In a panel hosted by the Columbia Climate School, a group of Indigenous climate activists examined the presence of Indigenous voices in discussions surrounding climate change.

In fourth grade, my humanities class learned about ancient Greek culture and mythology. I opened a book that illustrated Greek gods and goddesses and turned to a page that depicted Gaia, the ancient Greek female personification of the Earth. The woman in the picture had grass for skin and rivers for hair. This is the image and memory that came to mind Thursday evening at a virtual panel hosted by the Columbia Climate School about Indigenous futures and sustainability. The event addressed how we can implement Indigenous practices and ways of knowing into our fight against climate change. 

The panelists included Cleopatra Doley, a Black and Taino educator hailing from the Dominican Republic; Tia Kennedy, an Indigenous rights activist with Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee roots; Dr. Abigail Pérez Aguilera, a part-time faculty member at The New School hailing from Mexico City with Nahua ancestry; and Chenae Bullock, a historian and enrolled Shinnecock Indian Nation member with African-American and Montauk ancestry. Lauren Ritchie, a fourth-year Columbia College student majoring in sustainable development, moderated the panel. 

Ritchie opened the event by asking the panelists to share how climate change and sustainability impact their daily lives. Kennedy responded powerfully, likening climate destruction to the brutalization of one’s own mother. The idea that the Earth is our mother is central to Indigenous ways of knowing, she said, and indeed this concept reappeared again and again during the event. 

The panelists agreed that addressing climate destruction will require a fundamental shift in mainstream understandings of the world and our place in it. The fight against climate change is often seen as a fight to save Mother Earth, Doley said. The reality is that Mother Earth has undergone many, many changes over the past several billion years, they said, and the fight against climate change is in fact a fight to save ourselves. 

Bullock added that Western structures of capitalism and white supremacy value wealth and resource extraction above all else. In contrast, she continued, within the framework that the Earth is our mother, we must take from the Earth as we would take from someone with whom we have a close personal relationship. That is, we would not take without also giving. We must ask ourselves what value we are to the Earth, she said, in addition to asking what value the Earth is to us. Kennedy gave the example of harvesting cedar. She shared that she learned to harvest cedar in the morning, since the plant has a greater likelihood of growing back properly during the day. In this way, Indigenous traditions passed between generations reinforce sustainability practices over time. 

When Ritchie asked the panel what Indigenous forms of sustainability look like, Bullock emphasized that growing up, sustainability was not a conscious choice for her and the Shinnecock Indian Nation community. Rather, sustainability was so ingrained in their daily lives, they practiced it almost unconsciously. Dr. Pérez Aguilera pointed out that for many Indigenous communities in Latin America, sustainability is not the main concern, per se; they are simply fighting for the right to exist on their native lands without facing violent repercussions from the state. Accessing sovereignty and autonomy for Indigenous communities is a form of land conservation, Dr. Pérez Aguilera argued, and is, therefore, a vital part of addressing ecological destruction. 

Ms. Ritchie asked the panelists to leave on an uplifting note and to share one thing they hope for in the future. Bullock hoped for policy changes that would affirm Indigenous ways of life. Doley hoped for the end of fracking, and Kenney hoped that the audience members, particularly Columbia students, will work to make the spaces they inhabit more equitable and just. 

Thursday’s panel underscored the necessity and urgency of shifting our societal views toward centering ecological reciprocity. The panelists challenged Western values of wealth and resource extraction, and they spoke compellingly about the importance of understanding Earth to be our mother in the fight against climate change.

earth via Bwarchives