Author speaks to need for Indigenous perspective in environmental justice work


For the Recorder
Published: 6/24/2022 7:35:20 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 7:32:59 PM

GREENFIELD — Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, shared with attendees gathered at Greenfield High School on Thursday why the Indigenous perspective is important when it comes to environmental and restorative justice.

A resident of Syracuse, New York, Wall Kimmerer has written two nonfiction books: “Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses” and “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” Both of these works deal with the idea of traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. TEK, which featured heavily in Thursday’s presentation, is a field of science that uses Indigenous knowledge and traditions as a guideline for ecological preservation.

The event, which was sponsored by the Nolumbeka Project, FirstLight Hydro Generating Co. and Greening Greenfield, began with an introduction by Western Massachusetts Commissioner on Native American Affairs Rhonda Anderson of Colrain. Anderson, an Iñupiaq-Athabascan, told the story of the Great Beaver, the creation story of the native peoples of the Connecticut River Valley. Anderson said we must get back to nature by “understanding our complex and intertwined histories,” and called for the undoing of settler colonialism and recognizing oppressive structures.

Wall Kimmerer herself opened with a greeting in the Potawatomi language. Switching to English, she explained how women of the Neshnabé, as the Potawatomi call themselves, have a special responsibility to speak for the water. In the Potawatomi language, there are many different words for water, all of which are verbs, to indicate that water is a living being.

Offering her gratitude to the Connecticut River and the river’s defenders, Wall Kimmerer asked, “Are we continually takers? Or can we also be givers?”

The answer, she said, lies in free-flowing rivers. Contrasting a picture of one of these rivers with one that is dammed up, polluted and unsustainable, Wall Kimmerer spoke of the difference between western and Indigenous landviews. In the West, she said, land and rivers are almost universally described as natural resources meant to be exploited. However, to Indigenous people, land is a source of identity and ancestral connection — something inseparable from who you are as a person.

Even land conservation, Wall Kimmerer said, has been embedded in a western colonial framework. Many of America’s national parks, she noted, were taken from Indigenous tribes. Many of the best ecological restoration projects have come from Indigenous groups themselves, which use a model of “two-eyed seeing,” focused on both the natural environment and the way their ancestors have sustainably used it for millennia.

One successful example of this is the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was granted the legal rights of personhood thanks to decades of Maori activism. By contrast, Wall Kimmerer said the United States has “accepted a political system that grants personhood to corporations and not to rivers.”

Wall Kimmerer mentioned the “kinship model” of conservation — in which all species are treated as equals — as an alternative to the traditional natural hierarchy, which has humans at the top.

“Think about it,” she asked the audience. “What would a river look like if it served kinship instead of human exceptionalism?”

Accordingly, one of the most important questions that one should ask when restoring nature, Wall Kimmerer said, is “What are we restoring to? What is the goal of the so-called reference ecosystem?”

Wall Kimmerer said restorative land justice could come in forms such as co-ownership and Indigenous land trusts, which is a major goal of the #LANDBACK movement. Lamenting how many conservationists want to restore land to pre-settlement conditions without the input of Indigenous people, she showed images of preserved prairies, which are some of the most biodiverse on the planet due to maintenance by Indigenous tribes.

“The definitions, the practice of caring through land, through restoration,” Wall Kimmerer said, “is evolving as we bring the Indigenous lens and traditional ecological knowledge … that not only fixes the land, but invests in healing the relationship between land and people.”

As an example of how Indigenous languages are a repository of cultural and ecological knowledge, Wall Kimmerer told the story of the critically endangered desert tortoise. Conservationists, only schooled in traditional science, could not figure out which environment they should rewild the tortoise in. However, they were able to find out by way of a Tohono O’odham woman, who had a word in her language for a specific plant that the tortoises ate.

Wall Kimmerer ended the talk by summarizing her view that, when it comes to ecological restoration, bringing back ecological functions is not enough. Instead, we must acknowledge that land and identity are closely intertwined, and that restoring the bond between the two is of utmost importance.

“When we heal the land,” she said, “we are healing ourselves.”


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