Indigenous wisdom has been stifled for far too long. We need it to save the planet. / Brook Thompson

Brook Thompson

Indigenous peoples worldwide have been careful and educated stewards of the environment. Traditional ecological knowledge can intersect with modern science and public policy to our advantage as we work to curb climate change.

Image © Photo: Marlee Mansfield

Brook Thompson

Image © Photo: Marlee Mansfield

The ocean breeze; windbreakers; a pocketful of rocks; fish blood and scales. These are the things that were part of my days growing up in Klamath, California.

The name of my tribe, Yurok, translates to “downriver people” and comes from our proximity to the ocean. As an Indigenous child whose father and grandfather were fishermen, I spent much of my time at the mouth—what we call the Requa, or the “lips”—of the Klamath River, watching my dad, uncles, and cousins fish for salmon and lamprey. My dad instilled in me his most important rule: to not turn my back on the ocean, partly for its beauty, but also because I knew its power and might. The ocean feeds us. My dad and I would go down to the rocks in the morning at low tide to gather seaweed, which we would dry and later eat. I looked on as he twirled eels around his eeling hook and threw them up onto the shore for me to grab and put in the hole I had made in the sand, so we could smoke them later on. Being able to eat this food, I knew, was a privilege—even at that time, when these sources of nourishment were not scarce.

I was taught that humans are inherently in a relationship with the earth. Indigenous peoples worldwide have been careful and educated stewards of the environment. We understand rocks, plants, animals, and rivers as having agency and experiencing desires and suffering. Our creation stories tell of how they once had voices. As tribes, we integrate the lessons from these stories into our value system, which governs our way of life and creates harmony. The mindset and values of the Yurok Tribe have allowed us to survive and thrive for the last 12,000 years. Everyone on the planet needs to apply this wisdom for us all to thrive in the modern age.

Reflections on the water in Kubenkrajke, Brazil, the home of the Kayapo tribe · Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

An abused ocean

In contrast to how I have learned in my tribe to exist in tandem with our surroundings, I perceive current governmental and corporate relationships with the environment as abusive. This fact is not surprising to me, as I live in a country founded on abuse: abuse of its aboriginal inhabitants, abuse of enslaved Black people, and abuse of natural resources. The ocean continues to be abused as a result of climate change, plastic pollution, and overfishing. In a sense, we as a world have done just what my father told me not to do: we have turned our backs on the ocean.

Our widespread abuse of the natural world is made clear in the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which emphasized that humanity is unequivocally responsible for the overheating of the planet. According to the report, people who are the most exposed and vulnerable to climate change often have the least capacity to respond, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. My tribe is already experiencing the impacts. The decline in ocean health and changes to weather patterns are affecting our lives by reducing the salmon populations we rely upon for food, and sea-level rise could submerge our gravesites and our ceremonial grounds.

Cristina Mittermeier

Intertwining traditional knowledge with modern science

My desire is to spend time with my tribe, my family, and my culture, but unfortunately, our lives are shaped by forces outside our traditional home. Decisions are made on my behalf by overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and male policymakers from older generations. Many of them refuse to listen to us as Indigenous people, because of the perpetuation of colonialist attitudes that define tribal perspectives as primitive and therefore useless. To shift that narrative, I went to university to study civil engineering and political science, and am now working toward a master’s degree in environmental engineering at Stanford University. This is a way for me to convey how traditional ecological knowledge can intersect with modern science and public policy to our advantage as we work to curb climate change. My studies give my under-represented voice the ability and authority to be heard by non-Indigenous decision-makers. Yet, there should be a demand for many more Indigenous stories of sustainable land and ocean management to be shared globally.

As part of my university program, I had the opportunity to visit areas touching the ocean in 14 countries. Taking classes in coastal ecology, foreign policy, and global affairs, I also spoke with community members to better understand different nations’ connections to the ocean. What I found were similar forces of colonization stifling BIPOC voices. From the Māori in New Zealand to the fishing villages in Ghana, every one of the people I met was willing to share with me their unique relationship with the natural world, but at the same time, added that they did not yet have the representation to speak on behalf of the seas and waterways they know so well. As marginalized communities, we are working in systems not built by or for us. And yet, countless Indigenous peoples are prepared to share their traditional knowledge for the benefit of everyone.

Aunty Ivy Smith, a Māori cultural healer from New Zealand · Photo: Shawn Heinrichs
Fishermen in Ghana · Photo: Cristina Mittermeier
Ta'Kaiya Blaney, a member of the Tla'amin First Nation in British Columbia, Canada · Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

Fighting for the future

Regardless of the future hardships brought about by the climate crisis, I am filled with hope. I work tirelessly because solutions to climate change already exist, we just need to activate them. The IPCC has identified sectors, such as energy, which will require major shifts to reduce emissions. Our current methods are clearly not working, so why not prioritize Indigenous strategies, values, and technologies which have been proven to protect and strengthen our lands and waters for thousands of years? The IPCC recommends the use of all available knowledge sources, balancing reducing short-term risks with fostering long-term resilience and sustainability, and confronting social vulnerability, institutional support, and equity. Frankly, all organizations would benefit from Indigenous perspectives on these guiding principles. 

It is a purposeful choice I make to not give up on our future. My education is my weapon to battle against the monster of climate change, and my tribe is my shield, protecting and supporting me. There will always be a tomorrow—and I intend to fight for the best-case scenario.

Photo: Cristina Mittermeier

How you can help

A first step toward bringing about positive change is to learn about and uplift Indigenous peoples in your area.

If you are able to, put pressure on local politicians, elected state officials, and the United Nations to take the necessary action to protect our land and ocean, and therefore protect ourselves.

You can also sign petitions on Only One to tell leaders that we care about the planet’s future.

No one person alone can save us from the existential threat of climate change, but by working together with future generations’ well-being in mind, we can make the necessary changes one step at a time.

Contributors

Brook Thompson

Native Scholar, Stanford University

Brook is a Yurok and Karuk Native American from Northern California. Currently, she is a master’s student on the Environmental Engineering program at Stanford University, focusing on water resources and hydrology. In 2020, Brook graduated from University Honors College at Portland State University with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Political Science. She has interned for the City of Portland, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, West Yost (a water engineering team), Save California Salmon, and the California Water Resource Control Board. Brook is a Gates Millennium Scholar, a 2020 UNITY 25 under 25 awardee, and a 2017 Undergraduate AIGC Student of the Year awardee. Her goal is to bring water rights and Native American knowledge together through engineering, public policy, and social action. Current fights for Brook include undamming the Klamath River, denying the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline, raising awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), and supporting women and Natives in STEM. Brook gives public speeches and makes artwork to call attention to these issues.

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