Hello and welcome to the Seedling! I’m Joseph Lee, Aquinnah Wampanoag and Senior Indigenous Affairs Fellow at Grist, writing to you from my apartment in Queens, New York.
Between Native American Heritage Month and Thanksgiving, this is kind of a strange time of year. While it gives us space to think about what we’re thankful for, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on how weak most efforts to support Indigenous peoples are.
I’m sorry to report that following Indigenous people on social media is not enough. #LandBack posts are not enough. Land acknowledgements are not enough. Simply saying that Indigenous knowledge will save the world is also — definitely — not enough.
As the world grapples with climate change, I’ve been hearing a lot about the importance of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous land management. And that’s good. But every time I hear scientists and policy-makers talking about how “Indigenous peoples have a key role to play” in fighting climate change or protecting biodiversity, I can’t help but feel something is off. Who do they think has been stopping Indigenous people from using that knowledge? Who do they think has worked for generations to eradicate Indigenous peoples and culture?
It just doesn’t seem right that Indigenous people have never been given the chance to thrive, and now they are expected to save the whole world. Indigenous peoples are not some mythical fount of knowledge that is going to magically erase all that harm that white people have done to the world.
Indigenous knowledge is important, but sometimes I think Indigenous peoples get a little lost in that. Maybe people like to separate Indigenous knowledge from Indigenous people because it’s easier to keep things abstract. I don’t think most people have fully registered what Indigenous knowledge saving the planet would actually look like. It would mean giving land back. It would mean letting Indigenous people do things that make non-Indigenous people uncomfortable. Like most things that will actually make a difference, it is going to take real work.
This year, I’m thankful for my family, for the day off, and for the opportunity to write about Indigenous communities doing that work. To any Indigenous readers out there, I hope you’re taking care and marking this month in the way that makes sense to you.