Being a Good Ancestor

Native communities must become leaders in the fight against climate change. “I see this as a crisis,” said Winona LaDuke in an address to the National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Change conference.

By Melanie Lenart

As wildfires scorched the West and heat-fueled hurricanes ravaged the southern U.S., more than 1,700 Native activists and their allies gathered online for the 2020 the National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Change (NTICC) conference, where many of the event’s speakers discussed the role Native communities should play in restoring order to an increasingly dangerous and disordered world.

“Maybe when our descendants come, they will say, ‘This is the time of the bat.’ They say that Covid came originally from a bat, and that the crunch on biodiversity and habitat is causing more and more diseases to move from the wild to the industrial world,” said keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) who lives and works on the White Earth Indian Reservation. “Don’t pick a fight with Mother Nature—that’s what I’d say.”

Speakers did not need to look far for evidence that the world is imperiled. During the week of the conference, held September 14-17, the U.S. Covid-19 death toll approached 200,000, even as a series of unusually destructive wildfires—made worse by record-breaking temperatures and severe drought—scorched the West. Meanwhile, southern states were dealing with a series of hurricanes strengthened by rising ocean temperatures. And, as reported during a conference session on Land, the entire town of Newtok, Alaska, is relocating due to erosion from rising sea levels and thawing permafrost.

“In our prophesies, this is referred to as the time of the Seventh Fire, when we are told we have a choice between two paths—one well-worn and scorched, and the other green,” LaDuke, who founded one of the largest reservation-based U.S. non-profit organizations, told the approximately 1,000 people listening to the plenary session in real time.

Colleen Cooley, of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, monitors a plenary presentation by Princess Daazhrai Johnson of the Gwich’in Nation. Photo by Colleen Cooley, courtesy of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

Conference presentations were also recorded and can be viewed without cost through the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) website. Executive Director Ann Marie Chischilly, a member of the Navajo Nation, said that shifting the conference online instead of holding it in St. Paul, Minnesota, as had been planned, also resulted in a more diverse geographic representation.

“We were able to capture a large international audience this way,” she said, noting conference participants joined from 30 different countries and 200 U.S. tribes. The online format also allowed for the participation of more elders, she said, as many might have found it too challenging to travel. Another advantage is that colleges and universities will be able to incorporate desired sessions into their teachings, as some participants indicated. Chischilly said her ITEP team hopes to record the next conference, whether it’s held in person or online, in 2022 to maintain this advantage.  

A chance to reset ‘business as usual’

LaDuke encouraged participants to view the pandemic’s forced pause as an opportunity to reset business as usual.

“I see this as a crisis,” LaDuke said. “But in this crisis, some of us are going to have to remain coherent. And in this crisis is opportunity. Look to our ancestors. Look to our relatives. Hold our heads up and pray hard. Because there’s this moment in time that we are in where we have a chance and an opportunity to take a new path. And to take a path that will make a regenerative and restorative economy.”

A restorative economy would follow the indigenous peoples’ lead of honoring biodiversity, she argued. For instance, instead of having companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars to modify the genetic structure of crop seeds to create so-called “climate-smart” varieties, those interested in growing resilient crops could look to the thousands of varieties maintained by indigenous people.

Also, now that it has been decriminalized, hemp could replace the destructive growing of cotton for fiber, she suggested, and even replace concrete in some applications. Cotton uses a tremendous amount of water—about four times that of hemp—and also requires more chemicals to grow than most other crops, LaDuke pointed out. Meanwhile, concrete production releases many of the same heat-trapping gases as burning coal, oil and gas. These are the so-called greenhouse gases that have been contributing to sporadically rising temperatures for several decades.

To replace coal, oil and gas for making electricity, tribes could develop the abundant wind energy on many reservations, she said. People also could turn to solar power more often—such as in the passive solar panels her community at White Earth produces to reduce household heating bills by 20 percent or more.

Climate change as a health issue

The impact of climate change on human health was also addressed, and was the focus of another plenary speaker, Dr. Donald Warne, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe whose many titles include director of the Indians into Medicine program at the University of North Dakota. His background includes a degree in medicine from Stanford and a master’s in public health from Harvard, as well as teachings from his family of traditional healers and medicine men.

“The health of the Earth has a direct impact of all creatures on the Earth, including human beings,” Warne said. “In a very real and scientific way, we are simply outcroppings of Earth, each of us as individuals,” Warne told the group during the plenary session. “All of our carbon, all of our minerals, all of our water, comes from the Earth. So the Earth literally is our mother. We have to be cognizant of the fact that the health of the Earth is going to have an impact on the health of its people.”

Warne likened the many challenges humanity faces right now, including climate change, to a terrible storm. He described how the buffalo, a sacred animal of the Lakota, will position the strongest ones in the front, facing the wind, to protect those who are behind them during a terrible storm.

“I look at that as our role. When we think of ourselves as educators, or thinking of our roles as leaders in science related to climate change, or public health or law—we have to be those strong buffalos that are standing in front, and facing the challenges head on,” he said. “It’s a gift to be able to do this work. But I think more importantly, our future generations are depending on us to do this work.”

Tribal colleges involved in related effort

“In the midst of this crisis, we have the opportunity to do our work, [to] demonstrate who we are, to bring to fruition some of our solutions…to climate change,” said presenter Daniel Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, in a telephone interview after the conference.

A Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation and the author of Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, Wildcat helped launch a group in 2006 now known as the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group (IPCCWG). He said the “other IPCC” aims to make sure that tribal colleges and universities are on the radar in climate change discussions, with relevant research opportunities for faculty and students.

Past events included hosting a 2006 climate change conference at the Haskell campus in Kansas and a 2008 conference, Planning for Seven Generations, in Boulder. He welcomed the chance to “reboot” the IPCCWG, a process begun earlier this year, as participants in the inaugural National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Change conference.

“I thought, wow, this is what we’ve been about. This is the work we’ve wanted to do,” he said, noting the NTICC conference featured speakers from tribally run colleges such as Northwest Indian College, the College of the Menominee Nation, and Salish Kootenai College. Wildcat pointed to recently unveiled plans by Salish Kootenai College to host an Indigenous Research Center as another positive example of the trend for tribal colleges to contribute scholarship on important issues. “That’s kind of an illustration about how much things have changed in 15 years,” he said. “We are taking seriously our own intellectual traditions, our own indigenous knowledges or traditional ecological knowledges.”

Community members prepare to plant trees at Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo in New Mexico as part of a 2019 project led by Trees, Water & People. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air, helping to moderate climate change. Photo by Jose Chalit, courtesy of Trees, Water & People.

Even as TCUs have gained strength and continue to educate a growing number of students, the effects of climate change have become more obvious and threatening, with severe storms and catastrophic wildfires, even in places that hadn’t seen them before. This is causing real anxiety and even paralysis among many young people globally, he noted. This affliction may be more prevalent among members of the dominant culture, he indicated, as indigenous people have already faced the devastating impacts of attempted genocide—and yet the people declared as “vanishing” a century ago are still here.

“For indigenous people, it’s like, you know what? We might not save the planet, but we want to make darn well sure that a generation, two generations, three generations, seven generations from now, our relatives can say, guess what? My ancestors were good relatives,” Wildcat said. “And that’s where you kind of find the energy and the hope.”

‘Ancestors in training’

Janene Yazzie, the sustainable development coordinator for the International Indian Treaty Council, called those who are thinking about the needs of generations to come “ancestors in training.” They are people, she said, who respect the knowledge of elders and listen to the voices of the young.

“For me, being a good ancestor is tuning into those voices and allowing them to guide us in the moments when it’s most tough, when everything seems like it’s the hardest. Because when you listen to those voices, it becomes impossible to lose hope.”

One of those voices belongs to Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 20-year-old activist with Earth Guardians who, Chischilly noted, has been on the front lines since he was 6 years old. He spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on Climate Change when he was 15 and joined 20 other plaintiffs in a 2015 lawsuit against the U.S. government for failing to act on climate change.

“This is a really powerful moment for us to be considering what legacy we are creating and how are we participating in this moment,” Martinez said as he closed off the conference.  “And I think it’s because of a lot of the adversity that we are facing, that these moments, these years, these days, the ways in which we act, the ways in which we organize, the ways in which we refuse to fragment, that we refuse to stay silent or to stay idle while the world continues to burn or change, is really important.”

A Colorado resident descended from the Aztecs, Martinez noted that Earth Guardians started an initiative in 2019 to bring indigenous youth from all over North America “to learn, to teach other, to set up this kind of training program for young people to come together.” Forty youth participated in the first year, and another 30 to 70 participated in various online sessions this year.

“We can do more and must do more to invest in our youth, not only because our future depends on it,” he said. “It’s so often said that we are the future, but we also are here right now, shaping its reality. And the world is literally burning, and we are running out of time. And we have all the solutions we need.”

Nikki Cooley provides shade for videographer Amanda Kapp while she records ITEP Executive Director Ann Marie Chischilly on her homeland, the Navajo Nation. Photo by Colleen Cooley, courtesy of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

Chischilly said the proceedings from the NTICC conference will help to lay the found­ation for the next National Climate Assessment, scheduled for release in 2022. Findings also will contribute to a related ITEP report expected in spring of 2021 about the state of tribes and climate change. ­­

During the closing plenary, Chischilly shared a story about her son, Shonto, age 14. As an Oglala Sioux, his tribal ancestors include medicine person Black Elk, who famously said in the 1800s that in seven generations a generation would be born that would restore the hoop of life.

“That generation, I’m happy to say, is here with us today. I’m raising one,” she said. “And if you’re raising a young child now, you’re raising them too. So protect them. Encourage them. Let them be happy. But teach them what we need to know. Teach them about resilience. The fight that we fight for our children seven generations forward is worth it.”

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Melanie Lenart is a writer for Native Science Report who has worked on climate change issues for decades, including as a former researcher with the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment of the Southwest and as the author of a 2010 book, Life in the Hothouse: How a Living Planet Survives Climate Change.

Recordings of proceedings from the National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Change conference will be posted on the ITEP website at . To learn more about upcoming activities of the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group, contact Daniel Wildcat at or Althea Walker at

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