Why We Need to Center Indigenous Voices in Climate Conversations

Courtesy of John Duffy | Wikimedia CommonsIndigenous activists protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, similar to the Keystone XL pipeline.

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Environmentalists celebrated Jan. 20 as President Joe Biden signed an executive agreement to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline — an oil pipeline system that’s been a site of environmental controversy since the initial extension was proposed in 2008. While Biden should be recognized for his commitment to environmental protection and justice, he’s not the sole party to thank for this accomplishment. 

Indigenous organizers have been advocating to stop the pipeline for a decade, as the threats of the pipeline grew from protecting waterways and resources, to climate change-contributing greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple Indigenous activist groups have taken measures including litigation and grassroots organizing to stall or halt the pipeline’s extension, providing a backbone to Biden’s executive order. 

This pattern of Indigenous protest leading to environmental protection isn’t new, and is precisely why we need to center Indigenous voices in conversations about environmental protection, environmental justice and climate change. 

Indigenous activists pushed for environmental protection long before Biden’s promises to prioritize the environment during his time in office. 

So why are Indigenous activists not front and center in our climate change conversations? 

Perhaps our Western ignorance toward native environmental activism is at play. While we restlessly applaud mainstream activists and politicians for any inch toward sustainability, Indigenous activists’ fight for environmental justice often goes unnoticed by mainstream media.

There are countless reasons Indigenous voices belong at the forefront of environmentalism. Indigenous environmentalism reflects intersectionality, which, quite frankly, is the only way we should be viewing any environmental issue in the 21st century. It’s no surprise environmental issues are intertwined with social issues. 

Climate change and other environmental issues are not equally distributed among race, ethnicity, gender or class — and many Indigenous environmental groups heavily incorporate this concept into their activism. 

Courtesy of Meclee | Wikimedia Commons The route of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) focuses not only on environmental issues, but how they impact economic and racial justice within different communities. IEN even expands on the interdisciplinary nature of intersectional environmentalism by focusing on niche, but relevant, concepts such as Indigenous feminists in the realm of environmentalism. 

With traditional ceremonial practices rooted in the interconnectedness of the environment and people, Indigenous environmentalism offers perspectives on environmental issues that encapsulate not only the Earth, but social and economic equity.

Listening and recognizing Indigenous voices is not enough — they need to be central in environmental conversations. 

Not only are Indigenous spaces and practices often compromised by environmental destruction — such as oil and gas extraction occurring on reservations — but there’s plentiful research confirming Indigenous knowledge on managing the Earth’s resources is vital for true environmental change. 

If we were to focus on Indigenous land practices rather than harmful Western-influenced environmental treatment, we may live on an Earth with lush resources and equal relationships to the environment regardless of identity. 

This argument greatly reflects intersectionality as a whole. Climate change impacts marginalized communities — Black, Indigenous and communities of color — at a disproportionate rate in comparison to white, affluent communities. 

By viewing climate issues through a lens of intersectionality, we’re able to understand how pollution, natural disasters and other climate change-related environmental issues impact an individual depending on their identity.

Listening and recognizing Indigenous voices is not enough — they need to be central in environmental conversations. 

When politicians and people see the pipeline as a harmless economic opportunity, they do so in complete ignorance and disrespect for the land it rests on: Indigenous land. 

What communities will be impacted if there were to be an oil spill? Who is going to be the most affected by the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueled by the oil being carried through the pipeline?

It’s time to stop treating Indigenous and other marginalized communities — the main characters of climate change — as mere support. We need to reframe the way we talk about environmental issues and climate change with those who are the most impacted and knowledgeable on it as the focal point.

On an individual level, aim to center Indigenous voices in your personal consumption of environmental news. Media outlets such as Atmos approach environmental issues from non-Western perspectives, often highlighting Indigenous storytelling. In addition, Indigenous activism has a large social media presence. 

Instagram accounts such as @intersectionalenvironmentalist, @Indigenousclimateaction and @iiyc.chicago have an intersectional approach to environmental policy and protection. 

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