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How can indigenous knowledge help with climate justice?

A photo of panelists speaking at Arts and Ideas' recent event.
Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O'Connell

Arts & Ideas hosted the first event of the year Feb. 9, discussing how indigenous knowledge can be integrated into student and faculty lives to work toward climate justice.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, SUNY teaching professor of Environmental Biology and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, was the sole speaker of the event.

Kimmerer’s lecture began with a reminder of gratitude, an important aspect of Potawatomi culture, and a “traditional protocol greeting” spoken entirely in the tribe’s language.

She began with an overview of the Potawatomi’s homeland along the shores of Lake Michigan, how it “used to [ripple]” with the sound of their language, and how even the city of Chicago is a word used to refer to the “skunky smell ... because of the wild onions that grow along the lake shore.”

Kimmerer then introduced a history of the pigeon population native to the Lake Michigan area, and how that history related to her message of sustainability.

“The skies over these Potawatomi homelands would be, from time to time, darkened by flocks of birds that the sky – and the sun – was blotted out by their numbers,” she said.

Kimmerer spoke about the large number of birds across indigenous territories, before quickly

mentioning Martha, the last passenger pigeon, which died in 1914. She then explained why it always comes to mind when she thinks about the climate crisis.

“And in this time ... of accelerating biodiversity loss in the face of climate change, the commemoration of Martha’s death has always weighed heavily on my shoulders. And how I was surprised to .nd that as a biologist, I knew a lot about her extinction, but much less about their living,” she said.

Kimmerer added how her research on the birds led her to learn interesting facts about their lives, how they “were communal nesters,” or how they would “cherish a single egg in their nest,” and why this research kept her engaged.

“I was fascinated to learn ... about the theory that the great abundance of pigeons may in fact have been an echo of the abundance of native people, who created forest habitats favored by the birds,” she said.

She explained that “[her] people understood this living wind of wings,” how “[their] bird clan ... evokes their plumage,” and how Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi leader and writer, described them as the most elegant bird in sight and movement.

Kimmerer went on to describe how colonists drove the Potawatomi out of their homes for the area’s timber and farmland, and how the shift in habitat led to the pigeons being labeled pests and “killed by the thousands” in 1838.

“They were packed in salt-.lled barrels, then sent east by the train. Their numbers became fewer and fewer, and in that very same year, our people became fewer as well,” she said.

Kimmerer described that same year, the Potawatomi people were marched o_ their land at gunpoint from Michigan to Kansas, on a journey that would come to be called “the Trail of Death.”

She spoke about the drastic changes the tribe endured, and how it was similar to climate change: “A cool, lush, lake-side forest for hot dusty grassland, lakes for drying up riverbeds, lakes full of wild rice for a sack of weevily flour.”

Kimmerer added names lost meaning, the old spirits didn’t live in Kansas, and “an entire way of being was threatened with extinction, and the missionaries and the land speculators were there to .ll the void, and tried to extinguish the sacred .re.”

She connected this forced removal to the threat climate change currently poses to humanity.

“This is climate change. Climate change in a single season. So much loss – should we too be looking over our shoulder and saying goodbye to Maples, to countless other species? Because climate change, as you know, is the major driver of species extinction,” she said.

Kimmerer said that the story of being forced to trade one climate for another has “great teachings and lessons” as we struggle with climate change in the modern age. She added that when she saw the photograph of Martha, the pigeon, she “felt in her lonely gaze a kind of a moment as if I could hear her say, ‘how could something so beautiful, so ancient, so prolific, simply vanish?’”

She said the pigeons and the Potawatomi were trying to be swept away by the same wind – and how the conflict of the indigenous worldview and the western outlook of “human exceptionalism” differed on things like the treatment of land and the spiritual connection one has to a place.

Kimmerer spoke more about the forced relocation of indigenous people, how their children were forcibly taught colonist culture in schools, and how “a universe of knowing nearly vanished in a single generation,” before continuing to explain how dangerous the climate crisis is.

“It was said that there would come a time when you could no longer dip your cup into a river and drink, when the air will become too thick to breathe, and when our plant and animal relatives will start to turn their faces away from us – but even they could not imagine a world in which the most abundant bird on Earth would be gone,” she said.

Kimmerer talked about an important method she extended to the audience which would help the sustainability of the Earth, and to foster a healthier relationship with it – the honorable harvest.

She recognized there is a willingness to take from the Earth, and instead said the honorable harvest doesn’t say “don’t take,” but rather encourages people to see the Earth as more than capital, more than property, more than something for the taking. She makes the comparison of Vora and fauna as our relatives, and said “we have to consume with honor.”

Kimmerer explained these are moral rules “that govern our taking,” and listed the guidelines for an honorable harvest, including never take first, take only what you need, ask permission before you take, take only what was given to you, and reciprocate this gift, just to name a few.

“Never taking the first means that you’ll never take the last. And this is a prescription which has inherent conservation value through the practice of self restraint, which we, as Americans, are not very good at – let’s agree on that,” she said.

Kimmerer then explained the importance of asking before you take, and how “in some places, if you heard me talking to those berries, you might think I was crazy,” but added in a worldview that considers them a relative, it’s considered manners.

She said the answer to this can come in many ways. One might look around and see if there are enough, or consider the age and size of the population, whether it was sustainable or not. She added science or intuition could be used to listen for the answer, and if that answer was no, not to take.

She talked about how the line between wants and needs are blurred in modern society, that things taken from the Earth should never be wasted, and how “taking without permission is sometimes called stealing.”

The discussion continued on the topic of the honorable harvest and the morals of consumption until the conclusion, where Kimmerer ended with the suggestion to follow the ideals of the honorable harvest in the future.


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