Future of indigenous peoples, sustainability addressed at groundbreaking conference

indigenous sustainability panel discussion at Arizona State University

Indigenous scholars, sustainability scientists and tribal leaders gathered in Tempe, Arizona, Oct. 6-7, to discuss and debate indigenous sustainability and environmental issues during the Arizona State Unviersity “Conference on Indigenous Sustainability: Implications for the Future of Indigenous Peoples and Native Nations.”

Leaders from throughout the world who shared their insights included Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who discussed indigenous knowledge in her keynote address – teachings that she noted are often seen as controversial when compared with knowledge presented by scientists.

Smith, professor of education and Maori development and pro-vice chancellor at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, said that indigenous knowledge has been tested by controversy and what is forced to be revealed through the legal system, but it still persists. She has examined the relationship between indigenous knowledge and science in her research and found that it was hard to find a bridge between the two areas, except when specific areas are addressed.

“I think this is where the answer is,” Smith said. For example, when indigenous people and scientists work together on specific issues, such as saving a river, they can come up with solutions to fix problems, such as replanting with native plants and working on erosion issues.

During a discussion on "Sustaining Indigenous Knowledge and Culture," panelists talked about an integral part of sustaining indigenous nations that lies within the realm of climate change and the disproportionate impact that changing climatic conditions are having on tribal peoples. The discussion included moderator Bryan Brayboy, ASU President’s Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the School of Social Transformation; ASU Foundation Professor of History Don Fixico; Valmaine Toki, senior lecturer, Te Piringa Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, New Zealand; and Ann Marie Chischilly, executive director, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University.

Chischilly is a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resources Science appointed by Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

As part of the committee, she has worked on guidelines that examine the significance of traditional knowledge systems in relation to climate change, and the potential risks to indigenous peoples in the United States in sharing knowledge in federal and other non-indigenous climate change initiatives. Guidelines cover areas such as understanding key concepts related to traditional knowledge, recognizing that traditional knowledge does not need to be shared, and establishing clear, transparent and culturally appropriate terms of reference, particularly in regard to formal research agreements.

The conference also featured a panel titled “Tribal Energy and the Environment.” Moderated by Fixico, the panel featured Rebecca Tsosie, Regents' Professor at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; Bill Rice, associate professor of law at University of Tulsa College of Law in Oklahoma; Harvey Bryan, professor at The Design School at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; and Clark Miller, associate professor at ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

The panelists highlighted the importance of indigenous people’s right to self-determination and navigated the issue of sustainability of natural resources, such as energy, land and water, with the help of indigenous knowledge that has always included sustainable principles as a core philosophy.

Tsosie pointed out that law, economics and science are often presented as systems of knowledge built on “neutral” principles, when, in fact, national and international policies are clearly designed with instrumental goals in mind that sometimes work against tribal interests. Rice commented that non-indigenous people need to build stronger relationships with their resources, ones that go beyond treating resources as commodities.

Miller and Bryan stressed comprehensive, systematic approaches that reinvent educational, scientific, technological and innovation systems in a way that connects back to communities – indigenous and non-indigenous. They said that a larger conversation regarding the kinds of societies we want to live in and build in the future cannot be had if such systems are not built with communities in mind.

“We are all connected, so what we do now to build better energy and other systems will have an effect across the world,” Miller said. “Indigenous and non-indigenous people have had different perspectives on many issues, but we will have to come together, listen to each other’s perspectives and find common solutions to common problems.”

In addition to the panel on energy, discussions on native science and sustainability, the stories of traditional human knowledge, and the future of sustainability and educating the next generation sparked discussions among the audience.