Indigenous wisdom is science. It does not follow the Western scientific method and is therefore often dismissed as invalid. However, research that confirms its effectiveness is growing. If we have any chance of restoring the earth’s balance, we must be guided by Indigenous wisdom in both formal settings and in our daily lives.
Left out of decision-making
By now, you may be familiar with this incredible statistic – despite making up just 3% of the global population, Indigenous people look after 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous knowledge of ecology has been cultivated over thousands of years through lived experience. But, the most prominent voices in climate and environmental spaces continue to be predominantly white. Rarely do we see Indigenous activists in leadership positions or getting media coverage. It’s rarer still to hear Indigenous wisdom being championed as effective climate action. But, we know that those very communities are the most successful guardians of our beloved planet.
COP26 in Glasgow 2021, hailed “our last best chance” to halt climate change, largely ignored Indigenous people prompting one Guardian writer despaired “Doors were slammed shut on Indigenous people in Glasgow, literally and figuratively. Now it’s time not just to open them, but to tear them down.” The author, Tishiko King, described how First Nations people were prevented from participating in the talks. Indigenous groups are now organising their own discussions for climate action.
The dismissal of Indigenous people, and practices, stems from a history of colonialism and a bias towards science that follows Western methods.
The original stewards of the land
For thousands of years, Indigenous people lived in sync with their environment. Knowledge was place-based and acquired through generations of living in an environment. Indigenous people developed an intimate understanding of their natural surroundings. They studied the plants and animals closely out of necessity for survival and sustenance.
In recent years, research has proven that when Indigenous people are stewards of the land, it can thrive and even recover from decades of degradation. In 2021, the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International published a new report. Their research provided evidence that Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to around 25% of annual U.S. and Canadian output. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported that between 2006 and 2011, the Indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon reduced deforestation twice as much as other protected areas. Their study also found that Indigenous territories are key to the protection of biodiversity. In Brazil, Indigenous territories have more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians than the country’s protected areas outside these territories.
A connection to nature
A notable difference between Western science and conservations when it comes to nature is that many Indigenous cultures view plants and animals as kin. Because of this, their way of life focuses on listening to and observing the behaviours of their relatives and discovering their role within the cycle of life. While Western science, informed by European Christian views, sees humans as separate from nature, Indigenous cultures recognise that we belong to nature. Humans are animals and all animals play a role in the symbiotic rhythms of nature. A root cause of many of today’s environmental challenges is that humans have become disconnected from our role in nature in the pursuit of dominating it. Finding our way to a reciprocal relationship with our planet must involve a return to Indigenous ways of living.
Often, this relationship with the land goes even deeper than just one of mutual care, it is spiritual and sacred. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, author, Robin Wall Kimmer writes that “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” Wall Kimmerer is a writer, lecturer, scientist and member of the Potawatomi Nation.
Through the process of colonising most of the world, European settlers stole resources, attempted to wipe out entire cultures and populations and stole “artefacts” which are still sitting in museums today. Many cultures and languages were lost forever. And with them, a wealth of environmental understanding.
Long after colonial settlers arrived, preserving traditions remained challenging. This is partly due to the continued displacement of people from ancestral lands. In her book, “Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science”, Jessica Hernandez PhD explores this. Hernandez notes that according to the United States Census Bureau, 70% of Indigenous people in the US live in urban settings. Over time, Indigenous Americans have been displaced from their native lands for many reasons, including economic, and therefore have become separated from the land their ancestors knew so well.
Additionally, generations of Indigenous people faced persecution and were shamed for practising their culture and pressured to assimilate. Hernandez describes the process through which native children were taken from their communities to residential schools. There, Christianity was forced upon them in an attempt to erase native cultures. Students faced punishment for speaking their languages, were forced to cut their hair and wear “western” clothing and reject the traditions of their lineage. Hernandez explains “being shamed for the knowledge on possessed leads to internal conflicts as one starts to think that indeed our knowledge is not worthy.”
Despite this, there are Indigenous communities that have survived and protected as much of this wisdom as they could. People passed down their knowledge for generations orally, through storytelling, prayers, songs and rituals.
Today, colonial mindsets continue to seep into environmentalism and conservation efforts. Hernandez suggests that “conservation is a western construct that was created as a result of settlers over exploiting indigenous lands, natural resources, and depleting entire ecosystems.”
What we see happening these days is commonly referred to as “eco-colonialism”. Indigenous people continue to have their motherlands stolen from them in the name of conservation and climate action. Offsetting is a prime example of this. Governments and corporations opt to “offset” their carbon emissions by investing in schemes like tree planting. Rather than protecting and restoring existing forests, offsetting businesses often clear land solely for the purpose of planting trees. And, this means driving locals off their ancestral land.
To add insult to injury, Western scientists also co-opt Indigenous wisdom and pass it off as their own. One such example of this is the notion of “permaculture”. Many credit Bill Mollison for developing this reciprocal style of land management. However, Mollison learned these practices from Indigenous Australians in Tasmania. This appropriation is also evident in the documentary, Kiss the Ground, which features and centres most white farmers and scientists promoting ideas around regeneration without crediting the Indigenous groups who have practised them for centuries.
Solving the climate crisis requires an ideological shift. With Colonialism came Christianity, which believed in human supremacy. Christian doctrine viewed humans as the dominant species and believed that God created plants and animals for humans to use. With these beliefs in tow, Europeans set upon their missions to colonise the world and extract from every corner of land. Conversely, Indigenous cultures go hand in hand with the protection of nature. In fact, for many communities, their culture and identity are so intrinsically linked to the natural world that they do not have a concept of ‘nature’. Wall Kimmerer comments that “In some Native languages, the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us.”
Western science, and thinking, tends to look at things in a linear or binary way. When we think about technological solutions to the climate crisis, developers usually look at one single element and attempt to address this problem. For example, carbon capture. Inventors look at simply removing carbon from the atmosphere through technology. This would solve one singular issue – carbon emissions. This may produce some positive results but since it fails to look at the bigger picture, is very limited.
The climate emergency is more a symptom of a broken system than a root cause. In order to address the climate crisis, we have to look at the wider context. Running parallel to the climate crisis are several other crises treating humanity. Not least, the loss of biodiversity. Planting trees is a more layered solution to address climate change and biodiversity loss. In addition to absorbing carbon, trees provide habitat for birds and animals, they provide shade, their root systems prevent flooding to name just a few benefits.
However, even that is relatively simplified. In nature, trees do not exist in isolation. True biodiversity means a variety of plants, trees, grasses, insects and animals. Each playing their part. Often playing multiple roles. For example, worms are integral for healthy soil and also provide a food source for birds. Humans too play an important role, when we do it right.
Not a monolith
It’s important to caveat that Indigenous people are not homogeneous. Indigenous people across the world’s continents do not all share the same beliefs, customs and cultures. Different groups have their own traditions and culture. Indigeneity is inherently connected to place, every place is different and every culture is unique.
Moreover, Indigenous groups around the world have experienced colonialism differently. Each country has its own story with settler Colonialism, slavery and migration whether forced or otherwise.
All that to say, for the purpose of this topic the term Indigenous is used to describe people who have a culture that is connected to their ancestral land. However, we recognise that each Indigenous group has its own distinctive culture and we should not view or treat Indigenous people as a monolith.
Honouring Indigenous wisdom
It is imperative that we do not appropriate or co-opt Indigenous knowledge. That is, we must acknowledge the people as well as the practices. The Western world has already stolen enough from Indigenous communities. When we are working in climate spaces of any kind, we must ensure that Indigenous voices are heard and respected.
There are two things we can all do. The first is to look for the current connections we have to Indigenous communities and make sure that we are supporting, not harming, them. Secondly, we can take inspiration from Indigenous cultures to heal our connection to our environment, protecting and restoring it.
Connecting with Indigenous communities
Indigenous people only make up 3% of the population but there are many ways we are connected to them. If you offset your carbon emissions or you work for a business that does, then you are connected to Indigenous people. Interrogate the offsetting scheme and understand how they are engaging with Indigenous communities. A truly effective and ethically sound business is one that is working with the local people. A mutually beneficial programme is one where native wisdom and culture is respected and included. Indigenous people should be invited to co-create the program. They should also be adequately compensated for their time and expertise.
Similarly, we all have connections with Indigenous people through the supply chains of things we buy. Supermarkets, in particular, have a huge impact on deforestation. It is important to be aware of where our products are coming from and how the retailers we buy from are engaging with Indigenous communities. As consumers, we have a responsibility to highlight and critique practices that harm not just the environment but also the culture and way of life for Indigenous people in that environment.
Whether we live in, or visit, colonised lands, it is important to acknowledge the native people and ensure we have a positive impact on those communities. Through travel, we can support local communities and ecology. Land acknowledgements have become increasingly popular in the US, Canada and Australia. This website allows people to search their location and find out whose land they are on.
Jessica Hernandez is a Maya Ch’orti and Zapotec woman. In Fresh Banana Leaves, she describes how she seeks connection with Indigenous people whenever she is in a place that is not of her own heritage. When conducting interviews for the book, she spoke to George, an urban Native of Seattle. He shared that “it’s very important to me to remember that Seattle is a rainforest, so acknowledging that we’re living in an area that has been developed but still has a lot of environment and nature right there in the forefront.”
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The idea of “becoming Indigenous to place” is a well-meaning idea that is sometimes brought up in environmental and climate spaces. The hypothesis is that while most of us are not living in areas where we can trace our lineage all the way back, we can now connect with the land we live on and develop a more intimate and reciprocal relationship with our local ecosystem.
John Haussdoerffer Ph.D, joined Kamae Chayne on the podcast Greendreamer to talk about a similar school of thought. Haussdoerffer has worked closely with Wall Kimmerer and considers the term “becoming Indigenous” to be cultural appropriation. Instead, the pair suggest the term “becoming Placelings”. Rather than simply referring to ourselves as earthlings, we should consider ourselves connected to the place we live and deepen our relationship with the local flora and fauna as “Placelings”. To do this, we take inspiration from, but never steal, Indigenous principles to become more connected to the places we live.
Practical next steps
Biodiversity needs healthy soil and a healthy mix of plants, insects and animals. With a healthy dose of human stewardship. While many Western people now view humans as harmful to the earth, Indigenous people believe that we have a unique role to play in a healthy ecosystem, just like every other plant and animal. We can become better stewards of the earth by learning about, and from, nature on our doorstep and providing a helping hand to restore balance.
“The exchange between plants and people has shaped the evolutionary history of both. Farms, orchards, and vineyards are stocked with species we have domesticated. Our appetite for their fruits leads us to till, prune, irrigate, fertilize, and weed on their behalf. Perhaps they have domesticated us. Wild plants have changed to stand in well-behaved rows and wild humans have changed to settle alongside the fields and care for the plants—a kind of mutual taming.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer
> Get to know your local plants and animals – buy books, use a search engine, find local nature groups to connect with and learn from
> Go foraging and discover what edible plants are thriving in your locality
> Plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden, window sill or even do some “guerilla gardening” by scattering seed bombs of native flowers in your local park
> Break up with neat grass lawns – manicured grass lawns are ecological deserts. Allow your lawn to rewild and become a thriving micro-ecosystem of plants, insects and animals
> Remove pollution that can harm plants and animals by going on a litter pick or beach clean
> Buy seasonal, organic, locally produced food. Local, organic fruit and vegetables are produced in ways that promote healthy soil and biodiversity. Support the local biodiversity and economy in this way if you can
> Become a water protector. So many of us simply turn in a tap and get clean water for cooking, drinking and cleaning. To the extent that we often forget that it is a precious, and finite, resource. Did you know we are using water faster than we can replenish it? Freshwater makes up only 3% of all water on the planet. Global warming as a result of climate change is having a negative impact on how quickly water can regenerate
> Ensure biodiversity is on the agenda for local politicians, schools and businesses
> Form connections with people in your community. Join local groups. Volunteer. Support small local businesses and artisans if and when you can
“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, who always says it so poiniently.
IMAGE: Photo by Nguyễn Thanh Ngọc from Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two black and white images are juxtaposed. One, is a woman’s profile. She has her hair tied up in a ponytail and her posture and facial expression look proud. Underneath is an image of a tree, which is blended into the woman as though she is made from the tree.
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