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Native Intelligence

Environmental activist Tom Goldtooth discusses the Keystone XL pipeline, the “spiritual battle” against climate change, and reconnecting with Mother Earth.

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Photo Credit: Mat McDermott

What can indigenous voices bring to the climate change debate?
Climate is a human rights and indigenous rights issue because it affects our culture. It affects our relationship to the land. In some areas it involves relocation—especially from the small islands, in the Arctic region, and even in our area of Minnesota. Also, because of the unpredictability of climate patterns, we’re having to change some of our ceremonies to adapt.

Can you give an example of how climate change is affecting your traditional practices?
When different vegetation buds, these are the times when we pick our medicines. So if that time is later in the month because winter is staying a little bit longer, it affects when we hold our ceremonies.

Here’s another example: In some areas here in Minnesota, on the edge of the woodlands and prairie lands, we don’t have any more chokecherries, which we use for our ceremonies. Now we’re getting cherries from longer distances and having to transport them.

You’ve joined other indigenous and environmental leaders urging President Obama not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Is the president listening to Native people?
Our hope is that President Barack Obama will dig down in his consciousness and understand what Native people have been saying all along: that we have to reevaluate our relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth. This pipeline has a direct impact on the livelihood and the rights of the Cree, the Athabaskan Dené, and the Métis up in the tar sands development area in Alberta.

The president has suggested he might approve the pipeline with carbon offsets. You don’t go in for these so-called market-based solutions to address climate change. Why?
As we look at the idea of emissions trading and carbon trading, we find it’s a mechanism that allows the polluting industry to expand their toxic emissions rather than curtail them. The other major issue we have is that it treats carbon as a commodity, and that means determining whose property it is. It’s a market system that involves privatization of the air itself—that’s just contrary to our spiritual beliefs as indigenous peoples.

Are you finding the nonindigenous environmentalists are listening to what you say?
They’re beginning to. I think organizations like 350.org, with cofounder Bill McKibben, are starting to understand why Native issues have to be in the forefront of addressing this issue.

From your standpoint, it’s a deeply spiritual issue.
One of the biggest challenges is to help a society of many immigrant cultures fully understand what indigenous peoples have been saying: that this is a spiritual battle. Through industrialization, many people have been removed from the concept of their relationship to Mother Earth. So indigenous people have something to offer, which is the chance to reevaluate what that relationship is.

There are some people from the faith-based community who understand what stewardship means to the earth and are starting to look deeper into the questions of dominion—how to reframe that from the idea that we’re the dominant and overpowering force above nature into a concept of real stewardship, and our responsibilities to be guardians, protectors.

For indigenous people, power comes from that guiding presence of the Great Spirit and Mother Earth. That’s the true power.

You’d like to see carbon emissions cut by what percent by when?

We’re asking that they seriously look at 40 percent reduction by 2020. There are scientists that have said we can do this. If we can send people to the moon, why can’t we step up and take on this issue? We’ve got to turn that valve off as soon as we can. This Mother Earth cannot absorb any more carbon.

A Diné and Dakota elder, Tom Goldtooth is the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which brings together more than 250 Native communities to speak out on issues ranging from fracking and climate change to global equality and water rights.

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