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The American Indian Quarterly 26.2 (2002) 198-220

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Indigenous Knowledge and Technology
Creating Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century

Linda Robyn

As we begin to examine the relationship between American Indians and environmental justice, it is important to note that American courts have many times in the past criminalized, whether consciously or not, traditional knowledge. Indian people who have challenged multinational corporate giants and the government through political activism in an effort to halt environmentally destructive projects on their lands have been criminalized and arrested to silence their claims. Leaving traditional knowledge out of environmental policy is a grave injustice because it is socially injurious to Native peoples and, in effect, all people, not only in the United States but worldwide.

When writing about Indigenous peoples, the exclusion of environmental issues also establishes an injustice because it does not recognize the origins of social institutions among all human beings. Therefore, everything in American Indian culture is associated with an environmental perspective, even issues that filter through the American court system. As will be examined, Native peoples today are using their sophisticated traditional knowledge, combined with militant strategies in some cases, to effect change. Providing equitable justice for Indigenous people establishes an important precedent that can put social institutions like criminal justice in a context where the connection between society and the environment is recognized.

American Indian institutions originate within Native cultures in ways that associate policies with natural principles and natural laws defined by traditional cultural perspectives. The following represents a reflection of this understanding.

The Native peoples of the Americas represent a wide variety of cultures and social organization strategies. The diversity of Native cultures and kinds of social organizations which developed through time represent a high degree of social/political complexity and are varied according to the demands and necessities of the environment. For example, American Indian nations organized at the band level of social/political development have used effective strategies to [End Page 198] take advantage of marginal habitats such as the Arctic and deserts of the Americas where resources were limited.

Winona LaDuke, a member of the Anishinabe Nation, author, activist, and scholar of environmental and Indigenous issues, writes that "sustainability in these marginal habitats did not simply rely on a matter of 'luck.'" For thousands of years, American Indian people maintained a sustainable way of life based on the concept of reciprocity or reciprocal relations. Reciprocity, based on natural law, defines the relationship and responsibility between people and the environment. All parts of the environment—plants, animals, fish, or rocks—are viewed as gifts from the Creator. These gifts should not be taken without a reciprocal offering, usually tobacco or saymah, as it is called in the Ojibwa language. 1

Colonial-style policies and practices concerning the environment and sustainability were formulated with false assumptions that the people of the Americas were primitive uncivilized savages who impeded the growth of technology and progress. If we put aside our fascination with technology and material wealth, we find that for many people in today's modern society, life is primitive and stunted in terms of family values, spiritual life, commitment to the community, and opportunities for rewarding work and creative self-expression. These are the very areas most richly developed in the traditional communities of the Americas.

In her research, LaDuke argues that social and economic systems based on this type of life are usually decentralized, communal, and self-reliant. These societies live closely with and depend on the life contained in that particular ecosystem. This way of living enabled Indigenous communities to live for thousands of years in continuous sustainability. 2

Through colonial-style practices, Native peoples worldwide have been denied equal access to economic power today and in the past. Examples of exclusion of Native peoples throughout the world in formulating important environmental policy abound. Indigenous peoples and the wealth of sustainable knowledge they possess have been excluded from decision-making processes concerningtheenvironmentalimpactofcolonialism,capitalism,andmodern-day corporate intrusion upon their lands.

Louise Grenier is a scholar working in the realms...


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pp. 198-220
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