F*ck Columbus: Let’s Honor the Indigenous Communities Leading the Way on Climate Justice

As the legacy of colonialism destroys our environment, Indigenous Peoples are at the forefront of fighting back.

Jade Begay October 8, 2018

(Photo courtesy of Joey Montoya, Indigenous Rising Media)

When Christo­pher Colum­bus land­ed on Tur­tle Island, which we now call North Amer­i­ca, he brought with him a goal of mak­ing prof­it — of tak­ing from the land and peo­ple to cre­ate com­merce. Today, approx­i­mate­ly 526 years lat­er, that same pil­lag­ing con­tin­ues to dri­ve our plan­et fur­ther into the cli­mate cri­sis and lead us into eco­log­i­cal col­lapse. Instead of hon­or­ing the vio­lent col­o­niza­tion Colum­bus rep­re­sents, we should use this day to call for truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion — and hon­or the Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties at the fore­front of efforts to heal the long-last­ing envi­ron­men­tal harm Colum­bus and his ilk have wrought.

Climate change is just another symptom of colonization.

Set­tler colo­nial­ism has exac­er­bat­ed cli­mate change and made Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties sac­ri­fice zones to this cri­sis. As we hon­or the truth of how this coun­try was found­ed and con­tin­ues to exploit Indige­nous lands and ter­ri­to­ries, we must also rec­og­nize that cli­mate change dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impacts the Indige­nous and Native peo­ples who are least respon­si­ble for this crisis.

Cli­mate change is just anoth­er symp­tom of col­o­niza­tion. First, our lands were stolen from us or we were forcibly moved from our orig­i­nal ter­ri­to­ries and placed into reser­va­tions. Then, those stolen lands were turned into tox­ic places for resource extrac­tion. In Nava­jo Nation, you have ura­ni­um min­ing and coal plants that con­tin­ue to cause dis­ease. In Okla­homa, near Pon­ca ter­ri­to­ry, you have frack­ing that has dis­turbed the earth so deeply that earth­quakes are hap­pen­ing more often and stronger. In Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton, home to dozens of tribes, dams have destroyed salmon runs to the point that salmon no longer exist in rivers. So, beyond destroy­ing the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance of these places, these projects and indus­tries also pol­lute and emit car­bon into the atmos­phere, there­fore con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change. Not only are Indige­nous Peo­ples bear­ing the brunt of cli­mate change, but it’s through the col­o­niza­tion of our lands and of our peo­ple that cli­mate change is being exacerbated

We have to rec­og­nize that restor­ing rela­tion­ships between non-native and native peo­ples goes beyond just replac­ing the name of a day on the cal­en­dar: It means real­ly acknowl­edg­ing how col­o­niza­tion has and con­tin­ues to impact native and indige­nous peo­ples, espe­cial­ly when it comes to cli­mate change. And it requires acknowl­edg­ing that Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties are pro­mot­ing and cre­at­ing the most inno­v­a­tive and the most effi­cient solu­tions to the cli­mate and eco­log­i­cal cri­sis we are in.

At this time, gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions are look­ing to the car­bon mar­ket sys­tem as the best solu­tion to cli­mate change, so they are cre­at­ing mech­a­nisms such as car­bon pric­ing, car­bon trad­ing, car­bon tax­es and REDD+. How­ev­er, these false solu­tions only allow big pol­luters to con­tin­ue to extract and pol­lute by buy­ing cred­its to become car­bon neutral.”

This past Sep­tem­ber, Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown host­ed the Glob­al Cli­mate Action Sum­mit, where he and his Gov­er­nors’ Cli­mate and Forests Task Force pro­mot­ed these car­bon mar­ket sys­tems. In response, Indige­nous Peo­ples from across the world also con­vened in San Fran­cis­co for the Sol­i­dar­i­ty to Solu­tions Week of Action, to demand an end to cli­mate cap­i­tal­ism — and an invest­ment in real solu­tions, start­ing with keep­ing oil in the ground.

To con­tin­ue the momen­tum that was start­ed to resist these false solu­tions, the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work, where I work, and its allies from across the world have launched the #SkyPro­tec­tor cam­paign. Just as there are #Water­Pro­tec­tors who defend water from pipelines and the fos­sil fuel indus­try, we are now see­ing a rise of #SkyPro­tec­tors who are pro­tect­ing the cli­mate from false solu­tions. To dri­ve that emerg­ing move­ment, IEN and the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance have cre­at­ed a Car­bon Pric­ing Report to edu­cate Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties about the car­bon mar­ket sys­tem and how it impacts us. 

For Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, edu­ca­tion and mak­ing the lan­guage around cli­mate change acces­si­ble are crit­i­cal to build­ing our move­ment for cli­mate jus­tice. Many of our com­mu­ni­ties are rur­al and have lim­it­ed access to wifi and tech­nol­o­gy. There­fore when it comes to car­bon mar­kets, or help­ing com­mu­ni­ties under­stand how the changes they are see­ing in their ter­ri­to­ries are con­nect­ed to deci­sions being made by gov­ern­ments, we need peo­ple who are able to meet com­mu­ni­ties where they are at. That is why Indige­nous Cli­mate Action is a leader in cli­mate jus­tice work with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Found­ed only three years ago, ICA is Canada’s pre­mier Indige­nous-led cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion that pri­or­i­tizes Indige­nous knowl­edge as the true solu­tion to cli­mate change. Through train­ing camps in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, toolk­its designed to make infor­ma­tion acces­si­ble to many gen­er­a­tions and a forth­com­ing pod­cast, ICA is build­ing a cli­mate jus­tice frame­work that cen­ters and affirms Indige­nous knowledge.

At its core, Indige­nous Peo­ples Day is about truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, which is a process of restora­tive jus­tice to reveal and con­front the wrong­do­ings of a gov­ern­ment and to take action to heal rela­tions between oppres­sors and the oppressed. Across the world, coun­tries like South Africa, Chile, and Cana­da have under­gone truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process­es. While these process­es are nowhere near per­fect or com­plete, they exist. Until very recent­ly, the Unit­ed States has failed to ini­ti­ate a real process of truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between the U.S. Gov­ern­ment and Indige­nous or Native Peo­ples. In 2012, the first ever gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sion was devel­oped in Maine to lis­ten to tes­ti­monies of Indige­nous peo­ples who were forced into fos­ter care by U.S. gov­ern­ment agents. This sto­ry is explored in the ground­break­ing film, Dawn­land.

While our so-called lead­ers con­tin­ue to ignore Indige­nous rights, con­tin­ue to break treaties, and con­tin­ue to dri­ve us into fur­ther eco­log­i­cal col­lapse, we the peo­ple can take ini­tia­tive to under­stand how col­o­niza­tion con­tin­ues and how we can build right rela­tion­ship with Native and Indige­nous Peo­ples. And we need only to look at the most urgent issue of our time, cli­mate change, to see how col­o­niza­tion is still play­ing out, who is impact­ed the most and who is bring­ing the true solu­tions to the table. 

Jade Begay, Diné and Tesuque Pueblo, is a mul­ti­me­dia artist and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er. Jade is the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Dig­i­tal Direc­tor at the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Network.
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