The huge Native presence at the United Nations COP 21 climate talks in Paris was in line with the intimate relationship that these diverse cultures have with the environment. From Sarakayus to Sami, Navajo, Tibetan, Samoan, the UNESCO Musée de l’Homme Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change, held alongside the main summit, gave voice to an impressive number of communities from all over the globe. They shared their values on Mother Earth, Father Sky, a concept of nature as a living entity, a cosmological vision reenacting the bonds between man and his habitat, and a sense of sacredness.
“We, Natives, are not only speaking about the environment, but also about the invisible aspects of nature,” said José Gualiga, who was presenting the Sarayaku’s fight against the exploitation of their land by foreign enterprises and emphasizing their ancestral relationship to the spirits residing inside the woods, the water and all of creation.
On the forefront of the climate change debate, Native communities led their own version of COP, sharing their traditional insights stemming from a connection to nature going beyond the supposed pragmatism of scientific fact. They introduced a sense of sacred and secret knowledge to an audience eager to learn about ancestral environmental visions, and innovative projects based on ethical-traditional values in local communities, from architecture to habitat restoration.
Nature as a living entity was poetically and politically presented, in an astonishing concert of voices from all origins, with a single focus: Saving the Earth as a provider of life is an emergency. Creating new initiatives based on traditional values, and teaching those values to future generations, is an obligation.
One of the presenters was Ann Marie Chischilly, Navajo, executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at Northern Arizona University. She emphasized that the environmental mission is now in the hands of the seventh generation. Afterward, Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Chischilly and got her to explain that further.
In your presentation, you mentioned that you were touched when you once heard in a meeting, “with climate change, we will lose our traditions”?
Yes, during the Inter Tribal Youth Climate leadership Congress, a summer program for youngsters from 14 to 18, one of the students said that. I was one of the judges reviewing their presentation, and as a mother, it broke my heart. So I told them, there is no way you will lose your traditions, but you have to fight for them, as our ancestors did; as I felt there was hope, even though climate change is coming, and will impact them.
How can it change the traditions?
It impacts how they hunt, fish, gather food, especially in the Alaskan regions. And all that is tied to the ceremonies: If they cannot find food, water, they move away to the cities to find jobs, and then they can lose their culture, language, traditions.
Has it already happened?
Yes. In some tribes, there has been a migration away from the areas impacted by climate changes. The Alaskan villages are the most impacted, as their lifestyle is entirely conditioned by the environment. Their food and water comes from the place they live, thus climate change affects them dramatically.
You addressed the specifics of the various tribes. Does the impact differ according to the geographic areas, and are some tribes more affected, aside from the North?
Indeed. Alaska being on the front line, it is related to the temperatures. We train the tribes to adapt according to their region. Every tribe is different, but all of them are affected; in the Northwest they are dealing with warmer streams, so the salmon does not make the same run. In the Southwest, they have to face the issue of the drought, and how they will look at water in twenty years. So there is no tribe more affected than another; it depends how they incorporate those issues into their lifestyle.
Is there a collective consciousness of climate change among the tribes, and what about trash management? Does your program address this issue?
Yes, as it has been on the forefront for the past three years, and they have seen the severe weather changes, and have started to lobby the federal government to be protected, and funded. We do have a solid waste management group; trash is indicative of who we are, and how we take care of our land. So we teach the children and adults how to separate trash: a long time ago, there was no plastic, and my grandmother would separate her trash. Today, we have to re-teach it in our communities: it is a big ongoing issue.
Is the young generation sensitive to a statement frequently addressed in this meeting: the spiritual relationship of Natives to nature?
I believe so, in that seventh generation. I know that of all the generations, they are the chosen ones to heal the world; and that might concern climate change, thanks to a Native way of seeing the Earth as a spirit, and taking care of her, rather then considering her as merely a resource. That is why I am training my son, and the children behind me.
So there is a special program in the schools reservations?
It depends on the tribe, and the parents’ wishes; my son goes to a bilingual school in Flagstaff, and he is trained in Navajo language and culture. A lot of tribes are going back to their language. And I truly believe in the language to hold traditional knowledge: if you can speak and think like your ancestors, you have the traditional knowledge. And many tribes try to retain it.
Do Indigenous organizations network much?
We, do at ITEP, and we host the biggest conference on climate change, where many tribes come to collaborate.
What are the main environmental dangers for Native people today?
Not training the children, and not helping them to be prepared enough by keeping their culture and language. As it is within the teachings that there is hope to carry the fight forward.
Is it getting better?
Yes, the consciousness is better; whether the environment is better, I don’t know. Some tribes are doing a lot more then others; it depends on the funding, as some do not have funding and are just trying to maintain a day-to-day life.
Why did you choose to work in the environmental field?
I chose my career because of my grandmother, Katherine Wallace, who had a big influence on my life and was a strong voice in my community. She always told me that I needed to use my voice for good: environment was fundamental to my heart, and always kept my interest.
So what do you expect from this conference, and what is your conclusion?
I love to learn about what other people do, and met many groups who want to collaborate: It is important to learn from other indigenous communities. I feel we are resilient, and know how to adapt. So we must not lose hope, and fight hard.