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Indigenous Wisdom Has Been Ignored For Too Long — The Environmental Movement Will Fail Without It

October 11, 2021
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The climate warnings are crystal clear: If we keep going down the path we're on, we're in for mass species loss, devastating extreme storms, and ecosystem collapse. We now know, in no uncertain terms, that we need to fundamentally change the way we interact with the natural world. The question is how. And the answer lies in time-tested Indigenous wisdom.

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The irreplaceable knowledge that lies in Indigenous culture.

"The knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous Peoples and local communities play critical roles in safeguarding the biological and cultural diversity of our planet," reads a recent report in the Journal of Ethnobiology, penned by 30 international Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars.

"Our warning raises the alarm about the pervasive and ubiquitous erosion of knowledge and practice and the social and ecological consequences of this erosion," the report continues. In this context, the word erosion is layered with meaning. Often used to describe the weathering of land, applying it to Indigenous knowledge hints at the parallels between people and place.

It's a connection that Yuria Celidwen, Ph.D., a native of Indigenous Nahua and Maya descent, sees often in her scholarly work at the intersection of Indigenous studies, cultural psychology, and contemplative science.

"Along with the massive extinctions of species, a cultural and linguistic extinction is happening that profoundly affects Indigenous Peoples in all sorts of ways," Celidwen says on a call with mindbodygreen.

This extinction is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the loss of Indigenous language. Of the roughly 7,000 spoken languages in the world, she says that more than half of them are Indigenous languages. Half of those are now spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, meaning that "every two weeks, a language is lost," says Celidwen.

All the while, she adds that the area where most of this loss is occurring—the tropical belt—is also where we are losing biodiversity at the fastest clip. Consider this: Although they oversee around 20% of the world's land area, Indigenous communities protect an estimated 80% of the remaining forest biodiversity.

When Indigenous culture is threatened, so, too, is the rest of life on Earth. Now, Celidwen says, "We can clearly see what interdependence truly means."

Adopting a less human-centric approach to conservation.

There are essential climate lessons to be learned from the 5,000 remaining Indigenous communities protecting the majority of our natural world. And while each culture has its own unique way of relating to the land, they all start from a place of reverence and respect. There is the understanding that the land controls them, not the other way around.

This sometimes runs counter to the Western approach to environmentalism, which Celidwen often sees as more individualistic. Humanity is looking for ways to continue to extract natural resources for money, power, prestige—just ones that don't leave our species totally and completely doomed in the future. We are saving the world to save ourselves. What could it look like if we weren't?

"We must move beyond human wellness and turn to the well-being of the whole of the Earth. Indigenous wisdom ​can be crucial in finding solutions to the climate crises in the way we relate to and revere all manifestations of life on Earth," Celidwen says. A more Indigenous way of relating to the land is encapsulated in a Native term she generously shares: "All our relations." This phrase speaks to the idea that every living thing on Earth—the land and sky, animals and humans—are equal. They're kin. From this perspective, human wants don't take precedent over environmental needs.

To see what this looks like in practice, we can reference scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer's masterpiece of a book, Braiding Sweetgrass. In it, Kimmerer recounts an experience she had while clearing out willows around a pond near her house so her daughters could swim in it. "Nearby, the mother, a yellow warbler, flitted in the bushes, calling in alarm," she writes. "I was so quick and single-minded about what I was doing that I forgot to look. I forgot to acknowledge that creating the home that I wanted for my children jeopardized the homemaking of other mothers whose intents were no different from mine."

Celidwen sees room for this thoughtful, considered worldview to stand side-by-side with more assertive ideals. "Indigenous Peoples have a keen awareness of relationality, which cultivates a strong sense of reverence to the Earth. The West has a great capacity for pragmatism—to get projects done," she says. "With these two ways of being and knowing, we can move toward restoring and caring for the Earth in ways that aim for sustainable and collective benefit."

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Moving forward, together.

Ultimately, the climate crisis won't be solved by one individual. On the contrary, it will require us to look beyond ourselves and collaborate with others—human and nonhuman—in new and exciting ways. And today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a wonderful time to start.

Celidwen encourages non-Indigenous people to use the occasion, a celebration in lieu of Columbus Day, to learn more about the Indigenous communities in their area and what their needs are. Because, without a doubt, there are Indigenous populations in your area. Combined, existing tribal lands would make up the fourth largest state in the nation—despite the fact that 78% of Americans claimed to know next to nothing about Native Americans in recent polling by the Reclaiming Native Truth Project.

"There are Indigenous Peoples everywhere in the U.S.—574 tribes are federally recognized, but many are still not recognized, which affects their access to resources," Celidwen says. "We [Indigenous Peoples] notice the struggle that it is to achieve the things that privileged groups take for granted. We see it in our bodies, in our exhaustion after longer weeks of work, in our relatives that die at a much younger age. As we move toward a world of belonging and justice, we must leave no one behind." 

Every person will need to consider the role they can play in this transition. This Advocate's Guide to Supporting Indigenous Peoples Day by Native-led nonprofit IllumiNative is a good place to start. Seeding Sovereignty, The LandBack movement, The Red Nation, the FILAC Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the NDN collective are other groups to look into as you consider how to use your unique skills to support, elevate, and co-create with Indigenous voices. In doing so, you'll inevitably take a stand for the natural environment too. After all, it's all connected.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.