Indigenous Voices in the Fight for Environmental Justice 

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Angela Miracle Gladue, a member of the Frog Lake First Nations—a Cree community located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada—takes part in a rally held in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Indigenous peoples have long had the environment’s best interests at heart. Granting them sovereignty over more of their ancestral lands is an important step in helping the land.

Indigenous peoples’ culture is often heavily based on the land, shaping their stories and practices. Because of this, many natives have great respect for the land and the natural world as a whole. As more concerns arise about climate change, some suggest that returning more land to Native Americans could be an important step in preventing environmental damage.

Indigenous groups have always possessed a sense of environmental responsibility, a stark contrast to the profit-driven motives of European colonizers. As noted by the Fox Run Environmental Education Center, colonizers focused on exploiting natural resources for financial gain, Indigenous people utilized resources judiciously, ensuring minimal waste and considering the needs of future generations. The Iroquois Confederacy serves as a notable example, emphasizing the long-term impact of their actions on descendants seven generations ahead.

A pile of buffalo skulls, Bison hunters stripped the skins and left the carcasses and bones behind on the plains. C. D. Glueworks, Rougeville, Mich 1892. (Photo/Ron Harvey)

It’s important to recognize that numerous conservation efforts, known as beneficial for nature, have come at the cost of Indigenous communities. Non-Profit Quarterly highlights the creation of Yosemite National Park, one of the United States’ most renowned parks, as a prime example. However, this achievement came at the expense of tribes that had inhabited the land for centuries. Despite their longstanding connection to the area, these tribes were forcibly removed to make way for conservation efforts. Alarmingly, conservationists received support from the US military, asserting their capability to manage the land, even though the very nature they sought to protect owed its existence to the Indigenous peoples who were displaced.

Kill every buffalo you see! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone!” 

This slogan resonates deeply with Plains Native Americans, reflecting the devastating impact of white settlers following the Manifest Destiny. Nearly driving the American buffalo to extinction, this nature-based violence stems from racism and cultural xenophobia. By the time the massacres subsided, only 300 wild buffalo remained, as reported by the Smithsonian Magazine. Despite this grim reality, the US government is credited with establishing Yellowstone National Park to protect these animals and preserve Plains culture. While conservation efforts are commendable, it is crucial to acknowledge the systemic racism underlying these crises.

Today, Indigenous peoples continue to combat the loss of nature and culture. Miko Brandon, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, exemplifies this fight by preserving native species in his garden, as highlighted by PBS. Recognizing the cultural significance of food, Brandon cultivates varieties like Chickasaw red corn, Seminole pumpkins, Wichita squash, and Anasazi beans. With traditional food sources dwindling due to factors like climate change, individuals like Brandon play a vital role in safeguarding Indigenous ways of life. As such, prioritizing conservation over profit-driven practices like factory farming and oil extraction is imperative for the preservation of Indigenous heritage and environmental sustainability.

The issue extends beyond access to food, encompassing land and water rights as well. Over the years, the United States has repeatedly violated territory-related treaties, posing significant threats to Indigenous communities. Among these concerns is the Keystone XL project, which not only jeopardizes access to water for many but also poses environmental risks. Although initially permitted by Donald Trump, Joe Biden swiftly revoked its permit within 24 hours of his inauguration. Despite this, Native American leaders remain apprehensive about potential future incursions by oil companies, as reported by NBC.

Our world is rich with diversity, comprising individuals from various backgrounds and beliefs. Yet, far too often, the cultural heritage of Native Americans is commodified, treated as something to be traded. Land holds profound significance for us, representing a connection to our identity that spans countless generations. For Indigenous communities, the fight against detrimental environmental practices transcends mere activism; it’s a battle for survival.

Written by Olivia Marant

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