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Indigenous Voices Are Essential to Holistic, Intersectional Environmentalism

12 Oct 2020

Note: This is a very broad introduction to the concepts of Indigenous land caretaking and holistic environmentalism to introduce specific groups of Native folks doing this beautiful work; non-Native allies can do this work alongside Indigenous caretakers by empowering their narratives, voices, and work.

Two weeks ago, my world was on fire. In Los Angeles, occupied Tongva land, the skies turned orange as an unprecedented number of wildfires tore across California, choking the skies with ash. I remember many of my friends in the state posting on Instagram from inside their sealed homes, commenting about how it seemed like the apocalypse—an “end of the world” to them, a generation already marred by the markers of climate change. To myself and other Indigenous folks, however, the scarlet sun seemed to be a deathly reminder of centuries of settler-colonialism and the absence of Native peoples in discussions about wildfires, caretaking, and climate change.

With the rise of social media infographics during the COVID-19 pandemic and many recent protests, many Indigenous folks took to Instagram and Twitter to educate their followers about Native stewardship’s ties to the wildfires and climate change. Rise Indigenous, which had previously shared a graphic about how stewardship involves healing and compassion, posted a text graphic against a hazy orange sky that read:

“Imagine surviving colonization, genocide, and environmental violence in your homelands for 528 years. Now imagine how invasive Settler Colonial hegemonic MISmanagement of the world is TRAUMATIZING for Indigenous peoples. We are continuously witnessing the destruction of our lands and lifeways in this grotesque settler colonial delusion that seeks to bring on more apocalypses. The future health of this land cannot be fully realized until this corrupt empire has fallen and Indigenous stewardship and land sovereignty has been realized.”

Many accounts, such as Indigenous Women Hike, posted slides about the state’s natural spaces being closed due to “ongoing settler colonialism.” Many cited the violent removal of California Natives from their ancestral lands in the mid-19th century, genocide, and forced migration onto reservations as the beginnings of fire suppression in California, which has led to the large-scale wildfires that wreak havoc on the landscape today. Some date fire suppression back to the era of the Great Fire of 1910, when forced removal also meant the racist removal of Indigenous knowledge of taking care of the land, which included controlled burnings and controlled forest growth. Only recently have experts agreed that following Indigenous methodologies of cultivating the land with fire would reduce the level of burning during wildfire season. 

This slow acceptance of Indigenous methodologies has become a trending topic recently, in a time when “intersectional environmentalism” has become a buzzword and activists like Autumn Peltier have become some of the young faces of the Climate Justice movement. However, Native voices remain disproportionately sidelined in discussions about land conservation and climate change, despite Native peoples’ impact on the environment and the push for BIPOC inclusion in climate justice roundtables.

According to National Geographic, though the world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s total human population, they inhabit or hold over 25% of the world’s land surface and protect around 80% of the world’s biodiversity. From the Amazon, which produces 20% of the world’s oxygen and where fires raged this summer, to Bears Ears, Utah, where the President threatens incursion onto ancestral lands for resource extraction, we can see a trend of white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism directly responsible for the destruction of Native lands and a direct connection to climate change and the fossil fuel industry. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, and 100% of the time the devastation is occurring on someone’s ancestral lands. 

Though these issues occasionally take up space as features in Vogue, the New York Times, and other western publications, the majority of bodies on the line between environmental protection and environmental devastation are Indigenous. And often, the solutions proposed to the climate crisis and land conservation are an appropriation of Indigenous methodologies and preventative measures, rather than the actual involvement of Native folks in movements and conversation. One such example is the featuring and promotion of “traditional ecological knowledge” on the National Park Service website, and the National Parks’ widespread reputation for whitewashed conservation without acknowledgement of their violent history of removal and genocide of Indigenous folks to make space for white settler visions of land protection and caretaking (most of which are now failing).

Around the world, Native folks have been working for centuries to take care of their land holistically, without a focus on extractive or ownership-based relationships. Despite ongoing colonialism and violent sidelining by non-Native entities, they continue to practice traditional caretaking, and teach future generations about how to care for the land. Like my mother and those before her taught me, the land is a living, beautiful relative, and we understand that the way we treat the land is a direct reflection of how we treat our bodies, non-human relatives, and our communities. So how do we combat the climate crisis while incorporating Indigenous ways of healing the land and lenses of viewing the Earth? How can we ensure that our environmentalism is truly intersectional as we seek to take care of both our land and our communities? When our world is quite literally on fire, how can we find ways to douse the flames and rebuild our ailing ecosystems? Easy— we need sovereignty, or in this case, the ability for Indigenous peoples to take care of their own ancestral land and control how it is managed. And we need to empower Native peoples, their fight for sovereignty, and their own initiatives.

Below is a list of Indigenous-led movements, collectives, and activists that work towards holistic environmentalism through sovereignty and solidarity. I invite you to lift up their work, help amplify their messages, and donate directly to the community work and causes they champion.

Sogorea Te’ Land Trust

The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, led by urban Indigenous women, has emerged as a response to the recent California wildfires, by directly involving Indigenous women to facilitate the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous peoples. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the land trust practices rematriation, cultural revitalization, and land restoration to heal the land and each other, and to “transform the legacies of colonization, genocide, and patriarchy.” The land trust was formed after a successful encampment of Sogorea Te’, a 3,500-year-old Karkin Ohlone village and burial site, by Indigenous land protectors which resulted in an initial agreement between the City of Vallejo, California, and the Park District to protect the site.

Ts’uyya Farm

Ts’uyya Farm, founded by food sovereignty advocate Reyna Banteah (Zuni Pueblo), is an agriculture business with a focus on using sustainable Pueblo farming methods, saving seeds that are native and adapted to the Southwest, and providing the local community with healthy food. It seeks to connect others, especially youth and young farmers, with knowledge of farming, seed saving, cooking, and processing of foods to promote holistic wellbeing and food sovereignty. 

Mujeres de Maiz

Mujeres de Maiz is an Indigenous women of color holistic collective creating change in East Los Angeles (Tongva territory). Founded in 1997 as a grassroots women’s activist organization, Mujeres de Maiz utilizes community partnerships developed with local artists, performers, educators, and organizers to implement programming on topics that range from sustainable urban gardening to self-defense for women. They focus on cross-racial solidarity and holistic wellness through education, programming, exhibition, and publishing.

Black Earth Farms

Black Earth Farms is a Black and Indigenous led agroecology collective. It pushes back against the privatization of land as a framework through which colonized and oppressed Indigenous peoples across the planet are denied access to their ancestral homelands that historically provided them with sustenance and wellness. Black Earth Farms studies and spreads ancestral knowledge and contemporary agroecological practices to build collectivized, autonomous, and chemical-free food systems in urban and peri-urban environments.

Indigenous activists in the Amazon

Nemonte Nenquimo, Emergildo Criollo, Sandro Piaguaje, and Taita Pablo Maniguaje are a group of Indigenous leaders from the Waorani, Kofan, and Sion nations in the “Ecuadorian” and “Colombian” Amazon who have united with Amazon Frontlines to protect their regions’ natural resources. They have faced threats on their life for defending their land from oil and fuel interests specific to the colonial extractive states they’re pushing back against.

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance advocates for and supports all levels of food security and food sovereignty in local, tribal, regional, national, and international arenas. Initially incubated during a Taos County Economic Development Corporation grant, the mission brought together grassroots Native food activists to convene and share knowledge and skills in agriculture, seed saving, and foods. It also provides assistance and peer mentoring through training programs and long-distance learning.

Utah Diné Bikeyah

Utah Diné Bikeyah is a Native-led organization that provides critical tools, training, and technical support to Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Uintah Ouray Ute peoples to help protect the Bears Ears, Utah cultural landscape through traditional ecological knowledge research and mapping, public lands policy analysis, Native grassroots community organizing, and public education.

Intercontinental Cry

Intercontinental Cry is a non-profit newsroom that produces journalism centered on Indigenous Peoples, climate change, and international human rights. IC is led by journalists and academics of Indigenous descent and a team of more than 50 volunteer journalists who recognize the significant role that Indigenous peoples play in combating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and defending our fundamental rights and freedoms.

Om Sleiman Farm

Om Sleiman Farm works to revive Indigenous agricultural practices in Palestine as part of a wider initiative by a number of community farms to produce sustainable food by Palestinians for Palestinians. The farm is based on a Community Supported Agriculture model and is the first of its kind in Palestine, meant to connect farmers and consumers back to the land. It feeds dozens of subscribing families every week with fresh, organic produce. 

Written by Kinsale Hueston for Youth To The People. For more on Kinsale, watch her Beautiful People feature.
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