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  • The Right to Be Free of FearIndigeneity and the United Nations
  • Doreen E. Martinez (bio)

Indigenous daily lifeways are directly altered and, at times, devastated by climate change; from the habitable Arctic land-base losses, to glacial melt that is washing away centuries of sustainable agriculture in Bolivia, to rising ocean levels that contaminate through salination of major food sources such as breadfruit or coconuts, or completely washing away island territories such as Tuvalu and the Cook Islands. This research bears witness to the active engagement and challenges that the process and integration of Indigeneity provides. Indigeneity confronts the constant paradox of the visible-invisibleness in climate change policy development by identifying the policies/practices as forms of colonization and explicit/implicit challenges to sovereignty and survivance. Significantly, what occurs through the (re)naming process is a positioning and advocacy of communities disproportionately and gravely impacted by climate change rather than existing as objects or material artifacts of colonial acts. Ultimately, we argue for the right to be free of fear of catastrophic environmental loss and climate change complications rather than merely providing a response to that catastrophe.


There are numerous statistics, snapshots, and counts of Indigenous peoples and cultures worldwide. These efforts offer a slight glimpse into [End Page 63] the lifeways of Indigenous peoples, often through quantitative inferences, nationalistic rhetoric, and geographic assumptions. In this essay, I will illustrate how the concept of Indigeneity broadens and more appropriately offers how to understand the multitude of Indigenous communities worldwide: “Indigeneity is, thus, a very ancient global paradigm of sustainability, spiritual interconnectedness and coexistence—of convivencia—of living together. This is a worldview that up until now has been undervalued.”1 I specifically focus on the United Nations and climate change issues to demonstrate the importance and value of Indigeneity. Indigenous cultures and peoples are vibrant contemporary communities versus objects of catastrophe and/or people in need of saving (via guardian–ward philosophies). As Neizen discusses Indigeneity, “The study of indigenous identity . . . invokes people’s sense of permanence and their ability to survive and stay close to their cultures and homelands despite almost insurmountable odds.”2 Indigenous identity coupled with climate change realities proves a necessary and fertile site of analysis. This section offers a brief introduction to Indigeneity and the United Nations climate change beliefs and structures. The sections that follow will detail and more specifically critique this relationship.

The United Nations’ role in defining and recognizing Nation status, promoting global philosophies, and facilitating worldwide climate change policies provides a distinctive area of investigation regarding Indigenous lives today. Significantly, Neizen emphasizes Indigeneity’s various roles as he illustrates that “the renewal or adoption of indigenous identity, . . . is manifested in cultural and political reforms at a variety of levels: in strengthening community loyalties, challenging state notions of citizenship, national culture, and individual rights; and, internationally, striving not only for equality within states—anti-discrimination with respect to participation in such things as higher education and the workforce—but also for a greater measure of self-determination, recognition of indigenous peoples’ status as distinct societies with rights of self-governance and control of land and resources that derive, in turn, from their status as original peoples.”3 Implicit in the United Nations’ role and the various overlapping understandings and performances of Indigenous identity are current climate change challenges, conflicts, and responses. Indigeneity ultimately promotes a greater measure of self-determination, Indigenous status, and self-governance as noted above. This relationship between Indigeneity and the United Nations can be summarized in that “land rights and rights to utilise the resources passed down from the ancestors are human rights.”4 Inherently, control of land and land resources has become exponentially contested as climate change alters waterways, heightens droughts, and multiplies “natural events” such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and extreme weather conditions like high heat and massive rainstorms.

A tantamount illustration of climate change issues/responses and [End Page 64] foundational understandings of Indigeneity is the “four core values—the Four R’s: Relationship, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Redistribution. Each of these values manifests itself in a core obligation in Indigenous societies.”5 Harris and Wasilewski cite these core obligations...