Indigenous People are Central to the Environmental Movement
Writer: Finn Does
With November marking Indigenous Heritage month and Thanksgiving, yet another holiday that further illustrates our country’s deep ties to colonization, it is critical that we prioritize the truth and pay attention to how people and communities are framed. With Thanksgiving comes untruthful and misleading stereotypes and narratives surrounding Indigenous people and the settler colonialism that occurred here. Challenging established notions and systems, acknowledging groups whose stories have been warped by violence and discrimination, and centering the truth is where decolonization begins.
Like the need to center truth regarding Indigenous people and Thanksgiving, it applies to more than holidays and is particularly relevant to the environmental movement. Indigenous people, along with other marginalized peoples—the black, AAPI, and queer communities have historically not been acknowledged for their fundamental roles in environmental justice—and now is the time we do.
We cannot talk about the environmental and climate movements without understanding the central role Indigenous people continue to play in its framework, inspirations, history, and future. Prior to colonization, Indigenous people freely practiced and maintained relationships of balance and respect with the land—relationships with deep roots in their spiritual and religious beliefs. This prioritization of ensuring a balance between humans and the environment is an idea that has not until recently been conceptualized by Western culture as “sustainability.”
Ties to the environment extend beyond spirituality, as Indigenous communities rely on the land for the existence of their social and economic networks. This direct intersection of the natural world with Indigenous peoples’ identities, community, and ancestral beliefs highlights just how interconnected Indigenous culture is with nature and the maintenance of its health.
Participants in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit rally
in Washington, D.C., in 1991.
For centuries, Indigenous people have accumulated valuable knowledge, experiences, and innovations that allow them to live in harmony with the environment—and as humanity and the planet continue to face the increasingly frequent and dangerous products of burning fossil fuels, (hurricanes, droughts, fires, floods, sea level rise, biodiversity loss), it is imperative that we adopt and implement their methods. Indigenous communities all over the globe have practiced various forms of land management both before and post-colonization, from low-intensity controlled burns to maintain a healthy ecosystem and prevent wildfires to regenerative harvesting and selective domestication of agro-ecological cultivation. Increasingly we are seeing countries around the world turning to their Indigenous people, seeking their knowledge on natural resource management to heal over-extracted environments.
Long before the widespread notions of environmentalism or a movement existed, Indigenous people led the way for environmental protection. Not only does the knowledge of Indigenous communities contain many of the methods necessary to mitigate climate change but their activists continue to be the driving leaders in the climate movement and its intersections with social justice. Moreover, many of them are youth.
To name a few activists to follow:
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (Mashika People). His activism journey started when he was just 6 years old. Since then he has led the Earth Guardians group as the youth representative and campaigned against fossil fuel corporations. Today his work is rooted in climate and indigenous justice—he combines activism, protest, and resistance with his hip-hop music and dance.
Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd (Quechua People). They are the founder of Queer Nature, an organization dedicated to reconnecting queer people to the natural world. Additionally, Sinopoulos-Lloyd serves as a Council Member of Intersectional Environmentalist, a trans ambassador of Native Women’s Wilderness, and a founding member of the Diversify Outdoors coalition.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier (Inuit People). She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work in documenting climate change’s impacts on human rights in the Arctic. In addition, under her leadership at the Circumpolar Council, the first international legal action on climate change was launched.
Climate change continues to disproportionately impact Indigenous communities due to their connectedness to their environments and reliance on local ecosystems. Although Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s population, they are responsible for the maintenance of more than a quarter of the earth’s land, highlighting their critical role in maintaining biodiversity. Like many other marginalized groups, the environmental movement and society at large often neglect to acknowledge the imperative role of the Indigenous community. It's far time that we recognize and talk about the continuous and vital leadership of Indigenous people—and carry the ongoing conversation beyond Indigenous Heritage month and into a wider context. Centering intersectionality and Traditional Indigenous knowledge in climate discourse and solutions is paramount to effective mitigation efforts and sustaining environmental and humanitarian well-being.
Bowers, Holly. “Seven Indigenous climate activists you should know about.” Arcadia Blog, Nov. 24, 2021, https://blog.arcadia.com/indigenous-climate-activists-to-know/.
Grable, Kaitlin. “Why Indigenous Resistance is More Important than Ever.” Greenpeace USA, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/stories/why-indigenous-environmentalism-is-more-important-than-ever/.
Hernandez J, Meisner J, Jacobs LA, Rabinowitz PM. “Re-Centering Indigenous Knowledge in climate change discourse.” PLOS Climate, May 9, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pclm.0000032.
Recio, Eugenia and Dr. Hestad, Dina. “Indigenous Peoples: Defending an Environment for All.” International Institute for Sustainable Development, April 22, 2022, https://www.iisd.org/articles/deep-dive/indigenous-peoples-defending-environment-all.
Smithers, Gregory D. “Native Ecologies: Environmental Lessons from Indigenous Histories.” The History Teacher, vol. 52, no. 2, 2019, pp. 265–90. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26646490.