Dakota/Diné Elder Tom B.K. Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, seemed surprised as the large audience rose to its feet in resounding applause at his keynote’s conclusion on October 19 at the Bioneers National Conference.
Standing at the podium, Goldtooth seemed humbled by it all. In his speech, “Stopping the Privatization of Nature and Commodification of Mother Earth,” Goldtooth spoke for all Indigenous Peoples. He asked the world to turn away from destroying, privatizing and commodifying nature, and instead to turn to indigenous wisdom with “indigenuity.”
The European concept of the natural world, Goldtooth said, has become a dominant concept world-wide. It holds that knowledge and culture are property, with the attitude that commodities are to be exploited freely, and bought and sold at will.
“It has resulted in disharmony between beings and the natural world as well as the current environmental crisis affecting all life,” he said, a concept that is completely at odds with the indigenous worldview.
“Our sacred responsibility is to safeguard and protect this world,” he said. “Human beings are not separate from the natural world but were created to live in an integral relationship with it. We can fashion sustainable solutions and re-sacralize our relationship to Mother Earth. That’s what we have to offer.”
The Indigenous Environmental Network has collaborated with Bioneers for 15 years.
“They’ve been engaged with protection of the environment, they are socially conscious, they embrace food sovereignty, and that’s why we come here,” Goldtooth told Indian Country Today Media Network.
Goldtooth and Melissa Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) of the Cultural Conservancy led the first Bioneers Indigenous Forum in 2007, “a sovereign space for Indigenous Peoples’ issues at the Annual Bioneers Conference,” said Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), the director of Bioneers Indigeneity program. “Since that year, Tom has worked closely with Bioneers to design the Forum programming and has sat on the Board of Directors to ensure that the program is Native led and developed.”
Since their inception, Bioneers has been deeply influenced by indigenous thinking and has kept the indigenous voice central to its mission, believing this is a critical path to restoring social and ecological balance to Mother Earth, Romero said.
“The Indigeneity program of Bioneers speaks to the elemental connection between people and place,” said Romero. “Because disconnection from place and cultural erosion are the primary conditions leading to severe ecological and social problems, it’s critical that people now reconnect to place. Beginning at a community level in the San Francisco Bay Area bioregion, the Bioneers Indigeneity program is initiating a restorative approach to relocalization and reindigenization, creating a bridge between cultures and teachings and by advancing the ever growing Indigenous Forum at our annual conference.”
The Indigenous Environmental Network was formed in 1990 when grassroots Indigenous Peoples and individuals came together to address environmental and economic justice issues. The organizers coined the term “environmental justice” and today they set up campaigns and direct actions such as the KXL/Tar Sands campaign. They’ve built the capacity of community and tribes to address environmental justice issues, developed initiatives to have an impact on policy, and created alliances among indigenous communities, tribes, inter-tribal and indigenous organizations, ethnic organizations, faith-based and women’s groups, youth, labor and environmental organizations, among others.
Bioneers has connected countless innovators such as farmers, educators, scientists and social justice activists with engaged citizens who make a real difference in creating change in their own communities and workplaces. Bioneers’ first project in 1990 under its parent foundation, the New Mexico–based nonprofit Collective Heritage Foundation, was the Native Scholars Program, under which they worked directly with indigenous farmers to help conserve traditional cultural practices as well as seed stocks.
The National Bioneers Conference takes place annually in San Rafael, California, during the third weekend of October. According to the brochure, it offers “wildly diverse landmark programming brimming with deep knowledge and wisdom, as well as many opportunities to participate and connect with the Bioneers community of leadership.”
This year’s 24th annual conference opened with a performance by R. Carlos Nakai, the world’s premiere Native American flutist. Keynote speakers in addition to Goldtooth included the actor and humanitarian Danny Glover, Aleut and Alaska Native Science Commission member Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Sikkim-born director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Sacred Earth program Dekila Chungyalpa, acclaimed biologist and author Janine Benyus, the “Story of Stuff” Annie Leonard, and “Queen of the Forest Canopy” Nalini Nadkarni, along with a host of other brilliant and innovative thinkers and doers who offered solutions to today’s most challenging issues.
Content from the National Bioneers Conference is recorded and produced in award-winning multi-media presentations. The public radio series The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature, the Bioneers Essentials series airing on Link TV and Free Speech TV, and the Bioneers Indigenous Forum are just some examples of Bioneers Media products available for personal and formal education. Below are some of the same sentiments from a previous Bioneers conference.