Aaron Mike and Len Necefer fishing along the Yukon River in central Alaska with the help of their northern Athabaskan relatives. (Photo: Greg Balkin)

Paying Lip Service to Indigenous Knowledge Won’t Fix Climate Change

Native scholar weighs in on the United Nations’ suggestion that Indigenous knowledge might help us survive the climate disaster


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One summer afternoon when I was seven or eight years old, I went for a hike with my grandfather and uncle in the Chuska Mountains of Navajo Nation to search for medicinal plants for traditional healing ceremonies. When we stopped on a ridge, to look at the vast, red desert below, my grandfather turned to me and spoke in Navajo. My uncle translated to English, “He said, ‘This is your first classroom; don’t ever forget that.’” 

For the next two decades, I pursued a western education within a system that, just a generation before, had been used as a tool of assimilation and oppression against my people. I recognized from an early age that titles like Dr. and PhD held a lot of power in shaping our natural world. I also understood, from that moment atop the ridge, that having a deep knowledge of the land was an important piece of my own learning. As I pursed higher education, I wove together two threads: science and engineering and a Navajo knowledge of the natural world. My doctoral research focused on how Indigenous cultural values could be incorporated into technical decision making on energy and environmental policy. During most of my educational journey, the knowledge that I brought from my Navajo heritage was often belittled and treated as inferior by the western academic worldview. But seeing firsthand the impacts of climate change in my own community motivated me to continue my eduction and graduate. 

Once every few years since graduating I’ve read the report issued by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This year, though, for the first time there was an entire chapter dedicated to the value and importance of Indigenous knowledge in addressing global climate; not just a passing reference, as I’d seen in the past. The chapter correctly called out centuries of colonialism as a central culprit in our current global ecological mess. The authors of the report acknowledged that “Indigenous knowledge can be a unique source for techniques for adaptation,” and “is an important source of guidance for biodiversity conservation, impact assessment, governance, disaster preparedness, and resilience.” Given my many years fighting for this sort of acknowledgment of Indigenous ways of knowing, it did feel like a small win. But I am still not convinced that Indigenous peoples will benefit from it.

In the past few years, I’ve become skeptical that academia and institutions like the IPCC will truly embrace Indigenous peoples, much less the knowledge that we carry about the natural world. I left a tenured professor track role because of the inability of academia and western institutions to meaningfully incorporate Indigenous knowledge. Within academia, Indigenous knowledge is largely only valued when it confirms the conclusions of western science. When it conflicts or disagrees with western science it is often discarded or ignored.

The Indigenous knowledge that’s accepted by academics is often published in peer reviewed journals, which might as well lock this information in a vault for the communities providing the information. It is largely written in inaccessible academic jargon and hidden behind expensive paywalls. I know because I’ve published a number of open access journal articles and sent thousands of dollars to publishers to make perspectives from my own community accessible.

These are just pretty words on a piece of paper. They don’t mean much without action.

Indigenous knowledge tends to be localized and holistic, while western science’s approach is highly specialized, and seeks universal truths. In many respects these different orientations can make threading these knowledge systems together fundamentally impossible. It’s not surprising that the global focus on reducing carbon emissions has been characterized by some academics as “carbon tunnel vision.” Responses to climate change tend to neglect the other elements of this equation, like addressing biodiversity challenges, environmental toxicity, and the broader socio-political and cultural changes needed to make solutions feasible. The most recent IPCC report acknowledges that Indigenous knowledge systems could help provide the critical framework to bridge these interconnected challenges. But using the phrase of Kimaren ole Riamit, a Maasai scholar, these are just “pretty words” on a piece of paper. They don’t mean much without action. 

The trust needed to meaningfully incorporate Indigenous knowledge into policy doesn’t exist. Building equal relationships on the heels of hundred years of colonization is not a quick process, and time is running out. It will take longer to implement a fully justice-informed approach to the climate crisis than the time we have to address the worst impacts of climate change. We have already crossed thresholds of irreversible impacts for some Indigenous people. I have seen how the warming of the Arctic has permanently displaced entire villages and disrupted thousands of years of cultural traditions and ways of knowing. In my home community, I have witnessed large swaths of rangeland turn to sand dunes and medicinal plants I once collected move to higher latitudes and elevations due to warming temperatures and two decades of drought.

A decade ago, these solutions had been categorized emergency measures. But each year that we fail to address carbon emissions at a meaningful scale, they become closer to reality.

Take, for example, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s list of minerals critical to economic and national security, which it released in February. One fundamental piece of a transition to a lower carbon economy globally will mean a greater level of mining for these critical minerals and increased pressures to develop supply chains within the United States and globally. The list includes familiar materials like lithium, which the U.S. imports 50 percent of its supply from abroad. But other materials on the list are less familiar: Tin, which we import 75 percent of, is used for electronic soldering. Cobalt, 76 percent of which the U.S. must import, is used in rechargeable batteries. Gallium and manganese, which both have 100 percent reliance on imports, are used in electronic circuits and batteries, respectively. In fact, the U.S. is a net exporter of only one of these minerals: hafnium, which is used in nuclear control rods and alloying of metals. We don’t have to look far to see the impacts on Indigenous communities: uranium mining on the Navajo Nation in the name of national security during the Cold War, proposed copper mines within Oak Flat and Boundary Waters, lithium mining in Bolivia and northern Chile, gold and silver mining impacting indigenous communities in northern Mexico, and the current cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another example is geoengineering, which the Brookings Institute defines as, “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth’s climate in an attempt to counteract global warming.” Since marginalized communities are often impacted by large-scale events, it’s unfortunate that they are not being brought into discussions on how best to employ the new technology.

Two examples of large-scale geoengineering approaches include ideas such as introducing large amounts of chemicals into the ocean to reduce acidification and releasing aerosols into the high atmosphere to reflect heat from the sun back into the atmosphere. A decade ago, these solutions had been categorized emergency measures. But each year that we fail to address carbon emissions at a meaningful scale, they become closer to reality.

These technologies are not a panacea, and the scale and breadth of unintended consequences of them deployed at a global scale is not fully known. The seriousness in the discussion about using these approaches will only increase in years to come. As we have seen in the past, the large brunt of the negative consequences of these technologies will fall on marginalized communities who cannot afford to mitigate the impacts or are not in a political position to have a meaningful influence on policy to advocate for their positions. 

If it’s not obvious already, I’m a fun addition to any dinner party discussion on climate change. My position may reek of nihilism, but I have reached peace with the belief that the best way forward in addressing Indigenous justice on a global scale is averting the worst impacts of climate change. In terms of policy, we should aim to address colonial history of marginalization and dispossession, but this may not be possible given the time constraints placed on our decisions by the urgency needed to address climate change. We must also accept that the solutions that we choose will continue to fall into the colonial ruts of the history we inherit, even if there will be wins for Indigenous people along the way. To have our ways of knowing acknowledged as valuable to addressing global problems is one of those wins, and we must celebrate it—but it’s not enough to meaningfully address climate change or correct past injustices.

Lead Photo: Greg Balkin