Why Indigenous Voices Matter

EarthzineIndigenous Perspectives on Environmental Change Theme, OpEd, Original, Sections, Themed Articles

Peoples of the Arctic hunted polar bears, using their fur and flesh for clothing and food, and weave the creatures throughout their cultural narratives. Bear populations are now declining as a result of environmental changes. Image Credit: Susanne Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Native voices are important. Our lifeways are tied to local surroundings, making us the first environmental refugees, and our cultural stories have embraced sustainability long before the term entered public discourse. To add your voice, consider a submission to an Earthzine theme about Indigenous Perspectives on Environmental Change.

Indigenous communities are often the first to witness the disruptive effects of their surroundings.

Native Americans, for example, confront polluted groundwater and scoured landscapes arising from oil drilling and ore mining, while Alaskan natives see diminishing numbers of bears, birds and fish in the Arctic. Although indigenous voices are often silenced, the concern over environmental and climate changes has brought our voices into the mainstream.

My colleagues, students and I ask key questions, such as: What happens when issues about health, risk, science and the environment impact indigenous communities? How is the public conversation framed? Who gets called on to talk about the issues?

We argue that native voices are important for two key reasons: Our lifeways are tied to local surroundings, making us the first environmental refugees, and our cultural stories have embraced sustainability long before the term entered public discourse.

In a positive move, indigenous views are being courted. A new task force was formed by the Obama administration in 2013 to bring state and tribal leaders together to consider how communities can prepare for environmental changes.

Development of natural resources—including gold, copper, gas and oil extraction—have impacted indigenous tribes in Papua New Guinea, including the Huli peoples, who have farmed and raised pigs for hundreds of years. Image Credit: Nomadtales, Wikimedia Commons

One of the task force members is Karen Driver, head of the council for the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. Driver says tribes are in a unique position because ‰ÛÏwe are so tied to traditional lands, that as climate change continues to occur, it is not an option to move where we live and where our territories are. Those are treaty based,‰ according to a report by Indian Country Today.

Driver adds, ‰Tribal voices are important in the push to halt increased climate change.‰Û

In response to tribal needs, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn has pledged to protect communities. ‰The cultural and economic needs of tribes are tied to the land and protecting the land is a critical component of advancing tribal sovereignty and self-determination,‰ Washburn told Indian Country Today.

The pledge became realized in February 2015, when President Obama allocated $10 million to tribes for help with resource management, planning and youth education.

As Earthzine’s guest editor for a first-quarter 2015 theme about ‰ÛÏIndigenous Perspectives on Environmental Change,‰ I invite you to submit an article or short paper.

We are now accepting a range of news articles, research papers, announcements, opinion pieces and photographic essays that highlight indigenous perspectives on Earth’s environment, social impacts of climate change and what we can do to address these issues.

We invite you to share the Call for Papers with tribal members, friends, colleagues and relatives in our effort to hear about native viewpoints.

We’d like to hear from you now.

Thanks for listening.

Cynthia-Lou Coleman, Ph.D., writes about science, health, risk and the environment in the context of indigenous communities. Her expertise arises from studies of news framing and social discourse of scientific conflicts. Coleman is a professor at Portland State University in Oregon, where she teaches communication theory and methods. She writes a blog called Native Science and is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma.