Place and places fascinate me. Perhaps this is why I pursued an academic education in geography and a professional career as a city planner. I know it is why I am an environmentalist. How do we define place? And how do we as people relate to a place? That is, how and why do we benefit from, use, manage, and even abuse the land we live on? These are central questions around place, and in trying to answer them I have long struggled to understand the relationship Native Americans have to nature.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, has written a practical and powerful guide to the question of place from the painful perspective of US history. “As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock” is a short, but comprehensive summary of the intersection of Native sovereignty with American environmentalism. Published in 2019, it was born from the conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipe Line which came to a head on the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016.
I came across this book thanks to a racial justice program I took part in through my church. Like many people, I have spent the last year trying to learn more about being White in this country I call home. It’s complicated, difficult, necessary, and rewarding work. As a conservationist, I encountered the term environmental justice some time ago, and Gilio-Whitaker takes this as a starting point for her book, but quickly explains its limitations when applying it to the first people of our continent.
“Genocide by Any Other Name” is the title of Chapter 2 of “As Long As Grass Grows” and it painfully lays out the history of displacement, dispossession and murder that resulted in both the decimation of 99 percent of the pre-Columbian population of North America and the removal of the remainder from their sacred spaces. The basis of Indigenous identify and spirituality is connection to place. The dislocation of tribes from their land by violence, deceit, and overwhelming settler numbers defines environmental injustice from an Indigenous perspective.
“The very thing that distinguishes Indigenous people from settler societies is their unbroken connection to ancestral homelands,” Gilio-Whitaker says as she explains an Indigenous orientation that favors place over time. Western culture defines itself by its history and the manifest destiny that projects “progress” as the justified approach to the settlement of the seemingly empty or “underutilized” land of North America.
The American legal construction of land as property runs counter to the way the people who first inhabited much of the continent understand the natural world. Rather than ownership rights “the Indigenous world is a world of relationships built on reciprocity, respect, and responsibility, not just between humans but also extending to the entire natural world.” This not only created problems with the promotion of and reliance on treaties to define settlement and occupation boundaries, it also made problematic the establishment of national parks.
For a White conservationist like me, the book’s frank discussion of the racist attitudes of early environmentalists like Thoreau and Muir challenges some of my deepest values. The history of displacement of native residents from Yosemite, Yellowstone and other National Parks required me to think harder about my use of the term “America’s best idea” for our preservation of natural wonders. “Wilderness” is a term constructed by the descendants of settlers without appreciation of the original inhabitants of the land.
Gilio-Whitaker spends more time with an insightful look at the positive and negative interaction of current Indigenous leaders and the modern environmental movement with particular attention to opposition to the Dakota Access Pipe Line extended across the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation in 2016. As even a casual observer notes, much of the environmental activism of Native Americans is led by women, and Chapter Six helps me appreciate how this female leadership comes from indigenous cultural aspects and has a long history. In fact, several of the white founders of feminism (Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others) were motivated by the example of female leadership in Iroquois tribes. It makes me appreciate even more the ascendancy of Deb Haaland as the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior.
“As Long as Grass Grows” presents a perspective everyone working in the environmental field should fully be aware of. The history it covers is not well understood or appreciated by most White Americans, and this leads to unconscious assumptions and dangerous myths that the many active tribes in the United States have little to contribute to conservation work. Some of our political leaders forget that Native Americans are still present or dismiss their perspective. At worst, this leads to unproductive conflicts over the management or protection of resources such as water, fish and game, and the use of public lands.
As a trustee of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I have been fortunate in the last year to have been invited to a join a study group of several hundred staff people from this environmental organization supported by the Native Nation’s Institute. With an eye towards resource protection and land preservation, this course provided me with further historical knowledge and particular insight to the uneven and unjust treatment of tribes in the United States.
The Nature Conservancy has a long and increasingly successful history of working with indigenous people around the globe (see their Human Rights Guide). Various TNC chapters in North America have begun to apply these principles and practices in our own backyards. At times this work challenges us, but the organization seems committed to taking the time to gain understanding and build relationships. The goal is stronger partnerships with those who have had deep and long-standing relationships with natural places. “We have seen time and again that strengthening communities’ voice, choice and action over their lands and water contributes to better, more enduring conservation and sustainable-development outcomes,” wrote Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, this summer.
On the ground, The Nature Conservancy has had some successes. Just recently, the Nebraska Chapter of TNC returned 284 acres of ancestral land to the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska to help establish the Ioway Tribal National Park which will encompass over 800 acres of a forested bluff and a historic burial site on the Missouri River. This is part of a larger trend of engagement by several environmental groups, efforts to return conservancy lands to native ownership, and increased use of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in conservation work; read more examples here.
The harsh realities of climate change have highlighted the importance of Indigenous people, not only because of the disproportionate impact on their way of life, but because it offers a distinctive approach to climate action. “In the face of an intensifying climate change crisis . . it may well be that organizing around Native land rights holds the key to successfully transitioning from a fossil-fuel energy infrastructure to one based on sustainable energy” Gilio-Whitaker writes in discussing pipeline and resource extraction controversies in the Western United States.
In the Great Lakes, indigenous perspectives are critical when discussing water and aquatic systems. Tribes and indigenous organizers have been central to the fight against pipelines in the upper Mississippi watershed and the Straits of Mackinac, two of several sacred sites in the region. Tribal fishing rights present a unique asset in the efforts to restore a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem and rebuild native species fisheries under attack from invasive species and toxic pollutants. Again, it may be the particular Indigenous perspective that helps align the many natural resource agencies and actors working in this area.
Finally, in the race against worsening climate factors, Indigenous respect for, and stewardship of, existing ecosystems may be an overlooked opportunity. Perhaps the quickest way to combat climate change it through natural climate solutions whereby forests, prairies, and wetlands are protected, managed, and restored to better serve as repositories for carbon that otherwise would warm the atmosphere and oceans. The healthiest natural ecosystems can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the same time as they preserve biodiversity, protect water quality, and provide sustainable resources for human use; many of these places are also sacred to various tribes. The Indigenous relationship to place provides a holistic approach to land use that can serve many of the environmental and climate goals shared between conservationists and native peoples.
For those engaged in fighting climate change, land preservation, natural resource conservation, or other environmental work, it behooves us to gain a better understanding of Native American history and Indigenous perspectives. We first need to examine our own assumptions, biases, and pre-dispositions as it relates to race and religion. We then need to broaden our understanding and appreciation of place by learning more about tribal and other indigenous approaches to nature. “As Long as Grass Grows” is a good place to start this work.