'We Are Nations:' What Environmental Justice Looks Like For Indigenous People

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Climate reporting often overlooks indigenous peoples’ position on the front lines of the climate crisis. Though environmental justice is a term now featured frequently in environmental news, this hasn’t always translated into an acknowledgement of the climate crisis’ disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities, or a recognition of decades spent fighting against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and other environmental injustices. What would a reconceptualization of environmental justice that centered indigenous perspectives look like?

In her book As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock, indigenous scholar and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker confronts the ways in which understandings of environmental justice often fail to take into account the unique experiences of indigenous communities in the U.S.

“Indigenous peoples’ pursuit of environmental justice,” Gilio-Whitaker writes, “requires the use of a different lens, one with a scope that can accommodate the full weight of history of settler colonialism, on one hand, and embrace differences in the ways Indigenous peoples view land and nature, on the other.”

As she makes the case for the necessity of an indigenous approach to environmental justice, Gilio-Whitaker traces the long history of environmental injustice via land dispossession, treaty violations, Supreme Court rulings, the desecration of sacred sites, pollution, and more. But As Long As Grass Grows is also a history of indigenous resistance, continually foregrounding the stories of the communities that have fought against colonization since its inception. The book provides both a necessary reckoning with the realities of settler colonialism and illustrations of the possible futures of climate activism.

In an interview with Earther, Gilio-Whitaker discusses the significance of indigenous sovereignty to environmental justice and how protecting indigenous land rights could transform the climate movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Boffa, Earther: Indigenous sovereignty is a focus in the book. You note that “the origin of environmental injustice for indigenous peoples is dispossession of land in all its forms,” and that settler colonialism really began as a form of environmental injustice. What does sovereignty mean here, and how does it relate to environmental justice?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker: The way sovereignty is understood, to whatever degree it’s understood in the popular discourse, is about governance, self-determination. The world is organized into countries, but they are really organized as states, and this implies a strictly political understanding of things.

But for Native people, sovereignty is deeply connected to land. It is in every context, but in terms of state sovereignty, of course, the way that that land has been acquired is through these profoundly violent processes over hundreds of years because of ideas about indigenous inferiority and indigenous people being undeserving of the land, regardless of the fact that they’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years.

Sovereignty is about the ability to be self-governing in your own territories, in your own land. The problem is those land boundaries have been altered dramatically over centuries. So sovereignty is also about resisting the colonial realities that have alienated Native people from their traditional lands and territories. For us, when we talk about sovereignty, we’re talking about protecting our reservation boundaries, for sure. But it’s also about getting land back. Considering that 48 percent of all the land in the Western United States is public lands, you can give some land back.

But environmental justice is about way more than the distribution of environmental risk. Because for us, environmental harm begins with genocide as a method to push people off land. In terms of defining environmental justice, we have to start from the beginning, as you don’t have justice without injustice first. Environmental injustice for Native people is about being forcibly cut off from their source of life sustenance. Native people are inseparable from their lands in terms of their cultures and their identities, but it’s the land that gives life, so when you remove or disrupt that connection, it results in a figurative and literal death. And that’s what’s happened. If you just look at population numbers beginning in 1492, a reasonable assumption of a population of 10 to potentially 18 million people, within four centuries, is down to 250,000. So, it’s an over-95 percent population decline, and it’s not all due to germs. Reducing it down to numbers paints a picture of what all that war, all that dispossession, all that aggression and violence has resulted in.

Earther: One major issue you highlight is that “environmental justice” as a term doesn’t always clarify as much as it obscures, perhaps unintentionally, by relegating a wide range of experiences to one conception of injustice. But different communities face very different challenges with regard to environmental injustice.

Gilio-Whitaker: Right. The understanding of environmental injustice from a broad perspective collapses all groups—what we call environmental justice communities—into one monolithic group, under the umbrella term ethnic minorities. And that’s a loaded term. It’s a loaded concept for Indian people because we are not an ethnic minority. We are nations. We are people with political relationships to the state and ancient connections to land. So, understanding environmental injustice as just the disproportionate exposure to environmental harms evades a lot.

Earther: We’re currently in a moment in which a lot of progressive political proposals focus on economic and social transformation through major infrastructure and development programs; in the case of something like the Green New Deal, these proposals draw direct parallels to initiatives like the Public Works Administration or the New Deal. How can indigenous sovereignty be respected while pursuing these kinds of public works projects?

Gilio-Whitaker: I think that we can first acknowledge that the legal structure that shapes Native life and Native relationship to the state is different than it was in the 1930s. We have an entire body of law and a policy framework that have been built over almost a century that are about tribal self-determination. So, these are legal questions, and you can’t have a discussion about public works and infrastructure without engaging tribal sovereignty.

We have this conflict between the concepts of consultation and consent. The federal government is required by law to consult with tribes on development projects that impact treaty lands or that involve Native lands at all. This is what Standing Rock was all about. Standing Rock started out as a lack of what they call meaningful consultation. But the concept of consultation is hugely problematic because, from a federal definition, it could mean as much as extensive face-to-face meetings and actual dialogue with tribes to [as little as] a letter getting sent. So, there’s not a good understanding or definition of what consultation even means.

Consent, on the other hand, is something that the federal government, in theory, agreed to when it endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But the thing with consent is that it implies veto power. It implies that tribes have the ability to say no, and then the federal government is obligated to respect that. But in a hegemonic relationship, that’s not going to happen. When President Obama endorsed the Declaration, he did it with a 15-page document full of disclaimers that essentially watered down the Declaration to an understanding that complies with domestic law, and that’s not what the Declaration was intended for. But I don’t think they misconstrued the concept of free, prior and informed consent, so that’s something that is an international standard and has to be respected.

The way that the 14-page Green New Deal resolution was worded, that was the thing that they really got right, as I wrote about for High Country News. They centered free consent, so they get a lot of credit for that.

Earther: There’s a focus at the moment on a sort of technologist approach to climate change. It’s an ambitious approach, but it’s very much about developing technologies that will provide solutions to or relief from the impacts of climate change. These technologies may not exist yet, but there’s an expectation that if there are solutions to the climate crisis, they will be found somewhere within the realm of new technology.

But you point to these indigenous knowledge systems that have existed for many generations that can inform action and policy around public health and agriculture and sustainability but have often been dismissed or ignored. Because the technological approach to climate change is still the dominant framework.

Gilio-Whitaker: And the problem is that these frameworks still assume the superior knowledge of Western Europeans. That’s what still constructs our social realities in this country. White supremacy means a lot of different things. It doesn’t just mean violent racism against people of color. It means way more than that. It presumes the superior way of understanding the world, through the word “science,” which is charged with meaning. When we Native people use the word science, we mean something different. It’s similar, but it’s based on different assumptions and understandings. “Science” simply means the accumulation of knowledge, and we do that in much the same ways. Knowledge, how you understand the world, is based on observation and interaction with the world. And that’s what Native people have been doing for thousands of years.

Earther: Toward the end of the book, you look at the relationship of the climate movement to indigenous sovereignty, and you see real possibility: “In the face of an intensifying climate change crisis, relentless land development, and ongoing consolidation of power in the fossil fuel industry, it may well be that organizing around Native land rights holds the key to successfully transitioning from a fossil-fuel energy infrastructure to one based on sustainable energy.”

Gilio-Whitaker: Well, I’m not the first one to say that, by any means. I’m following the claims of other Native leaders and activists and scholars who agree, and the reason is because, for as much as the legal structure is based on dispossession and injustice, there are elements of it that do impart a measure of protection. But Native lands are held in trust. The title is owned by the federal government—we don’t own our own lands. People don’t realize this is a problem. They’re our lands, but the federal government owns them and gives us the right to live on them, and there are certain legal protections that come with that.

At Standing Rock, for example, had there been meaningful consultation and proper environmental impact statements done, we would have had a completely different outcome, I think. The reason the Dakota Access Pipeline went through unceded treaty lands of the Standing Rock Sioux was because it got rerouted away from a white community. So, had the legal system actually worked the way it was supposed to, Standing Rock would never have happened. That pipeline would have had to have gone somewhere else, and if white people didn’t want it going through their communities, compromising their water, maybe it would not have happened at all. We can only speculate, and maybe that’s wrong. But there would have been more resistance to it from populations beyond Indian Country. So, it really is about sovereignty and about how indigenous land stewardship has knowledge that can protect environments, if there’s political will to abide by it.

We still have the problem of the Supreme Court that’s stuck in a 19th-century ideology, and the Doctrine of Discovery, and all these fucked up legal doctrines that construct our legal reality. The system is a colonial system, a hegemonic system based on Indian land dispossession and Indian inferiority. It’s the structure that’s the problem. So, how can that be changed? I think that we need to dismantle federal Indian law and go back to the treaty relationship. And that’s what a lot of Native people have been saying for a long time. But that doesn’t seem to be in the public discourse, even in Indian Country.

Earther: You also address stereotypes that appear in representations of indigenous peoples in American culture. One of these is the “vanishing Indian” trope, which became popular in the 1800s as white Americans started acknowledging the decimation of indigenous populations. It was now acceptable to “pity the ‘plight’ of the Indian, who was disappearing into the mists of time.” But you state that this trope really indicates what you call “a collective inability to perceive Native people as survivors – as peoples with viable, living cultures that although altered and adapted to modern circumstances are nonetheless authentic and vibrant.”

Gilio-Whitaker: Yeah, and it always implies a certain authenticity and purity. That’s what anthropology was based on, preserving the pure Indians and the pure cultures while they still exist, because now that they’re becoming acculturated to modern life, they’re no longer who they really are. And it’s such a mischaracterization of who Native people really are. Native people have always blended and adapted to new circumstances and new people. We’ve always had relationships and have been influenced by each other, we have always borrowed and adapted to other people in ways that made sense to us. For us, the ways that made sense to adapt to a dominating and invading Western European population in order to stay alive...that’s what you do. Certainly it changes societies, it changes cultures, but it doesn’t mean that we lose the core of who we are. We still have our languages that construct our worldviews. We still have our stories. We still know who we are. In some ways, we’ve just expanded who we are. We’re people who live with new kinds of ways of being in the world. And sometimes our ways of being in the world are contributing to the crisis, to the catastrophic scenarios that we’re in.

This is about how Native people are just humans. We’re just people. We’re not bloodthirsty savages and we’re also not the saviors of the world, the ultimate environmentalists, which is the other side of that coin: the ecological Indian stereotype, where we’re the mystical warriors that have all of this knowledge that the world needs.

What I’m astounded by is that our disappearance, our demise, is so normalized in the United States. When you think in terms of genocide, that should shock people, but people are so numb to it because it’s so normalized. It’s like being out of touch with their own humanity. That’s what settler colonialism does, it diminishes everyone’s humanity. What it took to create the United States was a denial of your own humanity on such a grand scale that it just became woven into the American legal structure, the Constitution, everything – everything was built on it. So, how do you jolt people into that realization that this has never been about democracy? We talk about [the U.S. as] the “experiment in democracy.” Well, I’d like to see it.

Adam Boffa is a writer and musician from New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter.