Collaborator or colonizer? Tribes debate sharing climate solutions with outsiders

The Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation stretches for 25 square miles
along the United States’ border with Canada. Akwesasne, as the
land in Upstate New York is also known, translates roughly to
“land where the partridge drums.” Nestled at the confluence of
the Saint Lawrence River and several small tributaries, including
the St. Regis and Raquette rivers, this ecologically rich
environment consists of more than 3,000 acres of wetlands along
riverbanks, islands, and inlets.

But the landscape can’t escape the encroachment of nearby

Tribal members live downstream from several major industrial
facilities, hydro dams, and aluminum smelters. The Saint Lawrence
has become an international shipping channel, and its sediments mix
with heavy metals from old ship batteries and
toxic chemicals
from nearby Superfund sites. These pollutants
have leached into the Saint Regis Mohawk way of life, shifting the
range of flora and fauna on which many of their traditional
practices rely.

The trash and toxic runoff are bad enough. They are killing off
the tribe’s local fish population and medicinal plants. But now
the Saint Regis Mohawk face another challenge: negotiating with the
Environmental Protection Agency about how best to tackle these
contamination issues while incorporating — and respecting — the
tribe’s traditional knowledge.

Native communities are one of the groups
most impacted
by a changing climate — and many of the human
activities that have precipitated it. They are also a necessary

part of the solution
, according to the newest
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report

Indigenous peoples comprise only 5
of the world’s population, yet their lands encompass

22 percent
of its surface. Eighty
of the planet’s biodiversity is on the lands where
they live — and it may not be a coincidence. A significant part
of traditional indigenous identity is linked to
the natural world
. “There is medium evidence and high
agreement that indigenous knowledge is critical for adaptation,”
the 2018 IPCC report states. And that’s due to their methods of
managing forests and agro-ecological systems, as well as their
traditions passed down through the generations.

Indeed, some in these communities believe that disseminating
these traditions can help to address challenges, like climate
change, that the world faces. But while the wider environmental
community — and the rest of us — may benefit from gaining
access to their knowledge, indigenous communities have no guarantee
that their cultural values, secrets, and traditions will be
respected if they offer it. That potential pitfall is prompting
some Native Americans to question whether there is a way to share
this knowledge that benefits the environment, as well as a

“It’s both a risk and an opportunity for indigenous
peoples,” said Preston Hardison, policy analyst at the Tulalip
Tribes Natural Resources Treaty Rights Office in Washington state.
According to Hardison, many elders feel that they’d like to help
the world heal, but they want their knowledge to be employed in the
right way (without any sort of exploitation). For instance, sharing
their knowledge about their land and how they use it could be
employed to indigenous people’s detriment by limiting their
access to it.

Even when the government taps indigenous groups for input, many
of the resulting collaborations don’t show respect for the tribal
people or the accumulated knowledge they possess. Take, for
instance, in
, when the Saint Regis Mohawk received an EPA grant to
create a climate adaptation plan for its natural resources —
their animals, their crops, their medicinal plants. Initially, the
EPA called for a plethora of scientific vulnerability and risk
assessments to parse what resources were important for the
Akwesasne way of life. But tribal members felt the testing was an
unnecessary step to get to the heart of the issue.

“We didn’t need them to tell us what’s important to us,”
said Amberdawn Lafrance, coordinator at the Saint Regis Mohawk
Environment Division. “We already know.”

Ron His Horse Is Thunder,
a spokesperson for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, looks over a
river during Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016. Robyn Beck /
AFP / Getty Images

There are a lot of well-intentioned guidelines for asking
indigenous groups to share their environmental knowledge with
outsiders. The
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

states that, if you do have access to these communities’
resources or knowledge, it should only be with their free, prior,
and informed consent. In 2014, the EPA released
a report
with 17 policy recommendations for its work assisting
tribal groups in protecting their health and resources. But the
protocols don’t include requirements to forcefully protect tribal
knowledge. Take principle seven, for example:

The EPA considers confidentiality concerns regarding information
on sacred sites, cultural resources, and other traditional
knowledge, as permitted by law. The EPA acknowledges that unique
situations and relationships may exist in regard to sacred sites
and cultural resources information for federally recognized tribes
and indigenous peoples.

In other words, the agency will do its best not to disseminate
sensitive tribal information relevant to environmental impact. But
once tribal information is shared with a governmental body, it’s
not always easy to keep it under wraps.

The Department of the Interior approached the Klamath and Basin
tribes in 1995 when deciding how to allocate water rights in
southern Oregon and northern California. Communities located in the
Klamath Basin shared confidential information with the government
about their fishing methods and other cultural practices in order
to inform the decision. Then the Klamath Water Users Protective
, a nonprofit group of farmers and ranchers in the
region dedicated to maintaining irrigated agriculture filed federal
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Bureau of
Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior, demanding that
the tribes’ responses be disclosed. When the agency refused, the
took them to court.

The Supreme Court concluded that if a tribe consults with an
agency, most of the information provided during such consultations
is subject to FOIA. (Hence the EPA’s “we’ll try our best”

“Ultimately, tribes face a Hobson’s Choice,” wrote legal
scholar Sophia E. Amberson in a 2017
Washington Law Review article
. “Risk disclosing proprietary
information, or lose their seat at the environmental regulatory

For many indigenous groups, losing control over anything from
their traditional knowledge, dress, imagery, or even name is an
all-too-common story. And it’s not always clear what, if any,
legal recourse tribes have when they find themselves in those

The clothing store Urban Outfitters landed in hot water in 2012
for selling “Navajo hipster panties” and a “Navajo print
flask.” The Navajo Nation
filed a lawsuit
against the company, alleging trademark

Although the technique worked, and the lawsuit was settled in
2016, there is some debate as to whether intellectual property is
the best legal avenue to pursue when tribal knowledge is
appropriated by outsiders. One big issue is that intellectual
property rights expire. For example, if you publish a book, you
typically own the rights to it for your lifetime plus 70

“That’s a blink of an eye for indigenous peoples,” said
Hardison of the Tulalip Tribes. “They’ve have had their
knowledge since time immemorial.”

Unlike when they’re exploited by chain stores or sports teams,
tribal communities stand a better chance to benefit when they share
cultural knowledge for environmental preservation or cleanup. At
the same time, indigenous people don’t want platforms like the
scientists who contribute to the IPCC to become a giant
knowledge-mining expedition for Native culture. “It should be
about a true permanent durable relationship with indigenous
peoples,” Hardison said.

Even though sharing suggests that both parties will also reap
benefits, indigenous peoples are concerned the result will end up
not meaningfully different from an episode of appropriation at the
hands of Urban Outfitters.

In fact, once the indigenous knowledge gets outside of the local
tribal community, there’s an increased risk for exploitation,
said Gary Morishima, technical advisor at the Quinault Management
Center just outside of Seattle. He said he’s heard of indigenous
communities getting ripped off through informal sharing
relationships. “[Outsiders] try to gain access to their knowledge
and claim it as their own,” he explained.

Despite the risk, some indigenous advocates are pushing for
tribes to share more of their wisdom more freely with environmental
groups. “The time for secrets is done,” said Larry Merculieff,
an Unagan tribal member based in Anchorage, Alaska, who is one of
the biggest proponents. “There’s urgency because of the plight
of Mother Earth. That includes climate crises, complete corruption,
the abuse of women, abuse of Mother Earth-based cultures, and

To Merculieff that means giving outsiders unprecedented access
to indigenous practices — even allowing them behind-the-scenes
for sacred ceremonies and discussions, albeit via video. He is part
of a group called Wisdom
Weavers of the World
— a gathering of what he likes to call
“wisdom keepers” — which has produced 30 hours of films on
Native knowledge.

The trailer for one of the group’s films features elders from
all over the world meeting in Kauai for a discussion about the
planet’s many woes. Against the backdrop of the Hawaiian
island’s luscious greenery, they share instructions for how to
live in balance and harmony with nature based on their own sacred
traditions. Merculieff says these kinds of discussions are usually
kept private, only accessible to those who are primed to understand
them. But the elders in the film are now crafting a message to the
masses about how their traditional wisdom can help address the
world’s wounds.

“We are who we’ve waited for,” Merculieff says in the
trailer for the film. “What we know is that the key to this
mystery is simply to drop into your heart.”

Merculieff’s project is still raising funds. Though when it
launches, Merculieff says he does not expect any pushback from
other Native peoples. The government is not doing enough, he said
when he chaired the indigenous knowledge sessions at the 2018
Global Summit of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change. “We knew
we need to establish our own ways of doing things.”

Back on the banks of the polluted Saint Lawrence River, the
Saint Regis Mohawk tribe had come up with their own solution for
climate adaptation. And they were pretty sure the EPA was not going
to like it.

Rather than rely on risk assessments to come up with a strategy
for the region, the tribe wanted to base their plan on a
thanksgiving prayer, called Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, which
translates to “what we say before we do anything

“We say it every day,” said Amberdawn Lafrance, the
tribe’s environmental coordinator. The saying is so integral to
the the Mohawk way of life that it’s the basis for other forms of
community planning, such as developing school curricula.

Members created a list of natural resources that they’d
prioritize based on what they’d always been thankful for. “We
worked backwards,” Lafrance said. “We took the work that
we’re already doing and we assigned it under each of the
categories,” such as water, fish, and trees, needed to develop
the climate adaptation plan.

The Saint Regis Mohawk tribe’s push to have more agency over
their climate change plan was unusual, and some tribes are taking
it a step further, explicitly spelling out the relationship between
their knowledge and the EPA’s expertise. In these “bio-cultural
protocols,” indigenous people can lay down in clear-cut terms how
their local resources and knowledge should be managed prior to
letting it be accessed by outsiders.

This practice greatly limits the scope of what entities can do
with them. Tribes can stop governing agencies or other interested
parties from commercializing their knowledge or resources
wholesale. Contracts cementing these understandings are developed
through culturally rooted decision-making processes within the
communities. The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, an
agreement closely linked to the Convention on Biological Diversity,
bolsters these schemes, recognizing the need to acquire “prior
informed consent” from indigenous peoples before using their

These arrangements are used widely in South Africa. The Kukula traditional health
practitioners of Bushbuckridge, South Africa
, for instance,
developed a bio-cultural protocol to address outsiders’
unauthorized use of traditional knowledge and overharvesting of
medicinal plants. The contract lead to engagement with a local
cosmetic company interested in using their traditional knowledge
and establishing a medicinal plants nursery — all done on the
Kukula people’s terms.

Kyle Powys Whyte, professor of philosophy and community
sustainability at Michigan State and a member of the Potawatomi
people, believes employing indigenous knowledge systems as part of
our toolkit for dealing with climate change and advocating for
Native rights go hand in hand.

“I wish that a lot of climate scientists would look at their
statements that say that traditional knowledge is important and
realize that, when they say that, they’re also saying that
indigenous rights are important,” Powys Whyte said. “They need
to be supporting what we need to actually strengthen our knowledge
systems — not just share with others the information that we
might have.”

Due to several centuries of exploitation, it’s difficult for
tribes to come to compromises with government agencies. And while
putting cultural practices to paper is one thing, getting
government agencies to fully understand their value is another. For
the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe, explaining their thanksgiving
prayer-based plan to the EPA was a challenge — but it forced
negotiations about confidentiality of the tribe’s cultural

“I think the EPA was trying to be considerate, but at the same
time, it’s like they’re not considering all the implications of
us letting that information go,” said Lafrance. She said a
coworker tried explaining the sensitive nature of what they were
sharing to officials over the phone, likening traditional knowledge
to a grandmother’s coveted apple pie recipe. But Lafrance felt
they “still didn’t get it.”

In the end, the agency agreed to take a backseat as the tribe
got full rein of designing their climate adaptation plan to protect
their resources based on their traditional teachings.

In fall 2018, Lafrance went to the 75th convention of the
National Congress of the American Indian to speak on a panel about
tribal climate change adaptation plans. The bulk of the discussion
was about risk assessment data and how best to collect it. Then,
Lafrance presented the Saint Regis Mohawk tribe’s completed
climate adaptation plan that didn’t use a single smidge of

“I think that some people were shocked,” Lafrance said.
“But some were proud of us for sticking to our guns — and
knowing what’s important and who we are.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
Collaborator or colonizer? Tribes debate sharing climate solutions
with outsiders
on Nov 21, 2018.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Collaborator or colonizer? Tribes debate sharing climate solutions with outsiders