Incorporating Indigenous Rights and Perspectives

“It is not the institutions that define the work we do… it is our relationships.” — Tim Bull Bennett

When considering what topic to follow through the chaos of COP19, and feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the acronym soup, I retreated to a topic I know: advocating for incorporation and respect for Indigenous perspectives, drawing on my six years of work with the Onondaga Nation. The Onondaga Nation (one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy) has been involved in advocating for indigenous rights at an international level with the United Nations since 1977, and was instrumental in the creation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.

Dan Wildcat, Oren Lyons, and Lindsay Speer

Dan Wildcat, Oren Lyons, and Lindsay Speer

My initial thought was to track how indigenous rights, as embodied in the Declaration, were being considered, incorporated, or ignored by the UNFCCC. REDD and REDD+ have been of particular concern to indigenous peoples, and it seemed important to watch the negotiations carefully and critically.

The Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group meeting at Dartmouth College on November 4th and 5th reminded me that the indigenous stance is not only protective; it is equally proactive. Just as indigenous peoples will feel the brunt of climate change, as land is lost to the sea and plant and animal populations shift, they also have many of the answers. Their stories, songs, and oral histories contain baseline data about the state of the environment. So many of their communities have already experienced relocation during the 1800s; they have significant lessons to share about cultural harms of relocation and strategies for cultural resiliency.

Corn, beans, and squashThe meeting spent a good portion of the first day discussing traditional ecological knowledges (TEK – and the “s” is not a typo; rather, it is a deliberate nod to the diversity of kinds and ways of knowing), their applicability to climate change, as well as the importance of ensuring that the knowledge is not just another thing taken, misunderstood, and misused by the dominant culture.

Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomi, professor, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, presented a possible structure for good relationship between TEK and traditional western science. She used the metaphor of the Three Sisters, a traditional companion planting methodology of corn, beans, and squash used by the Haudenosaunee. The corn is planted first, providing the structure for the beans to grow up, and the squash shades the ground and suppresses the weeds. Traditional ecological knowledges are the corn; western science is the beans. Without TEK, western science just grows itself into a tangle all over the place. But if western science can look to TEK to point the way, it can grow up into the light in an orderly way, and find the solutions we need. The squash is ethics, and we all are the gardeners.

What would the negotiations look like if the UNFCCC were to think in this way?