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“nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα” (“I stand to face and challenge him”). Art by Lokotah Sanborn (Penobscot)

“nəwewəčəskawikαpáwihtawα” (“I stand to face and challenge him”). Art by Lokotah Sanborn (Penobscot)

  • Native Land, Native Leadership: Restructuring the Climate Movement

    Over the last few years, many Americans have been following the nationwide debate on historical monuments. Last July, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) weighed in with their Addressing the Statue exhibit, which features analyses of the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has towered over the museum’s entrance since 1940. In it, the heroic figure of Roosevelt is mounted high on his horse, flanked on either side by a Native man, adorned in a feathered headdress, and an African man, nearly naked except for a cloth draped over one shoulder.

    What does it represent? How does it make observers feel? What is it celebrating?

    Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt
    Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt
    Photo by slgckgc, Flickr Creative Commons

    Although the exhibit fits squarely into the context of the current debate, New Yorkers have been protesting the monument for decades, insisting that it symbolizes racial hierarchy and glorifies a president who, although a famed conservationist, was also a known proponent of social Darwinism and eugenics. To me, the statue perfectly depicts the racial issues of American environmentalism today.

    So it is no small victory that AMNH has installed a long-term exhibition that encourages critique and evaluation of a racist president and statue. Facilitating that conversation moves forward the proverbial needle of what the public is ready to talk about: centering Black and Indigenous critiques, it validates those perspectives on U.S. history and colonialism, gives a green light to other institutions and public spaces to engage in these discussions, and supports a contemporary, non-tokenizing, non-white presence in the museum.

    Because this society is structured around majority-white leadership and a whitewashed U.S. history, shifting that structure is always a big deal.

    In this light, the equestrian statue does realistically symbolize American environmentalism throughout history, particularly the country’s ritualistic mistake of silencing Native and Black perspectives. But if Roosevelt’s two nameless symbolic servants could speak out as environmentalists, they would probably tell stories of imperialism, dispossession and exploitation. They’re the same stories our communities were telling in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s during the civil rights and American Indian movements, and they’re the same stories we are telling today at Standing Rock, Mauna Kea, Flint, Wet'suwet'en and beyond.

    I think they would say that environmental and racial justice are two sides of the same coin.

    As an Indigenous woman, I try to understand the problems of today with the wisdom and hindsight that my ancestors would offer if they were handed the mic. The lens of ancestral wisdom suggests that in 2020, we are all still suffering from the ripples of imperialism. As a non-Black Indigenous woman, it’s also important that I acknowledge the limitations of my own perspective in this conversation, as I can only claim and speak from my own background. While our communities have many shared struggles, they are not always the same, and I have done my best to honor our interwoven and distinct histories in this article.

    In our efforts to fight today’s climate crisis, environmentalists must consider both the scientific and social trajectories that got us here. Centuries of exploiting lands and peoples has led us to the crisis of environmental collapse, waste, and resource scarcity today. In short, we cannot meaningfully talk about climate change without talking about exploitation and imperialism, and we must recognize the colonial roots of our climate crisis in order to fight it. Without Indigenous and Black leadership, the climate movement will be neither coherent nor effective.

    My Smithsonian Folkways labelmate Rhiannon Giddens (Ocaneechi) reads and rewrites a William Cowper poem from 1788 that confronts the legacy of colonial-capitalism and consumer hypocrisy.

    The Image of Our Values

    What does it mean to center Indigenous and Black perspectives? Imagine if, instead of Roosevelt in front of the museum, there stood an equestrian statue of Ojibwe water protector and organizer Winona LaDuke? Or the “father of environmental justice,” Dr. Robert Bullard? I am not advocating for the removal of the statue, per se, but rather imagining the effects that non-white-centric public imagery could have on Americans’ perceptions of environmental leadership. Environmentalism often looks like a white interest group, not because of an actual deficit of activists of color, but because of the monumentalizing of white leadership.

    For example, many people of all backgrounds, including myself, support Greta Thunberg’s advocacy. It is important and impactful. However, some are skeptical of the international media’s eagerness to name the Swedish teen the leader of the global environmental movement, believing that, considering the number of young environmental leaders of color, the media’s embrace reflects strong racial bias. Metaphorically speaking, the media has put Thunberg atop the stallion.

    Other critics allege that she is embraced because of her less threatening methods of activism, which largely do not inhibit corporations or governments from conducting business as usual. Thunberg is a safer leader, whose controlled demonstrations, media-friendly boat rides across the Atlantic (however admirable), and speeches at the United Nations are less disruptive than nonviolent direct action or the destruction of government property—forms of activism that happen on the frontlines of extraction and pipeline sites like Wet'suwet'en or the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana.

    Ultimately, all forms of activism are valuable and necessary for a mass movement to succeed, and I don’t mean to be divisive in naming the privileges Thunberg enjoys as a white European from one of the world’s richest nations. Privilege is not a criticism; it is a reality—and failing to acknowledge it can annihilate progress. Consider for instance that, because Thunberg’s land is not being stolen or destroyed by fossil fuel extraction and transfer companies, nor battered by rising sea levels or extreme drought, her leadership is inherently deficient of those perspectives. Since her community is not fighting neocolonialism, chronic resource contamination, and poverty, she cannot adequately speak for those communities who are.

    Another perspective, shared by Indigenous activist organization Seeding Sovereignty via Instagram should be internalized:

    “In the world of climate change celebrities let us remember that 164 environmentalists were killed in 2018 (according to the Huffpost). Let us remember that the people who have always been at the forefront are indigenous, Black people and other racialized identities. Let us remember that we live in relation, our activism must be for the well being of the people most affected by it AND ALWAYS for the health of the river, the rain, the soil, ancient seeds, fungi, the mountains- for greater than humxn beings. Protecting the earth from nations and corporations is not just talking about it in climate change conventions to major leaders[.]” … “The people most impacted by this are the ones we must learn from. The shift will not come from governments or corporations.”

    Drummers in the Native Nations Rise March at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2017.
    Drummers in the Native Nations Rise March at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2017.
    Photo by Amalia Córdova

    Indigenous climate warriors are regularly incarcerated for defending their land, and killings of environmental defenders have doubled between 2002 and 2017. One study found that the death toll of Indigenous activists matches the death toll in active war zones in the same fifteen-year period. Yet Indigenous defenders are nearly invisible in the media for their frontline activism in the Amazon, the Arctic, the Pacific Islands, and beyond. They are taking real risks while white celebrity activists are safeguarded by their status, race, and citizenship. It’s hard to accept the mass media’s embrace of someone like Thunberg when it concurrently erases the many young activists of color who have been organizing, chaining themselves to bulldozers, blockading roads and pipelines, and getting arrested to defend their land, communities, and sovereignty.

    Without discussion of sovereignty, climate activism is incomplete. Since Sweden does not have to constantly defend its sovereignty against the greedy hands of global capitalism, Thunberg cannot represent the issues at the very heart of the environmental crisis. In fact, Thunberg herself recently wrote that to save the planet, we first need to dismantle “colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression.”

    No one understands climate change better than those living intimately with the land, those whose cultures, sovereignty, and survival are directly in step with it; those who do not have the means to ignore the effects of climate change via seasonal travel, second homes, air conditioning and filtering, easy access to clean water, air, and food. Poverty is intrinsically connected to the exploitation of natural and human resources by the powerful: once again, the root cause is colonialism.

    Recognizing that the environmental movement in America inherits many genes from colonialism and race-based exclusion is the first step to decolonizing it. Writes Julian Brave NoiseCat, “the institutions of environmental power—elected officials, government bureaucracies, nonprofits, laws, and the like—were, almost as a rule, created by white men and often remain dominated by white people.” In his Vice article, “The Environmental Movement Needs to Reckon with Its Racist History,” he provides many examples of this, citing naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s supremacist attitudes about Natives and founder of the Sierra Club John Muir’s description of the Indigenous people of Yosemite as having “no right place in the landscape.”

    These attitudes are the backdrop and context of the Roosevelt statue. When the president conserved 234 million acres of public land and earned his conservationist gold star, he did so by expelling Indigenous peoples and rural poor. The national parklands became “first and foremost a playground for Anglo-Saxon gentlemen,” elaborates NoiseCat. The displacement of Natives and the establishment of national public lands are one and the same legacy. Indeed, Roosevelt’s expulsions and land grabs, which documentary filmmaker Ken Burns described as “America’s best idea,” suggests that American environmentalism has never been radical, equitable, or un-colonial in essence, but has come at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty.

    The Value and Equity of Indigeneity

    When we bring Indigenous environmental perspectives to the table, we can highlight the drastically differing worldviews between Native and “Western” societies. So when Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez insists that “Native wisdom” should be “centered” in a climate agenda, she is referring to these differences and the indispensable value of Indigeneity in contrast to and in collaboration with Western science.

    A major part of that wisdom is women’s leadership. In many Native cultures, women are considered to possess deeper wisdom in relation to the earth, because motherhood and “Mother Earth” are continuous concepts. Earth activism and matriarchal leadership are Indigenous legacy. From time immemorial, our holistic cultures have taught that the earth created us and provides everything for us, so we must show reciprocal respect and honor. Moreover, the earth is us. If we want to stay alive and healthy, we must keep the earth alive and healthy.

    Indigenous identities are specific to our distinct traditional environments, and therefore identity and environment are indivisible concepts. For instance, “Wabanaki” translates to “people from where the sun first rises”: we come from the easternmost part of the continent, and our cultures are specific to those ecosystems and landscapes. Native values teach us that humans are equal to all of our “relatives” within our landscapes—animals, water, plants, land etc.—and our languages translate and contain these cultural values. For this reason, Wabanaki and many other tribal languages wouldn’t naturally have a word for “environmentalism” as it is understood in Western culture.

    Environmentalism arises in response to mistreatment of the land, when human interests have been interpreted and pursued at the expense of the environment. But Native cultures teach that we have shared interests with our ecosystem, our relatives. Why would we exploit or abuse our relatives? A direct translation of environmentalism would therefore be redundant in Indigenous frameworks.

    It’s worth examining why English does need a word for it. What the language suggests is that English culture, when it washed up on our Native continent, was spiritually and epistemologically severed from the natural world enough as to need to invent a concept like environmentalism. Respectful coexistence with nature was not central to English culture by the era of imperial conquest. Moreover, earth exploitation for wealth and power is the bedrock of imperial conquest. The legacy of British land and human resource exploitation, which took so much from the earth that it grew to necessitate mitigation by “environmentalism,” suggests that the concept of “ environmentalism” is, itself, rooted in colonialism.

    Rally honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, part of the Indigenous Peoples March, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019.
    Rally honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, part of the Indigenous Peoples March, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., January 18, 2019.
    Photo by Amalia Córdova

    Gender violence plays a bigger role in that legacy than one might expect. In Indigenous frameworks, “colonialism” refers equally to the oppression suffered by humans, animals, and the land herself, due to the interconnectedness of our experiences. Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte describes climate change as a “déjà vu experience” that resurfaces other critical issues for Indigenous peoples, including gender. It affects Indigenous women and two-spirits more acutely and devalues Indigenous women’s leadership, as evidenced by increased cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and sex trafficking in Native communities. Resource extraction sites, like the Bakken oil production field in North Dakota, form “man camps” for laborers that “attract violent sex trafficing of Indigenous persons,” while simultaneously inflicting violence on “Mother Earth.”

    Whyte’s research attests, “colonial domination and gender violence/oppression are of a piece. Climate change, then, is both a gendered form of colonially imposed environmental change, and another intensified episode of colonialism that opens up Indigenous territories for capitalism and industrialization that occurs through gender violence.”

    The Origins of Differences and Need to Overcome Them

    In her critique of the Roosevelt statue, Columbia professor Mabel O. Wilson says that it communicates a “narrative of domestication,” in which the horse, the Indigenous man, and the African man—plus the land and populations they represent—have all been “tamed.” While the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, intended the two figures to represent Roosevelt’s heroic adventures in the American West and the African continent, these differing interpretations of the image are telling.

    Native scholars have traced the lineage of “domestication rhetoric” and found origins in Christianity for the cultural concepts of land and human subjugation. In a 2008 interview, Steven Newcomb (Shawnee-Lenape), a linguist and co-founder of Indigenous Law Institute, commented:

    “If you conceive of the Earth as being some kind of inanimate substance or object that you have the right to subdue and exercise domination over, that will predetermine how you behave toward that. You don’t understand it as a living being, an existing ecosystem with intricate types of inner-relationships between all forms of life but something that you have the capacity and the means and the permission to conquer and subdue.”

    Newcomb describes the framework laid out in the Old Testament as “deeply patriarchal,” suggesting a direct connection between the domination of land and the subjugation of women. The patriarchal structures of Christianity have made victims of women of all races and backgrounds that its empires have reached. Moreover, the framework of “taming,” “perfecting,” and “domesticating” that are ever-present in Genesis’ passages on agriculture were also broadly applied in the colonial approach to claiming the “New World” and its inhabitants. The domination and domestication of Indigenous humans and ecology was essential to this country’s founding.

    New England’s First Fruits (Harvard Press, 1643)
    New England’s First Fruits (Harvard Press, 1643)
    Wikimedia Commons

    When the earliest colonists arrived in the Northeast, they envisioned a “new,” Christian England in the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Massachusett, Nauset, Nipmuck, Mohegan, and Wabanaki territories. They were fueled by religious and racially supremacist ideologies. In the first work of literature ever published in this land, New Englands First Fruits (Harvard Press, 1643), you can find rhetoric of taming and dominating savages.

    It describes the “hellish darknesse” in which the Native peoples lived and equates their spiritual practices with devil worship. The book, which was to be sent to England to advertise to the king the dire necessity of colonial intervention,“promised and promoted the conversion of a wild land and a wild people into a domesticated space and tamed populace,” according to Sokoki Abenaki historian Lisa Brooks.

    This conversion required “taming” Native women and redefining Native masculinity. Missionaries introduced concepts of plow agriculture, private property, regimented work schedules, and proper ways of dress. Women were made to cover their breasts and tie up their hair, under penalty of fine. Men were forbidden to wear their hair long. By instituting Christian ideas about monogamous marriage, unmarried men and women faced fines for sleeping together. Brooks writes in Our Beloved Kin, “Native ways were increasingly constrained by English domestication—including the cultural conversion of those ‘first fruits’ of the missionary project.”

    More than two centuries later, the philosophical framework hadn’t faltered. In the founding cases of federal Indian law, Chief Justice John Marshall referred to Tribal Nations as “domestic dependent nations,” which would become the official terminology for the political relationship between tribes and the government that is still used today (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia,1831). Much like chickens or dogs, the government assigned this “domestic dependent” condition to Natives, legally mandating a paternalistic relationship.

    The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 forced Natives to become “American,” irrespective of consent, while many insisted that they were already citizens of their own sovereign Nations and did not wish to partake in the American project. In the 1950s, Indian Relocation policies carried the legacy forward, forcing Native people to assimilate and become “dependents” of the American system by expelling them from reservations into cities. The policy also sought to open up reservation land by breaking up communities and clearing the land of its inhabitants—reminiscent of Roosevelt’s approach to conservation. The policies resulted in massive homeless Native populations and damaged tribal communities in ways that still affect us today.

    Native Resistance Today: Rethinking Relationships and Respecting Perspectives in 2020

    If we want to pursue environmental and racial justice, we need to seriously rethink the power relationships that American nationalism presumes. What does that mean? It starts with putting Indigenous and Black leaders on the horse—humanizing, validating, and amplifying those voices. It means eradicating demonizing rhetoric and symbolism that codes these communities as dangerous or degenerate, needing to be “tamed” and “hemmed in” by white authority.

    In modern American history, the white authority with the heaviest hand in suppressing Native and Black justice movements has been the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement.

    Since its founding in 1908—coincidentally, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency—there has been no period in which the FBI has not violated the rights of dissenting citizens, according to expert Chip Gunning in a 2019 report. “Dissenting citizens” overwhelmingly refers to those speaking out against poverty and dispossession, war and colonialism, environmental exploitation, fascism, and racism. Perhaps not coincidentally, Roosevelt’s eugenics ideas considered poor, Black, and Native people examples of “degenerate stock” who should not be allowed to reproduce. Perhaps he predicted our resistance.

    In the last twenty years, the FBI has spied heavily on the Black Lives Matter movement, Standing Rock, Palestine Solidarity activists, anti-pipeline and Occupy/Abolish ICE protesters, and used intimidation tactics on Muslim citizens and Cuba and Iran naturalization proponents. Leaked internal documents reveal that the FBI spies on Black individuals based on the fabricated threat of “Black Identity Extremism” (BIE), a term the bureau invented and began to circulate around the time of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown. The term BIE has since been changed to Racially Motivated Extremism, suggesting a false parity between white supremacist terrorism and First Amendment-protected peoples’ movements against injustice.

    “There is no indication that ... programs used to target Black people for surveillance have been dismantled. Instead, these documents suggest that the FBI under Trump continues to prioritize criminalizing Black dissent while minimizing the threat of white supremacy,” said co-director of MediaJustice Steven Renderos to the ACLU. The same list of “national security threats” in the FBI document includes “Animal Rights/Environmental Extremism” and “Abortion Extremism.”

    In August 2017, the FBI distributed a report on “Black Identity Extremists” to America’s 20,000 police stations, warning of a “heightened threat” of violence just a week before the Charlottesville white supremacist rally. The FBI and police forces have collaborated in a multitude of cases of racially biased policing, from Portland, Oregon, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Standing Rock, North Dakota. The FBI’s rhetoric in the assessments circulated to law enforcement has consistently demonized environmental and racial justice activists over white supremacists.

    Indeed, documents obtained by The Guardian in 2020 reveal that “a group of environmental activists engaged in non-violent civil disobedience targeting the oil industry have been listed in internal Department of Homeland Security documents as ‘extremists’—and some of its members listed alongside white nationalists and mass killers.” Gunning’s report reveals that between 2012 and 2016, the FBI surveilled the anti-Keystone Pipeline group, Tar Sands Brigade (2012-2014), questioned activists associated with Rising Tide and Deep Green Resistance (2014, 2015), and tracked protests that were part of the Break Free from Fossil Fuels campaign (2016), again, investigating organizations and individual activists as “national security threats.” After reading the leaked documents, former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice Mike German said, “It is clearly troubling that these documents suggest the FBI interprets its national security mandate as protecting private industry from political criticism.”

    Tepees on the National Mall for the Native Nations Rise March in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2017.
    Tepees on the National Mall for the Native Nations Rise March in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2017.
    Photo by Amalia Córdova

    During the 2016 Standing Rock and #NoDAPL protests, the FBI collaborated with local police and a private security company, TigerSwan, to defend private industry—in this case, the fossil fuel interests of Dakota Access and Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). TigerSwan shared its files with the FBI and police forces throughout its investigation of #NoDAPL. Leaked documents from TigerSwan, who ETP hired to infiltrate and disrupt the movement, reveal the use of militaristic counterterrorism tactics against protesters across multiple states and locations. TigerSwan’s internal rhetoric also used Islamophobic language that compared nonviolent protestors to jihadists. Their communications specifically alleged the presence of Palestinians, saying “the movement’s involvement with Islamic individuals is a dynamic that requires further examination,” (ACLU) and described #NoDAPL as “an ideologically driven insurgency with a strong religious component” (The Intercept).

    TigerSwan worked closely with police in at least five states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa, and Texas), and documents obtained via public records requests also reveal their communications with agents from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Justice Department, the Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, The Intercept reported.

    Where was this level of cooperation and energy from intelligence and law enforcement when more than 5,590 Native women were reported missing to the FBI in 2019? Where has this inspired investigation been as white supremacist groups kill innocent and unarmed Indigenous and Black individuals? Or when law enforcement has colluded with white supremacist terrorist groups? The FBI and U.S. law enforcement have made their priorities clear for centuries now: to uphold the racial, economic, and environmental injustices necessary to sustain the status quo. These injustices are the national interest, and Indigenous and Black activism must be suppressed in their defense.

    Why Is Native Activism So Threatening?

    While I recognize that black and Indigenous struggles are not the same in all aspects, our communities’ demographic statistics for police brutality and political suppression are similarly dismal and intrinsically connected. Law enforcement consistently codes our activists as “domestic terrorists,” surveilling and persecuting them as “enemies of social order” as punishment for attempting to obstruct injustice. Moreover, environmental racism and racial capitalism in this country are intertwined Black and Native experiences. The fact that America has yet to repair the racial hatred of its origins makes our stories extremely threatening.

    In my community, we have something called “seven generations” thinking. A simplified definition is that we try to inform our decisions and understanding in consideration of the seven generations before us and the seven down the line, as to ensure our choices and theories are neither near-sighted nor selfish. It means learning from and never forgetting our ancestors’ experiences. Native ideologies, and the assertion that we remember, threatens the very lifeblood of American nationhood.

    Our dissent challenges the justification of U.S. land ownership, land that was claimed or obtained through deceit, regular infringement of its own laws and treaties, and genocide. It calls out American imperialism for what it is. It spotlights U.S. sovereignty’s marriage to earth-exploiting enterprise. Native culture and sovereignty are the enemy of the extractive industry, and sustainability the antithesis of capitalism. Ultimately, Native resistance fights the unsustainability and immorality of global capitalism, which requires the plundering and destruction of non-European nations, the dispossession of Indigenous, Black, and brown people, and the entrenched political and economic disparities that uphold America’s “way of life.”

    Our dissent unmasks the hypocrisy of Christian religious values as they have been manipulated and centered in the American legal system. It demands that the real, unvarnished history of this continent be told, a process that would catechize the intellectual integrity of centuries of American historians. Applying a decolonized lens, the United States’ behavior as a nation immediately pops the balloon of American exceptionalism, on which it so heavily relies to attain its national interests.

    If Indigenous voices ask such deep-cutting questions of American nationhood, why shouldnt the government feel threatened? Why shouldn’t it do everything in its power to “defend the status quo”? This is what the 1975 Church Committee investigation of the FBI deemed to be their goal during the COINTELPRO era in ’60s and ’70s. And its internal rhetoric and directive evidently have not changed.

    For a brief overview, the FBI’s illegal activities during that era included the targeting, surveillance, and infiltration of domestic political organizations, even the assassinations of group members, and almost exclusively preyed on America’s dissenting Left. COINTELPRO was first perfected and used on Cold War opponents around the world before being brought home and used on U.S. citizens. While its domestic campaign began with the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party, the FBI program came to identify the threats as a diverse spread of activists and organizations, including the American Indian Movement (AIM), Martin Luther King Jr., the Congress of Racial Equality, the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers. It described members in terms of “domestic terrorism.”

    Dissenters of that time were fighting for liberation from imperialism, racism, and poverty, for Native sovereignty and environmental justice. The FBI’s directive was to suppress and maintain control of America’s dispossessed by any means necessary. For Indigenous and Black Americans, police brutality and political suppression have been consistent with American nationhood. Accordingly, one might even observe parallels between mercenary groups such as the KKK and “private security contractors” like TigerSwan, both of whom have collaborated with the FBI while carrying out orders too overtly illicit for public servants such as the police to perform. All entities have similarly served the goal of crushing the liberation movements emanating from those who suffer most under U.S. imperialism.

    Sustainable Social Order as the Key to Sustainable Environments and Economies

    In the face of this environmental crisis, the liberation of peoples and the liberation of the earth must happen concurrently. Native resistance has always fought for both. In North America, an Indigenous continent, the ideas of racial and environmental oppression are alien, having been imported from Europe and applied recklessly to a land that was once in balance with its Native people.

    To this end, Nishnaabeg author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes, “Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other. They require critical thinking about our economic and political systems. They require radical systemic change.” She urges global citizens to no longer deny the congenial connection between colonialism and ecological catastrophe.

    “[It’s] a mistake to think of global warming in historical isolation, as merely the carbon cycle gone awry thanks to an excess of CO2 emissions. Climate change is the name we've given to the constellation of ecological crises that emerge as capitalist modernity runs out of new places to despoil.”

    In 2020, we have come to the moment that our ancestors foresaw in the seventeenth century, warning that “a system of individual land ownership” and accumulation-based society would lead to ecological apocalypse. Yet, for centuries, Native science, agricultural practice, and culture were attacked by settlers. While Indigenous prophecies all around the world have predicted ecological apocalypse, Western science’s late revelations about environmental crises have been insufficient and corrupted by capitalistic incentives. The devaluation of Native perspectives, sciences, and lifeways has “nothing to do with its predictive ability,” Betasamosake Simpson insists. The fact is that Western society “simply will not put its own system up for debate.”

    Colonialism has led a long, gruesome road to environmental collapse, and the best environmental policy America can pursue is to finally dismantle it through rematriation. As I have argued, this means overturning the power structure symbolized in the dated Roosevelt statue. It means putting in charge of this country the Indigenous peoples, whose stolen land we are on, and Black Americans, whose ancestors were stolen from their own land and forced in bondage to build a country that still refuses to protect them.

    Fighting for Indigenous sovereignty inherently means fighting against the exploitation and degradation of land. It means fighting for Indigenous authority in policymaking over sacred rivers, mountains, and natural spaces where water should be drinkable, ceremonies are performed, and ancestors are buried. It means supporting Native initiatives to redesign new economies that are sustainable and regenerative. Supporting Indigenous sovereignty is climate activism and environmental justice. And it could mark the beginning of America’s reconciliation process with Native people, too.

    Addressing the Statue exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History
    A visit to the Addressing the Statue exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History
    Photo courtesy of Mali Obomsawin

    Mali Obomsawin is a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artist with the band Lula Wiles. She is a full-time touring musician and a freelance writer on Indigenous issues. She has also taught workshops on Indigenous issues in the United States and Quebec. Mali grew up in Farmington, Maine, and is a citizen of the Abenaki First Nation at Odanak.


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