Part 1: Indigenous Scientists on the Sustainability of Humanity

By: Rebecca Mandt
December 18, 2022
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By Rebecca Mandt

This summer, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL), the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), and the Geological Society of America (GSA) co-hosted a three-part panel series titled “Power & Indigeneity,” which explored  climate change and the renewable energy transition in the context of Indigenous communities in the United States. Each panel touched on different aspects of this complex topic, while drawing on common themes: sovereignty, historical context, and traditional knowledge. The series highlighted the importance of elevating Indigenous perspectives in the national discussion on climate change.

Part 1: “Indigenous Scientists on the Sustainability of Humanity”

This panel featured four earth and environmental scientists coming from diverse backgrounds, careers, and Indigenous nations. The panel was moderated by Mark Little, then president-elect of GSA. 

  • Clarita Lefthand-Begay is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on tribal water security and the protection of indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Kathleen Johnson is a citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottowa and Chippewa Indians and an associate professor at the University of California Irvine who studies Earth’s climate history by measuring chemical signals in the geological record. 
  • Russell Stands-Over-Bull, a citizen of the Crow Nation, has worked for many years in the petroleum industry, and has spent much of his career working with various tribes on economic development projects. He is also an adjunct professor at Montana State University. 
  • Victoria Sutton, a citizen of the Lumbee Nation, has both a scientific and legal background, with expertise in protection of sacred sites, first amendment law, and energy law. She is a law professor and director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy at Texas Tech University. 

Three primary themes emerged: the role of tribes as governments making natural resource decisions, the role that removing land and language from tribes has played in creating the communities of today, and the role of Indigenous knowledge in informing sustainability actions.

Native American tribes are legally recognized as distinct, sovereign nations with the right to self-governance, including control over their land and how it’s used. As Stands-Over-Bull emphasized, “sovereignty gives you choice to chart your own destiny.” Sutton explained that increasingly, the federal government will consult with tribes, nation-to-nation, on energy decisions. More autonomy is also being passed to tribes to make deals with energy companies around decisions like mining and oil pipelines. When controversies do arise, it’s because such decisions were made without consultation, Sutton noted. 

The panel believes that governance options of today need to be understood within historical context. As Johnson noted, Indigenous nations have lost 99% of their original land and have faced centuries of colonization, displacement, land theft, and environmental damage by extractive industries. This historical backdrop is critical to understanding the socioeconomic issues that Indigenous communities face today. The panel argued that Indigenous people were also forced to stop using their language and Indigenous names were removed from land features as part of cultural erasure, though there have been recent moves to acknowledge historic Indigenous lands and to restore the power of naming traditional lands. Lefthand-Begay explained the intergenerational impact of such restorative actions in strengthening Indigenous languages, and infusing “a strong pride and healing.” “These names that we use, these names that we know the landscape by, are the way that we connect to the holy peoples and our own peoples. I think that is one of the deeper, important aspects to honoring these names and the power of naming,” she explained.

Cultural healing has allowed Indigenous knowledge to be applied to approaches to environmental sustainability. Lefthand-Begay explained that many Indigenous communities have ways of life that depend on the land, such as fishing and hunting, for physical and cultural nourishment. Because of their relationship with their lands, the panel argues, Indigenous peoples have a depth of environmental knowledge and prioritize environmental sustainability. Sutton defined the concept of “Native science,” which represents the accumulation of knowledge over centuries. Sutton said that such knowledge is as valid as a Western science approach and can provide a unique perspective on issues such as climate change. In discussing her desire to braid her geoscientist expertise with her work on Indigenous inclusion, Johnson also highlighted the resilience that Indigenous people have demonstrated in the face of environmental change. “[My people] have adapted to climate change seasonally as well as inter-annual variability over millennia,” she noted.

Throughout the discussion, the panel highlighted why it is critical for Indigenous communities to be centered in discussions around environmental decision-making, both because they have been and continue to be disproportionately affected by environmental damage and climate change, and because they can offer invaluable knowledge towards sustainable solutions.

The themes that emerged also set the stage for Part 2 of the Power & Indigeneity series, “Land Use, Climate, and Mining for the Fossil Fuel Transition,” and Part 3, “Economic Dependence and Extractive Industries.”

This event recording may be viewed here (you need to register via the GSA website):

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 12/18/22
Updated: 11/27/23
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