What to do about climate change has become a contentious issue in Oregon. But this week brought what felt to me like good news.
First, word that the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are working on a climate change adaptation plan that stresses connectedness — between people and between people and the land — as they gather to share their stories and ideas about water, first foods, human health and happiness. And more. As Colleen Sanders, CTUIR Climate Change Adaptation Planner, told the Confederated Umatilla Journal, “Indigenous peoples have been adapting to climate change since time immemorial.”
Second, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants” made the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Best Sellers list — six years after it was published.
Needless to say, that’s not the way it usually works. But “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the kind of book that you read and then buy copies to give your friends, your family, everyone you think might be as hungry for its encouragement as you are.
And in page after page, Kimmerer, a botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, connects traditional ecological knowledge with scientific knowledge as she explores the relationship people have — and can have — with the living environment. What works, she says, is reciprocity, giving back in return for the gifts of the earth.
In one of my favorite chapters she visits her Onondaga neighbors, where the school week begins, not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with a recitation of gratitude, a Thanksgiving Address whose name translates to Words Before All Else, or “what we say before we do anything important.” Step by step, the children remember and thank each part of life — the People, the earth, the waters of the world. Food plants, medicine herbs, the trees. “All the beautiful animal life of the world,” the birds, “the powers known as the Four Winds.” Thunder and lightning, the sun, the moon, the stars. Enlightened teachers. And finally, they thank the Creator: “Everything we need to live a good life is here on Mother Earth,” they recite. “For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.”
Each part of the Thanksgiving Address follows the same pattern, beginning with “We gather our minds together” and concluding with “Now our minds are one.”
Can Oregon learn from these examples, I wondered?
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, though indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population, their lands include 22% of its surface — and 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence. “There is medium evidence and high agreement,” the report concludes, “that indigenous knowledge is critical for adaptation.”
But asking indigenous peoples to share their knowledge as we all try to find a way through the challenges of climate change is complicated. Their knowledge has often been appropriated or exploited. Shared knowledge about the land and how they use it could be used to limit their access to sacred sites or resources, or worse.
Some, like Larry Merculieff, an Unagan tribal member in Anchorage, Alaska, believe the time for keeping secrets is past, that the dangers to the earth, to women, and to Mother Earth-based cultures override the fears of loss and exploitation. He’s part of a group called Weavers of the World, which has produced 30 hours of film on Native knowledge.
Maybe the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe has found a solution, at least for themselves. Their reservation along the U.S. border with Canada — Akwesasne, “land where the partridge drums” — is downstream from industrial facilities, hydro dams, and aluminum smelters, and sediments in the Saint Lawrence mix with heavy metals from old ship batteries and toxic chemicals from nearby Superfund sites. How should they negotiate with the Environmental Protection Agency, who wanted to do scientific vulnerability and risk assessments to decide what resources were important to the Akwesasne way of life?
We already know what’s important to us, they said. They offered instead the thanksgiving prayer for water, fish, trees. And the EPA accepted their plan.
Connection? Reciprocity? At least, hope.