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Interview: Indigenous Communities on Climate Change

Kathryn Walkiewicz, Assistant Professor of English Literature and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and her MA in English from the University of New Mexico. Her research and teaching interests include Native American and Indigenous studies, early U.S. literature and culture, and more. In this interview, she discusses the effects of climate change on Indigenous communities and how literature and the arts can work to combat it.

Art by Sophia Hidalgo

In our Indigenous Literature class you mentioned living near the Cherokee Nation; could you speak about the effects of climate change you may have seen in Indigenous communities you’ve been in?

One of the concerning things that has been prominently visible is the impact of fracking where I’m from in Oklahoma. They really started to actively frack twenty years or so, with a long-standing oil and natural gas industry already present. Since fracking, the number of earthquakes has exponentially increased. There have also been significant impacts of chicken farming on the land as well. Someone who could speak even better on this than me would be Rebecca Nagel on her podcast This Land which is about the McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court decision that affirmed reservation land. Additionally, in New Mexico, because of the impacts of uranium mining and the atomic experiments, cancer rates have gone up in the area, as well as other health issues. What I’m always just reminded of, as protectors of the land, Indigenous communities know how to tend to the land and remain in good relation with it.

Growing up in communities that are white-dominated prevents Indigenous narratives to take the forefront. What’s been done to make these stories more known?

Social media has amplified some of the Indigenous organizing that’s been happening. In class we talked a little about how the NoDAPL, Mauna Kea, and Wet'suwet'en protests gained a following. There’s a way social media has allowed a greater access to these stories. One of the violences of colonization is to affirm the absence and minimize those stories because it doesn’t benefit colonialism. It’s really interesting to see how social media has disrupted that.

How has the lack of inclusion of Indigenous voices negatively impacted their communities?

If we think of the systemic devaluation of Indigenous knowledge, you’re not asking Indigenous elders and storykeepers how they have known how to be in good relation with the land. It’s not only thoughtless and hubristic, but it’s also not acknowledging valuable intellectual contributions that could be made. It’s the ongoing colonial assumption that colonizers know better, and that Indigenous people are somehow behind and “pre-science,” in a way that they need help. Seeing these Indigenous leaders go against this makes me think of the recent nomination of Deb Haaland to the Department of Interior. If you follow the types of questions she was asked, there were almost no questions about tribal relations, instead all kinds of questions about how she's going to advocate for oil and natural gas companies. You can see the power of Indigenous women and Indigenous point of views, but also the threat it poses to these capitalist, extractive policies.

Do you think making their voices heard will prompt any significant changes from the government’s treatment? How do we ensure these movements have long-term impacts?

It has clearly been very slow, but if we think about how many years Indigenous people have fought colonization, there’s power in what we’ve accomplished. In terms of gaining momentum, the other challenge is the uphill battle of this structural lack of understanding of Indigenous communities. That’s where the tension is; how do we go up against these giant multinational corporations that have invested interest in this extractive politics? My concern is their desire to have us feel defeated and separate from each other–we want to push against that. Just last month there was a revived call to get President Biden to cancel the Dakota Access Pipeline because of its illegality. On the McGirt decision, never in my lifetime did I think I was going to see the return of reservation lands where I’m from.

Is there anything we can learn from Indigenous communities in the way they govern their land that could help restructure our current government’s lack of focus on climate change?

One person I keep returning to is Leanne Simpson, and what she has said along these lines. In her book As We Have Always Done, she talks about the logistics of these extractive capitalist politics and how to push against that. She says, “I see the dismantling of global capitalism as inseparable from the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and nationhood because capitalism at its core is not just incompatible with core Indigenous values but has to violently shred the bodies who house those values in order to sustain itself.” For many Indigenous communities, there is a different understanding for what it means to be in community. There is not as much emphasis on a singular autonomous individual, but rather how to maintain a responsibility to your human and nonhuman relatives. That’s a very contrasting worldview in comparison to the United States. There isn’t this hierarchy that we see amplified by capitalism, with humans on the top and the planet on the bottom. One of the big things that the US government really wanted to push against, through allotment and attempts to erode Indigenous sovereignty, was communal landholding. The push to have everyone be private-propertied citizens was an effort to break from the more community-based understanding.

Could you talk more about the Water Protectors you mentioned earlier and how the exploitation of water affects our land?

It has been an issue for BIPOC and low-income communities especially, and we see this when we talk about environmental racism. Often the places that are seen as less valuable land are BIPOC communities. The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally supposed to go through Bismark, a predominantly white town, but it was changed to go through the Standing Rock reservation. This is why the Water Protectors do what they do out of a sense of necessity, but also obligation. At Standing Rock they call themselves Water Protectors rather than protestors, shifting the dynamic to show it's not pushing against something, it’s protecting something. There are many examples of fighting this deregulation of water that use grassroot organizations and Indigenous sovereignty by refusing to allow things that can cause harm to occur on tribal lands. That’s one of the things that NoDAPL and Wet'suwet'en were arguing: you cannot destroy our water without our consent. The federal governments in the United States and Canada are not so keen on that, so really trying to use a multi-pronged approach will make a difference.

How can literature and arts elicit a large public response towards climate change?

There is power in story. At least for me, when I try to think of climate change, it’s so unbelievably overwhelming that it’s easy to just turn away. I do think there is something very formidable about sitting with a piece of art. Literature can force us to have to reflect on something and ourselves for a sustained period of time. It makes me think of Jeff Barnaby, a Mi'kmaq director, who directed Blood Quantum, a zombie post-apocalyptic movie in which Indigenous people are immune to a disease and white people are not. The first to get sick are the animals in the community, which the director put as a critique of how we’re dealing with climate change. The argument he stated for why he made a horror movie is because it makes the issue more palatable to people who may not want to hear the message. You use a genre that feels familiar and wrap your message in that to get people to sit with things that may be challenging. This isn’t to say science is not important, but sometimes a story can make data feel more real. Whether it's fictional or true, to hear a story and imagine someone’s experiences, it personalizes it. There’s something about the intimacy of a story that makes you complicit in that narrative; you can’t say you never heard it if someone is sharing it with you.

Do you think it has the potential to convince climate deniers to see the truth about climate change, or can it contribute to the denial making people see it as fiction rather than speculative fiction?

I think there’s never going to be a perfect solution, there’s always people that are going to dismiss things. The thing I understand most from all kinds of knowledge-holders, be they non-Indigenous scientists to politicians, is we have to change our relationship with each other and the nonhuman world, and dystopian novels can help us think about how to do that. My sense, as a total outsider, I’m not a scientist, is that part of the issue is the lack of imagination and creativity of what our lives could look like. Not the actual things we can put in place scientifically, I’ll leave that to the scientists, but being able to imagine ways to be with each other in this type of world. Fear is such a powerful emotion, and I wonder how much of that is part of the resistance to acknowledge climate change. What would my life look like if it wasn’t like this? I think literature can open that up, and we see many examples of how literature inspired scientific innovation and discovery. It could be a really beautiful relationship. Take for example, the works of Octavia Butler, who was a Black speculative writer, have been viewed as a philosophy that sees a world that takes climate change seriously. Dystopian novels can take some of that anxiety off when you look at how we could work through this challenge. To imagine otherwise and differently is something literature can do well.

How could literature by BIPOC authors aid to combat climate change?

I do think that one of the things that’s so powerful about literature is that you have to sit with characters that are unlike you. Reading Indigenous speculative fiction demands the reader to engage with an Indigenous world and history that can often run counter to colonial history. In the United States there’s a discomfort in facing that. There’s one example relating back to where I’m from and the oil industry established there. Recent history books have talked about the murder of Osage women and children when oil was found on Osage land. It was mostly white men who wanted access to that oil money, and it’s important for these books to show that it has created violence. In general, literature from queer and BIPOC communities has the power to insist climate change doesn’t happen outside these social dynamics.

How do we promote having more diverse reading lists in schools and in general? Do you think this power dynamic created by our society has discouraged BIPOC from pursuing arts and science?

It requires accountability at multiple levels. There’s a big issue with what is available and marketed, but that has changed in the last couple of years with speculative fiction especially. It also requires us taking into consideration what we chose to show as important. School systems across the country see this as a threat to the status quo. To me, that signals that there is power in the stories BIPOC have. People in power only prevent people from reading things if there's content of value in it. There has been an increased number of readers of Indigenous literature recently. Considering when I was younger, it seemed like there were only five or six Indigenous authors that were published by big mainstream presses to get their work out. When there isn’t that representation, it is hard to imagine ourselves there. When we see these white-dominant spaces, it poses the question: is the way we do things inherently exclusionary? One thing I would push is that in these interdisciplinary academic spaces, all of this is connected. The understanding is that we are all needed: all fields and racial backgrounds.

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Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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