background image

Colonialism to climate crisis: indigenous wisdom to the fore

author image

By Praveen Gupta

· 7 min read

“Much, if not most, of humanity today lives as colonialists once did - viewing the Earth as though it were an inert entity that exists primarily to be exploited and profited from, with the aid of technology and science, Yet even the sciences are now struggling to keep pace with the hidden forces that are manifesting themselves in climate events of unprecedented and uncanny violence”. I draw this and a lot more from noted author Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Nutmeg’s curse’.

Such is the power of indigenous practices, wherever they are, that we ought to look at them seriously. Their faith and customs emanate from the deep and longstanding intimacy with Nature. The following Ojibway prayer, for instance, diagnoses the malady and prescribes the healing of natural forces unleashed by our irreverent actions:


Look at our brokenness.

We know that in all creation

Only the human family

Has strayed from the sacred way.

We know that we are the ones

Who are divided

And we are the ones

Who must come back together

To walk in the sacred way


Sacred one,

Teach us love, compassion, honor

That we may heal the earth

And heal each other”.

Amitav Ghosh provides a brilliant context to the colonization of the Americas and thereby the colonization of its indigenous people. He explains: “What makes the European colonization of the Americas distinctive, however, is the sheer scale and the rapidity of environmental transformation that accompanied it, radically altering more than a quarter of the Earth’s land surface in a few hundred years. That these transformations may even have contributed to planet-wide climatic disruptions suggests something of the scale and speed at which changes occurred”. I seek hope and wisdom from some news stories on Indigenous communities in North America.

Spiritual beliefs of indigenous peoples

As Shari Narine reported, “The Supreme Court of Canada has recently refused to hear an appeal of a 2017 British Columbia (BC) government decision that turned down an application to allow a small-scale hydroelectric generation plant to operate on a creek that has spiritual significance for the Cheam First Nation… However, both the BC Supreme Court in its 2020 decision and the BC Court of Appeal in its 2022 decision held that the director was not evaluating religious dogma but was recognizing the Cheam’s spiritual beliefs and practices “as worthy of protection as part of the mandate process of reconciliation.””

Tim Dickson who as former legal counsel for Cheam First Nation points out that the decision may be reflective of a “growing social awareness of the importance of protecting Aboriginal rights and respecting Indigenous people’s values and concerns.” However, Dickson believes that Indigenous peoples’ spiritual practices are still at risk of interference by other land uses that government may approve”.

Amitav informs about the situation in the neighbouring USA: “Thus in 1883, in a country where freedom of religion was a foundational creed, the US Department of the Interior instituted a Code of Indian offences that essentially banned the practice of native religions. Not till the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in 1978, were native beliefs legalized”.

The ancient cedar trees

For BBC News, Eloise Alanna writes:

“Nootka island is bountiful in natural resources. It is abundant in fish and covered in dense ancient forests. It is home to highly sought-after old-growth red cedar trees that can live for over 1,000 years. Red cedars can grow to become giants in the forest, and have a distinctive cinnamon red bark. The largest in BC soars 56 metres (183 feet) towards the sky on a trunk base that is six metres wide (19 feet). These ancient trees were among the most unusual pieces of evidence the Nuchatlaht have presented to prove that their people continuously lived on the claim area on Nootka Island.”

“[This] small indigenous community is fighting a historic land rights claim in Canada - and they are using ancient trees and famed British explorer Captain Cook's journal to help make their case… [The Nuchatlaht case] is being watched for its potential impact on indigenous land claims in Canada and what it means for the provincial government's commitment to reconciliation.

As one expert put it, the decision could be "the first tile in the Aboriginal rights game of dominos". And to help win their case, the Nachatlaht are using a unique piece of evidence that they say is not only a part of their cultural heritage, but also an important living artefact that must be cared for to restore a damaged land.”

To win, one of the things the Nuchatlaht must prove is that they continuously and exclusively occupied the land in 1846, when Britain gained sovereignty over what is now BC in a treaty signed with the United States.”

They are raring to help heal the earth and want to show that they can own and manage better.

Paradigm shifts

Drawing from Carl Smith’s story in Governing: Native people including the Indigenous Paiute have “been living in California’s Owens Valley since time immemorial when the first permanent settler arrived in 1860. …The need for smarter approaches to natural resource management and climate mitigation has never been greater, and many in government believe that Indigenous stewardship practices deserve a bigger place in their plans.”

“L'eaux Stewart, the chair of the tribal council for the Big Pine Paiute tribe in Owens Valley, recently had an opportunity to contribute to an assessment of climate change impacts by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). …The 2022 Indicators of Climate Change in California report, published in November, is OEHHA’s first effort to tell the state’s “climate change story” with input from more than 40 California tribes.”

“It’s a standard practice in Indigenous cultures to recognize that all around us are relatives - some are human, some are other species or other forms,” says Shawn Lum, administrator of the Eastern California Museum. “Stewardship involves consideration of these relationships and the connections between a landscape and those who are making it their home”.

For Grist, Carly Graf covered a unique case, "The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) live among some of the most spectacular landscapes in the USA. Their home, the Flathead Reservation, covers 1.2 million acres dotted with soaring mountains, sweeping valleys, and lush forests. Flathead River bisects the land and drains into Flathead Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River.”

Indigenous communities tend to be “excluded from any discussion on how best to mitigate the impacts of climate change - even as they bear a disproportionate share of them. The CSKT are a notable exception. They have, since 2013, written and twice revised a comprehensive strategy to manage and protect their lands. One that draws heavily from an unwavering belief that the land, its ecosystems, and its people are intrinsically interdependent. The CSKT Climate Change Strategic Plan, and how it came together, provides a model of how community engagement, making it as easy as possible for people to participate, and respect for diverse perspectives and experiences can help with the changes wrought by a warming world.”

Settlers versus natives

The modern conception of matter as inert - or “as an inanimate object of inquiry” - emerged out of several intersecting processes of violence: between Catholics and Protestants; between various Protestant sects; between elite European men and poor women; and perhaps most significantly between European colonizers and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, many of whom believed that earthly forces and material entities of all kinds had innate powers and agency; explains Amitav Ghosh. The struggle over these diametrically opposed views was a metaphysical conflict that mirrored the violence of the terrestrial wars that were then being fought between settlers and natives. The aim at eradicating “the belief that spirit existed in all matter” thus came to be seen as “a final stage of English conquest - over nature, and over those who had improper views of nature.”

Way forward?

Are we ready to reconcile with the larger reality - the central role of Nature, thereby restrain the extractive urge and think of the generations ahead? Chief Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, tells us how his people think seven generations ahead when making decisions: “In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours - and hopefully better, When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them”.

“Would that we consider those unborn generations as we trample our forests and pollute our skies in the name of progress and our present-day entitlement”? Asks Wayne Dyer.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of his work.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)