- Indigenous Climate Change Studies : Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene
Indigenous and allied scholars, knowledge keepers, scientists, learners, change-makers, and leaders are creating a field to support Indigenous peoples’ capacities to address anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Provisionally, I call it Indigenous climate change studies (Indigenous studies, for short, in this essay). The studies involve many types of work, including Indigenous climate resiliency plans, such as the Salish-Kootenai Tribe’s Climate Change Strategic Plan that includes sections on “Culture” and “Tribal Elder Observations,” policy documents, such as the Inuit Petition expressing “the right to be cold,” conferences, such as “Climate Changed: Reflections on Our Past, Present and Future Situation,” organized by the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group, and numerous declarations and academic papers, from the Mandaluyong Declaration of the Global Conference on Indigenous Women, Climate Change and REDD+ to a special issue of the scientific journal Climatic Change devoted to Indigenous peoples in the U.S. context.1
Indigenous studies often reflect the memories and knowledges that arise from Indigenous peoples’ living heritages as societies with stories, lessons, and long histories of having to be well-organized to adapt to seasonal and inter-annual environmental changes. At the same time, our societies have been heavily disrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization. Regarding Indigenous peoples in the Arctic, Callison writes that climate change is “Understood as an emergent form of life ... climate change presents the need for excavation and reassessment of what a recognition of climate change portends for those who have endured a century of immense cultural, political and environmental changes.”2 Indigenous studies, then, arise from memories, knowledges, histories, and experiences of oppression that differ from many of the nonindigenous scientists, environmentalists, and politicians who are prominent in the framing of the issue of climate change today.
As a Potawatomi scholar-activist working on issues Indigenous people face with the U.S. settler state, I perceive at least three key themes reflected across the field that suggest distinct approaches to inquiries into climate change:
1. Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism. [End Page 153]
2. Renewing Indigenous knowledges, such as traditional ecological knowledge, can bring together Indigenous communities to strengthen their own self-determined planning for climate change.
3. Indigenous peoples often imagine climate change futures from their perspectives (a) as societies with deep collective histories of having to be well-organized to adapt environmental change and (b) as societies who must reckon with the disruptions of historic and ongoing practices of colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization.
In engaging these themes, I will claim, at the end, that Indigenous studies offer critical, decolonizing approaches to how to address climate change. The approaches arise from how our ways of imagining the future guide our present actions.
Back to the Future: Climate Change as Intensified Colonialism
Colonialism refers to a form of domination in which at least one society seeks to exploit some set of benefits believed to be found in the territory of one or more other societies, from farm land to precious minerals to labor. Exploitation can occur through military invasion, slavery, and settlement. Colonialism often paved the way for the expansion of capitalism, or an economic ideology based on wage-labor that prioritizes growth in monetary profits for the owners of assets as the underlying focus, incentive, and purpose of major human social endeavors.
Together, colonialism and capitalism then laid key parts of the groundwork for industrialization and militarization —or carbon-intensive economics—which produce the drivers of anthropogenic climate change, from massive deforestation for commodity agriculture to petrochemical technologies that burn fossil fuels for energy. The colonial invasion that began centuries ago caused anthropogenic environmental changes that rapidly disrupted many Indigenous peoples, including deforestation, pollution, modification of hydrological cycles, and the amplification of soil-use and terraforming for particular types of farming, grazing, transportation, and residential, commercial and government infrastructure.
Colonially-induced environmental changes altered the ecological conditions that supported Indigenous peoples’ cultures, health, economies, and political self-determination. While Indigenous peoples, as any society, have long histories of adapting to change, colonialism caused changes at such a rapid pace that...