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  • Invasive Species, Indigenous Stewards, and Vulnerability Discourse
  • Nicholas J. Reo (bio), Kyle Whyte (bio), Darren Ranco (bio), Jodi Brandt (bio), Emily Blackmer (bio), and Braden Elliott (bio)

North American Indigenous nations are confronting various forms of rapid environmental change, ranging from climate-induced sea-level rise on the Gulf Coast, to melting permafrost and shifting sea ice patterns in the Arctic, to invasive species–induced trophic cascades in the Great Lakes.1 These changes are all evidence used to justify calling our current geologic era the "Anthropocene," viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.2

Invasive species can cause dramatic changes to ecosystems, including shifts in species composition, species mortality, biodiversity, disturbance regimes, and ecosystem-level nutrient dynamics. Globally, the impacts of invasive species cost billions of dollars annually.3 Land managers and policy makers in the United States and Canada try to minimize these ecological and economic impacts through a range of management strategies, including prediction, prevention, preparedness, education, eradication, containment, monitoring, and research/development (figure 1).

Indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada have a long history of dealing with environmental changes. They are acutely aware of invasive species in their territories and are actively responding in various ways as well. Indigenous nations' invasive species work is generally underreported in the literature but includes communication and education initiatives, scientific research that tests new stewardship strategies, ecosystem restoration through Indigenous knowledge, and adaptation of cultural practices to account for changing conditions, including incorporating introduced species into Indigenous food systems.4 Thus, Indigenous nations' responses to invasive species include all of the generalized [End Page 201] steps taken by settler governments and NGOs plus some unique, culturally informed strategies reported in the literature; we describe these below.

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Fig. 1.

Generalized invasive species "invasion curve" showing appropriate steps and scale of economic costs at different stages of invasion. From Rebecca Harvey and Frank Mazzotti, The Invasion Curve: A Tool for Understanding Invasive Species Management in South Florida, publication no. WEC-347, December 2014, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Based on an original figure by Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council, "Australian Weeds Strategy: A National Strategy for Weed Management in Australia," 2006, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Water Resources, Canberra.

Despite this range of activities, Indigenous peoples are rarely mentioned in the literature on human dimensions of invasive species, and most of the publications that do discuss Indigenous peoples' experiences with invasive species focus on sociocultural impacts. For example, Jeanine Pfeiffer and Elizabeth Huerta Ortiz document the effects of invasive species on culturally important plants, landscapes, livelihoods, and traditions.5 In their case study of sudden oak death on the Hoopa and Yurok reservations in California, Janice Alexander and Christopher Lee note the cultural significance of the affected tanoak trees and reference the deep personal connections that frame tribal involvement in tanoak mortality and efforts to combat it.6 Importantly, these and related [End Page 202] papers highlight the unique cultural dimensions of Indigenous peoples' experiences with invasive species.7

The key messages in these and related papers are about cultural impacts and Indigenous peoples' vulnerability to invasive species. Native American and Indigenous studies scholars have increasingly problematized the vulnerability narratives used to characterize Indigenous peoples' experiences with rapid environmental change.8 One reason is that vulnerability narratives obscure the actions, strategies, resources, and knowledge that Indigenous groups mobilize to navigate environmental change. Vulnerability narratives are criticized for portraying Indigenous groups as passive or helpless, hiding the agency of very active Indigenous groups. Vulnerability narratives can portray Indigenous nations as dependent on settler colonial nation-states and other non-Indigenous parties for relief from environmental problems, which could lead to policymakers drafting climate change or invasive species policies that interfere with Indigenous nations' aspirations of self-determination.9

Benedict Colombi's studies about the Nez Perce (Niimiipu) are noteworthy because they show dimensions of the tribe's response to the degradation of salmon habitat that do not arise out of a vulnerability or help narrative.10 His studies reconceptualize the current habitat issues the tribe faces from...


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