this mess.

S1: You talk a lot about climate resilience and the idea that we adapt to this changing environment. And yet every Earth Day , many people walk around chanting save the planet.

S2: What they mean is they want to save the human race. You know , the the planet will go on. And yes , we are obviously impacting the planet's systems that make it so that humans can live here and other species , you know , at the rate that we're going , it's our own. It's our own existence that's compromised along with the existence of other non-human life. But the planet will be fine , you know ? I mean , if if worse come to worse and we're not here , the planet will rebound and it will probably rebound faster without humans on it. That said , there is another way of looking at it from an indigenous perspective. Native people believe because of their relationship of reciprocity. You know , in in the world that we lived in , especially prior to , you know , invasion and Europeans coming here , there was a view that this this reciprocal relationship was meant that the land needed humans on it. And so , you know , can we live that way ? Can we ? Is that viewpoint , you know , really relevant or is it applicable ? Probably not. The way that we're living in this really high technology society. So , you know , you know , and I'm not suggesting and I don't think anybody's suggesting necessarily that we go back to living in a Stone age way of living. But at the same time , you know , what is what are the limitations ? Those are the hard questions that aren't really being asked. How do we live within the carrying capacity of the planet ? How do we live with , you know , within our regions that are that can provide food , that can provide the things that we need as humans ? And , you know , what is it ? What does it require for us to give up ? Because I think ultimately , that's what's going to have the question that has to be answered. And but those are the questions that that really don't want to be asked. Right.

S1: Right.

S2: And here , of course , we're talking about capitalism. It's really a problem of philosophy. And that gets us back to , you know , what is how do we see ourselves in the world ? What is the role of the human in the world ? And how do we be in a balanced relationship to our environments ? And and I think those questions , if those kinds of questions were driving research , you know , for researchers who are trying to answer those , these kinds of problems about how we survive to the future , what kinds of tech , you know , what kind of science I'm talking about , science is here. You know , if scientists were asking those kinds of questions , I think they would be coming up with different kinds of answers. But , you know , the hard sciences live within within their own kinds of paradigms that believe that they have the superior knowledge systems and and that they don't they don't see that other people have other kinds of knowledge systems that are that are relevant or have utility for the kinds of problems that we're facing. Although I do think that it's changing a little bit.

S1: Climate change looks like.

S2: These processes of of injustice are all tied to how their relationships to land and and place are disrupted.

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , speaking with Dina Giglio Whitacre , author of the book As Long as Grass Grows and a lecture of American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos. And we've been talking about climate change , but environmental justice and climate justice are parts of this conversation , too , and can also mean a lot of things.

S2: And this war of conquest begins. And and this war of conquest is about pushing native people off the lands. It's about the logics of elimination and replacement. And for native people , that's about it's inseparable. So these , these processes of , of injustice are all tied to how their relationships to land and , and place are disrupted through through invasion. And , you know , so so that's how it is for native people. And those those questions have to be answered first as well. And they're going to be really different for other populations. So now we're talking about the worldviews or not so much the worldviews , but the the analysis , the way that we understand our place in the world and , and the histories that shape who we are as people , for native people , it's about that relationship of domination and how that replaces our own indigenous systems. For other populations , it's different , you know , for black populations , other people of color , it's a different conversation. There are there are relationships , but it's fundamentally different. So that's why I had to write that book , because I knew that it wasn't. It was an incomplete analysis to understand native histories strictly through a viewpoint of of racism. That doesn't explain it enough.

S1: Right , right , exactly.

S2: Of course , one , you know , as we in the 19th century is this growing sense of anxiety starts looming over American society with growing urbanization. Then then it's about how the concept of of the natural world is conceived , you know ? And now we're talking about wilderness and , you know , virgin wilderness. And , and that's what needs to be conserved and preserved. And these kinds of spaces are always understood to be spaces without people , without humans. And the myth that the founding myth of that is that , you know , these were virgin , virgin lands that Europeans came to. But but that wasn't the case. And still , that driving myth is what leads to the beginning of the conservation movement in the 19th century and then builds in the 20th , becoming what we know today as the modern environmental movement. So it's built on the logics of , of whiteness , you know , the white nation and , and , and there's there's a lot of I see a lot of veracity in that , a lot of usefulness. But at the same time , again , we have to go back to this colonial analysis and understanding about the processes of displacement and dispossession of indigenous people. So , so really it's about for me , it's about settler supremacy on the land. Because once you take the race out of that question , then it's about how these processes of conservation draw everybody into the logics of of elimination. So then we have to look at , well , you know , what does it mean to conserve to to have conservation on land that's stolen and gotten through genocide ? You know , how does that draw everybody in regardless of race ? Then then again , it's a different conversation.

S1: Your book , As Long As Grass Grows , looks at the standing Rock protests. Throughout 2016 , native women and youth were very much at the forefront of that move. Movement. So I want to talk a bit more about their activism.

S2: You know , even the the environmental movement started as a youth based movement , you know , second wave of environmentalism as we understand it today. And I think that that indigenous leadership with , with women and youth at the helm is really providing major leadership for the resistance movements that we're seeing now. I mean , we live in a society now driven by resistance movements. You know , there was a time not long ago , a half century ago , or maybe three quarters of a quarters of a century ago , where social movements were driven by , you know , people of color and super marginalized people , and they would be little flashpoints , like they'd come up , maybe , you know , we had the women's movement at the , you know , in the 19th century and with the labor movement , most of it driven by , you know , white people. But now I think the that we're getting to a point of crisis that that that activism is normalized. You know , it used to be , you know , 20 years ago or 30 years ago , somebody claiming to be an activist was kind of like , you're like radical. But now everybody's an activist. They're they're fighting for something. They're everybody's in resistance to something. And it's not always good. And it's not always , you know , something that's for everybody. We see , of course , this , you know , this dramatic , this , this radical right wing , you know , nationalism that certainly is not , does not speak for all populations. But but that's an example of how activism has been co-opted by , by forces that , that aren't in the interest of , of all people. So but we do , I think , live in a time of , of resistance and activism being kind of normalized as the crisis crises mount.


S2: And in that class , you know , most of my students in that class are non native. Most of them have never been in an American Indian Studies course and know nothing. And and so now they're in this advanced high , high or upper division course where they're being exposed to some pretty sophisticated knowledge and so that they know nothing about. And so I asked them at the beginning of the course , I asked them , what is your relationship to land and place and to the indigenous people of that place ? And , you know , just write me a paragraph. What does that mean to you ? And of course , it's a very off the wall question that they've never thought of. And then for the next 16 weeks , they are immersed in indigenous worldviews and knowledge , and they go out to native communities , and they learn from native people in San Diego about different topics that are environmentally oriented. And and then at the the end of that six weeks , 16 weeks , I asked them to write the essay again , but answer the question in , you know , now that you've been exposed to these indigenous perspectives , has it changed your own perspective ? What is your relationship to land in place now ? Has it changed , and if so , how ? And if not , why not ? And so I track that as data. And what I've noticed is that the , the vast majority of them do report changes in their own worldview , and it deepens. It deepens their relationship when they understand or at least exposed , are exposed to these ideas of being in relationship to the land and being in relationship to indigenous people on however even superficial of a level. It gives them a new appreciation , and they can see their own relationship to place with new eyes. And and that gives them a sense of responsibility. And , and I find I find optimism in that and I and I and so it's anecdotal evidence to me that when people change their perspective and change the way that they see the natural world and their place in it that holds , that holds new possibilities and , and and I think it has really serious implications for education. You know what ? How do we educate children from the very youngest ages to see their relationship to land in a more relational way and , you know , with reciprocity and responsibility and respect ? So that's what it looks like to me. That's why we say this is a philosophical problem. It's a worldview issue that we need to shift people's. This is this is about paradigms. How do we shift the paradigm. And that means it has to happen at the root in , you know , from the earliest ages of people in our society.

S1: I've been speaking with Dena Julia Whitaker , a journalist , author of the book As Long As Grass Grows and a lecturer of American Indian studies at Cal State San Marcos. Dena , thank you so much for joining us.

S2: You're welcome. Thanks for asking me.

S1: Coming up , the culture of environmental stewardship.

S3: The environment is our culture. And the culture is and is the environment. And , you know , you can't have one without the other. And. They're both interconnected.

S1: You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. You've likely felt it. Temperatures are rising all around the world , resulting in destructive droughts and heat waves. A new report from Copernicus Climate Change Service found that 2023 is virtually certain to be the hottest year on record , and the face of a worsening climate crisis. Many institutions are thinking about how to best adapt to these changes , and that includes the Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate transformation and stewardship. It is a partnership between several universities , including San Diego state and tribal communities. The goal is to put tribal voices and indigenous knowledge at the forefront , and move away from solely Western responses to climate change. Althea Walker is a descendant of the Nez Perce , Hopi , and Hela River people. She is the co director and community resilience lead at the Climate Science Alliance , and she joins us now to talk about the project. Althea , welcome to Midday Edition. Yes.

S3: Yes. Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

S1: Glad to have you here. So please tell me more about this project. How did it get started ? Yeah.

S3: So the Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation and Stewardship actually came of of previous efforts of , you know , submitting for a proposal and funding to support this vision. And this vision just has continued to grow over time. And then in which we were fortunate enough for it to be funded through the U.S. Climate Action Fund. And so it brings together various university partners , tribal partners who have actually have established relationships over time , in which I think leads to , you know , the strength of this this project , this initiative , this collaborative is that it's built on relationships with tribal communities , with university partners , and bringing our collective effort together to make a bigger impact.

S1: And there's really been a shift towards climate resilience , which is already practiced by indigenous nations.

S3: But in regards to my reflection of your question is that climate resilience is is just being able to be on the land , with the land of the land and living in relationship with , with all things , with the land , with each other , with ourselves. And if we're able to do that , you know , we're able to be climate resilience or resilience to any changes in our in our communities and our environment or within ourselves.

S1: So the idea is very cultural then to to many indigenous peoples , right.

S3: The environment is our culture and the culture is and is the environment. And , you know , you can't have one without the other. And they're both interconnected. Right.

S1: Right.

S3: And that's why our approach with connects is getting back to that , the indigenous stewardship , indigenous leadership. And if we can follow the lead of the original stewards of the land , then it's , you know , allows us to guess , heal , not necessarily get back to where we were , you know , hundreds of years ago , but just to heal the land , heal each other and our relationships with one another.

S1: So with this collaboration , some of the demonstration projects will use indigenous practices of managing fire. It's also known as cultural fire.

S3: And my understanding and working with various tribal communities and being an indigenous and tribal woman , myself of of fire , that it's a relative and that we should treat it as a relative , you know , get to know it , spend time with it and you know , to to. Strengthen that relationship with with fire and , you know , cultural fire. Good fire. I know there's different terms for it , but really it's just the intention of of putting fire on the land and your intention of being on that land before and after fire , and that we're not just , you know , lighting it to , you know , reduce fuels. You know , we're lighting it for various purposes , cultural , environmental and that we intend to be there on that land before and after the fire comes through and continue to to tend to that land.

S1: Also , you know , for years , federal land managers suppressed fires , which is really dangerous.

S3: Dangerous. Think in many ways. And , you know , we've certainly seen the impact of fire suppression and how extreme wildfires can impact our our livelihoods and our safety. But I think with when we think of fire suppression , I mentioned this to one of our San Diego State University partners before , Dr. Megan Jennings of fire suppression is cultural suppression. And if we can't put fire on the land , then we can't tend to the land.


S3: So really just working together as as a collective to overcome those barriers or reduce those barriers and challenges to getting fire on the land.

S1: Lots of red tape there to actually carry out the prescribed burns , it sounds like. Yes.

S3: Yes. And it's coming together with various knowledge and expertise and , you know , worldviews that we're able to come together and overcome those those challenges together. And that and especially being able to bring in , you know , the agency partners and state partners , you know , allows us to to overcome.

S1: And , you know , how were indigenous voices and our indigenous voices you think left out of fire management decisions ? I mean , because this is also reflected in the land. Yes.

S3: Intentionally excluded , I think , you know , as was the whole purpose from the beginning in regards to disconnecting the indigenous peoples from land management and that , you know , we didn't have that knowledge of of managing the land appropriately. But really we do. And with connects. And the beautiful thing about connects , and in my perspective is that it uplifts indigenous management practices. It uplifts our indigenous and tribal partners and really takes the lead from them in that we listen to the tribal partners and communities of , you know , these are our concerns , these are our priorities , these are our needs. And , you know , the university partners , the Climate Science Alliance , you know , being able to come in and be that bridge to , you know , the academic institutions , to the students , to other non-tribal partners to meet those indigenous priorities , needs and concerns. And , you know , that's where I see the strength in connects is being able to connect those knowledge systems and communities for collective impact.

S1: And I mean , really , the relationship between indigenous peoples and the environment extends far beyond land management. I mean , it's it's in the relationship with the land , everything that lives on it. Right ? I mean , tell me about how the relationship is different than than what we see in America today.

S3: You know , it varies across tribal and indigenous communities of , you know , the importance of the land , but in relationship with all things. And that as a whole , you know , we're all connected ecosystems , elements , plant , animal relatives , human relatives. And that I think the disconnect with our , I guess , Western society today is , is that we as human beings don't see ourself as part of the entire system or that we're more significant than the entire system. And really it's about. Being equal in that we're all needed as part of the system to make it work. And when we neglect , you know , one or the other that it puts us out of balance. So just continuing to to learn how to be in , in more , more in balance with one another in relationship with one another. And really that's what connects does is focuses on the relationships , you know , with our partners , with ourselves , with our research , with , you know , the knowledge systems and worldviews that we hold is , is making sure that relationships come first.

S1: And you're also focusing on the restoration of landscapes that contain important plants. A lot of them are used for food basket making and traditional medicines.

S3: And , you know , again , part of those discussions of what's important to them and really where it all begins is , you know , what is most important to your culture , to your creation story , you know , from your tribal communities and , you know , starting there at the center of of what has made you an indigenous person or defines you as an indigenous person. You know , I strongly believe is that the the core of this work ? And as we look to our tribal partners and , you know , listening to them , that these are the things that are important to them and their core beliefs and , and moving forward with ensuring that we're protecting those things , nourishing those things , caring for those things , and just supporting our tribal communities in doing all of that , you know , really allows us to uplift and advance again , the indigenous management practices of our tribal partners. And , you know , think just being able to look to them and , you know , take their lead and just supporting them in any way that we can think , makes , makes the biggest impact. And and it goes back to that paradigm shift of how , you know , climate action is led , visioned and implemented. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. All of this goes to help develop the next generation of climate stewards and leaders , right ? Yes.

S3: And that's one of the important parts of of this collaborative two is being able to connect with the university students , but also the students within our communities who may not be part of those Western institutions , but also , you know , want to build that capacity and better understand , you know , the environment and the land and the plant animal relatives , and that we're providing all those opportunities to to learn from one another on the land , in the classroom together. You know , think is is part of the strength of the connect network.


S3: You know , it's not about monetary value of things. It's it's if we just put ourselves first in respect to relationships with ourselves , with the land , animal and plant relatives , with it , with ourselves , that , you know , again , like I mentioned in the beginning of this , is , is that focusing on those relationships , you know , think really will advance or allow us to be better suited to be resilient to any changes in our environment and our culture , anything happening within ourselves. You know , I think that will really help us be more resilient and allow us to provide support , heal for , you know , the next seven generations to come.

S1: Althea Walker is co-director and community resilience lead at the Climate Science Alliance. Althia , thank you so much for joining us and sharing that insight.

S4: Yes , thank.

S3: You for having me.

In this Sept. 19, 2021 file photo, flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif.
Noah Berger
In this Sept. 19, 2021 file photo, flames burn up a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove in Sequoia National Forest, Calif.

Many Indigenous communities have a deep connection to the land that is rooted in environmental stewardship and kinship. And in the face of worsening climate change, there is a greater effort to learn more about how the first stewards of this land took care of it.

Also, various universities and tribal communities are teaming up for the Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation and Stewardship. Led by San Diego State University and the Climate Science Alliance, the goal is to put Indigenous knowledge and practices at the forefront of climate action.