To Those Who Walked Before
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Scattered throughout California lands are places reminiscent to their native namesakes ― Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, Mojave, Napa, Yosemite: these are all landmark Californian settings whose names were taken and legacies transformed by settlers claiming the land as their own.
In light of Indigenous People's Day, it is essential to deconstruct and better understand the past that shaped our environment. The Indigenous narrative must be uncovered and rewritten; the voices retelling these stories need to be directed by Indigenous people themselves who live with the direct repercussions of this history. In 1992, the city of Berkeley, California became the first city in the US to officially recognize Indigenous People’s day in lieu of Columbus Day. As Indigenous people's history shifts to the forefront of multicultural education, true reconciliation becomes a mandate not limited to a select few, but promoted by all. Respecting the past and present of Indigenous people must be held in priority as environmental policy makers look to native principles of ecology that have long been at the center of indigenous communities.
The American landscape at the inception of colonization was a direct byproduct of Indigenous skill and technology. Historically, land maintained by indigenous tribes was created in a patchwork of mixed succession development to encourage grazing animals and edible tubers. Fire was used to maintain vast grasslands all over the country and intentionally burn excess vegetation at regular intervals.
Traditional understandings of land stewardship today are heavily constructed on federal systems of governance and regulation, rather than the spiritual traditions that existed for generations past. Longstanding colonialism, moreover, created deep fractures in connotations of wilderness in how it was once presented and what it became. As the construct of nature was deliberately separated from the native communities living in it, land became further commodified by business and exploitation, leaving behind a painful legacy of destruction, disease, and genocide. Indigenous peoples were classified as "primitive" and less than -- any philosophies that did not reflect European enlightenment ideals of science and technology, were entirely disregarded. In order to decolonize governance grounded in Eurocentric thought, we must directly reckon with the deep unlearning that it will take.
Rituals speak to the very essence of life ― how we communicate with the natural world, the deep emotional connection we form to it, and the systems built around it to sustain our communities. We are not separate from the environment and the environment does not live separate from us.
Indigenous knowledge has long reflected this. It mirrors the deep emotional connection that is built on cultivation of a sustainable relationship to the external environment. Modern Indigenous communities have built themselves on the fray of systems designed to suppress their presence. The wealth of knowledge created despite such circumstances is to be celebrated and given a platform in policy development and research as a whole. The wisdom of tribal understandings of climate are unmistakable and are critical in building new solutions centered on? evolving ideas of regenerative agriculture and forest ecology. With that said, tribes are at high risk for exploitation when sharing climate change solutions. Seeking out native nations, thus, must not be approached with the same lack of regard as in previous efforts. Instead, genuine allyship with native nations must be facilitated through reflective consideration and empathy with respect to healing historical traumas of the past. Environmental advocacy from and for native tribes must become a new vanguard for a radical reimagining of climate strategy. Tribal nations speak directly to the power of fostering societies out of community, cultivation, and collaboration ― there is still much to learn.
Below are some resources for allyship, along with the sources used to write this post. Additionally, attached is a powerful spoken word piece from Lyla June Johnson, an activist, organizer, and artist of Navajo and Cheyenne nations. She holds an undergraduate degree in Human Ecology at Stanford University and a masters in Native American Pedagogy from the University of New Mexico.