Living Earth Festival at the Smithsonian shares indigenous perspectives on climate change, and how these cultures value sustainable ways of living.
By Liza Ida Brazil and Jenny Woodman
Little children gathered, eager to see the contents of the tiny bag. As it opened, thousands of black and red critters delicately began their quest to find water. On July 18, 4,500 ladybugs, were released into one of the many gardens that surround the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C.
The gardens were designed as an extension of the museum to recreate the region’s natural habitats with wetlands, hardwood forests, croplands and meadows as they existed before Europeans arrived in what is now Washington, D.C., and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Wandering through the windy paths and gazing at water-lilies, cattails and wild flowers, it is easy to forget you are in the middle of the nation’s bustling capital.
The ladybug release heralded the beginning of the fifth annual Living Earth Festival.
The festival brings indigenous people from around the world together to share their cultural connections with the Earth, and to highlight successful sustainability initiatives.
ÛÏThe event has always been a combination of science, teaching the public about climate change and sustainability, and of culture, bringing out the First Nations culturally-embedded ideas surrounding both the preservation and celebration of our Earth,Û said Tim Johnson, associate director of museum programs. ÛÏIt’s not just about traditional life ways but it’s about contemporary native peoples getting involved in these modern day climate issues and shattering lingering stereotypes.Û The events emphasized the intertwining of cultural traditions with the environment. Mayan artists, Maria and Paulita Garcia, carved Belizean slate while they explained that their ancestors were able to create profound and original imagery; by continuing the artistic tradition, the artists were connecting with their ancestors and the Earth’s resources.
Leah Brady and Lois Whitney, of the Western Shoshone tribe, prepared a bison stew for the crowds over an open fire in the museum’s courtyard. Brady’s hands rhythmically sliced the carrots, celery, and onions that formed the base for the dish while she described some of the vegetables that were native to her home at one point, before grocery stores replaced home gardens for many people. Back inside, tables lined the halls, filled with handmade crafts made from materials found in each of the artists’ region.
In the open, sun-filled atrium, one large drum accompanied songs and dances from the Pokagon Band of Potowami Indians, who traveled to D.C. from Michigan to perform at the festival. The purpose of the dances, ranging from seasonal celebrations to personal stories of their descendants, was explained to the crowds. Throughout the performance, a recurring theme was evident: respect for and connection to the Earth. One dance was performed to acknowledge the necessity of clearing fields for ceremonies and homes. Traditionally, the dancers would tie grass to their outfits as an act of respect for the grass, soil, and tiny crawlers that they may have been harmed in the clearing. One tribal elder noted that the women dancers kept their feet close to the ground at all times in order to stay connected to the Earth.
After the cultural demonstrations, people gathered in an auditorium for the Living Earth Symposium. The talk featured three influential leaders who detailed their efforts to bring sustainable jobs, economic benefits and useful tools to their communities.
Chief Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River discussed her community’s partnership with Samsung to create the Grand Renewable Energy Park that will generate enough clean energy to power 60,000 homes and create thousands of jobs for Six Nations and the province of Ontario, Canada. Rebecca Moore, founder of Google Earth Outreach and Google Earth Engine, explained how Google Earth has morphed into a valuable tool for nonprofits, communities and thousands of indigenous tribes internationally. Using Google Earth, tribes have mapped culturally important areas, monitored illegal foresting, and helped share their stories with outsiders in order to garner support for protection and preservation of tribal lands. Chairwoman Aletha Tom of the Moapa Band of Paiutes spoke of her success in shutting down a coal-fired power plant on her tribal lands, and initiating the first industrial-scale solar energy project to be built in Indian Country.
While many of the day’s messages echoed ideas about the cultural values inherit in indigenous traditions, the main message delivered at the symposium was that sustainable initiatives make economic sense. The coal plant that Chairwoman Tom helped shut down made many people in her community sick, which was costing her community money and human capital. Renewable energy brings revenue, and opportunities to Indian country and to surrounding communities.
In the end, the event represented modernity finally catching up with what indigenous cultures have, perhaps, always known.