First Peoples, First Now!

In any conversation there are some who speak most and some who speak least. There are likewise some who speak first and others whose voice is last if not lost. Effective debate could and should be better. Alas this is often not the case, no less so than when Indigenous voices try to find their rightful place in national and global environmental conversations.

In Canada we recently experienced a national moment of consciousness about the history of indigenous suffering, abuse, and cultural deprivation through the experience of the Indian Residential schools. This conversation has garnered a gravitas not previously seen on the national stage. Months after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a school in my home community of Kamloops, such energy has abated somewhat, though the possibility of a Papal visit energizes some. On another stage at the Glasgow COP-26 negotiations, a large and strong body of indigenous witnesses and storytellers gathered, day after day, a tenacious presence though ignored by many mainstream media.

March images

One group trying to deepen indigenous participation and leadership in global climate talks is the World Council of Churches who with other sponsoring bodies convened a COP side meeting titled Partnerships between Indigenous leaders to save the planet.

Leaders of the world’s religions want to make sure some voices aren’t lost in the crowd. Namely, the voices of Indigenous peoples from the Arctic to the Equator . . . The climate crisis cannot be solved without recognizing the rights and spiritualities of Indigenous peoples . . .Those leaders increasingly are looking to Indigenous peoples for guidance in how to care for the lands where they have been “guardians from time immemorial.

Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus continued: “Any efforts related to the environment and Indigenous rights must be done in partnership with Indigenous peoples, “not for them, and not in spite of them or around Indigenous peoples, but with them.”

Canadian Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald added: It’s in Indigenous ways of life and philosophies that people of all faiths will find the wisdom they need to sustain a livable planet, MacDonald said. Indigenous life and philosophy, he said, braid together solidarity and communion with all of creation, with all of humanity and with the spirit.

Indigenous people and their life stand in a prophetic relationship with humanity’s future.

It is estimated that between a fifth and a fourth of the world’s indigenous land, and an estimated 80% of the biodiversity on this planet is under the oversight, protocols and life of indigenous leaders and communities. One would think that given this significant responsibility and influence, stewardship, and management experience, that indigenous leaders would be sought after as bearers of wisdom, inheritors of tradition, and as lovers and keepers of the lands, water, and air. Sadly, their influence comes late in the day and disappears quickly when final agreements are concluded.

The rights and experience of Indigenous voices deserve a primary place at all stages of environmental consultations. The most affected climates are in Indigenous territories: the Gwitchin in Alaska, Arctic Innu, Mauri and Polynesians in New Zealand, indigenous communities in Northern Argentina with countless others in Africa and elsewhere. The effect of industrial extractive practices including mining, forestry and the fishery disproportionately affect indigenous communities who have little is any influential or determinative voice.

At COP-26, the Alaska-based grassroots group, Native Movement, faces challenges and frustrations. Even though (we) have had meetings with top officials, these activists are sometimes on the outside looking in, trying to carve out space for their people . . . Being an Indigenous youth at COP is extraordinarily limiting and tokenizing in a number of ways, both by nature of being Indigenous and by being youth.

The refusal of indigenous wisdom, that which is understood by those who live closer to the land and the physical elements than me, the rejection of those whose roots predate colonial intrusion and conquest, of those who continue to fight for basic human rights must continue to work within a powerful and functioning colonial system which wants Indigenous and youth leaders to just go away. Thankfully and forcefully, they won’t!

It is the story of the empires which continues to inspire and motivate negotiators and politicians of the industrialized countries, those most to blame for the mess our planet, its peoples and non-human species now face. Employing the language of victors, of those who fear the truth of history as much as the challenge of the horizon and the future, these influencers still disregard the wisdom of the ages; their speech continues to dominate the media–but for how long? Power is held by those who continue to cling to it without deserving it, though not for much longer. In The Comeback John Ralston Saul warns us that Indigenous voices do not need permission to speak and influence the powers now active. Rising Indigenous voices will simply claim the leadership space which is rightly theirs.

Power is certainly important, particularly in dictatorships, in places where constitutions, laws, unwritten rules, traditions and understandings don’t count. But in a healthy democracy, power is a surprisingly limited element. And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other, are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust.

Nuskmata, mining spokesperson for Nuxalk Nation, spoke to The Narwhal from her home in British Columbia prior to leaving for the summit:

She said she wants to centre solutions around Indigenous governance and emphasize how Indigenous Peoples are bearing the burden of climate policies, even well-intentioned ones like switching to electrification and renewable energy — that still requires mining precious metals, she said. “You can’t be sacrificing Indigenous Peoples and clean water in order to get solar panels,” she said.

I shall leave the final word to Archbishop Mark MacDonald:

Indigenous life is a braiding together of our solidarity and communion in terms of spirit and spiritual life along with our solidarity and communion with humanity and then braided together with our solidarity and communion with the rest of creation.

May this always be so, and now.

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