Sustainability within Indigenous history and communities & what we can learn

By Jenny Horn

For Native American History Month, we’ll be highlighting some of the issues the indigenous communities of the United States are dealing with, how we can support them, and how we can learn from them.

Native Americans were the first and original environmentalists on American soil, and it is indisputable that we can learn how their sustainable practices can benefit our world today. These communities recognized early on that all parts of the ecosystem are connected, and that humans, animals, plants, and even rocks were dependent on one another for survival and ecological health. Quoting the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), “Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other Indigenous peoples have a long tradition of living sustainably with the natural world by understanding the importance of preserving natural resources and respecting the interdependence of all living things.” It’s about time we take a page from their book.

Equal Ground

The fundamental belief and acknowledgement by Native Americans that put human beings on equal footing with the animals they hunted, the berries they gathered, and the ground that carried them showed their complete regard and respect for the world around them, understanding that their lives made an impact in nature — and it was within their control to what extent that impact looked like. Today, Indigenous peoples largely hold the same sentiments — rather than always working to their own benefit, they work and live alongside nature with a certain level of respect for the materials and other living things around them. For instance, today Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the global population, yet actively protect 80% of global biodiversity. It is this self-restraint and accountability that are the important core pillars in the relationship between Indigenous sciences and healthy interaction with nature, and it is these practices that we can learn from.

Self-Restraint & Moderation

Self-restraint within Indigenous communities stems from the prevalence of communal living in combination with living in a sometimes unpredictable, natural world, where this restraint is necessary in communal societies as the strength of the community and its resources equates with survival. Recognizing the need for the survival and health of future generations, Native Americans have long acknowledged and respected the importance of limiting impacts and damages as much as possible, drawing stark contrasts to the way many people in modern day USA interact with their surroundings. It has become the norm for individuals to act as though all materials at their current disposal can and should be utilized, fretting not for what will become of the lands and materials they utilize today for future living beings and all organisms alike.

Secretary Haaland & CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory met with community leaders who are forging collaborative, locally led partnerships to conserve and restore California’s Redwood forests and increase climate resiliency at @RedwoodNPS. This visit to Redwood NPS is a great example of the collaboration that we are hoping to support across the country to conserve, connect and restore 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.
Secretary Haaland & CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory met with community leaders who are forging collaborative, locally led partnerships to conserve and restore California’s Redwood forests and increase climate resiliency at @RedwoodNPS. This visit to Redwood NPS is a great example of the collaboration that we are hoping to support across the country to conserve, connect and restore 30% of our lands and waters by 2030. Photo credit Tami A Heilemann via Flickr.

Working Within the Existing Environment

In accepting the importance of working in harmony with nature, Native Americans and Indigenous communities have always worked alongside nature, rather than against it, using their knowledge of the land to best support themselves while maintaining nature’s health, and this practice can still be seen on larger scales today. For example, Ramon Farms, one of the largest Native-owned and operated commercial farms in Arizona, raises crops like alfalfa and cotton, and has worked to resurrect many older heirloom plants traditionally grown by tribes of the southwest. Knowing that their farms exist within drought-prone areas today, the farm has focused on growing the bafv, a type of tepary bean that grows well in drought conditions and needs only minimal watering — a perfect example of working within the existing environment and exercising self-restraint in not using a gross amount of the available water supply of the area. Instead of forcing surroundings to support a community, finding a balance that works for both human beings and nature in a mutual way best ensures long term ecological safety.

What You Can Do Today

It is never too late to start to reduce your impact on the world around you and begin minimizing your damages. Holding yourself accountable to self-restraint and moderation is a good start, but on the larger scale, holding larger corporations, businesses, and industries accountable for the vast majority of waste and destruction is invaluable to the health of our world. As our earth suffers more intensely from climate change every year, it is quickly becoming increasingly essential to operate as though we are equal to our surroundings, taking a lesson from the lasting histories of our Indigenous communities. After all, regardless of differing cultures and geographic locations, archeologist Elizabeth Chilton once exclaimed that in the 14,000 years prior to colonization, the Native American ecological footprint was practically invisible. Regardless of the ever changing and developing world around us, we cannot and will not move forward and live safely if we do not learn to respect and maintain the health of the nature around us, and we can start by learning from the Indigenous communities who for so long have operated in perfect harmony with the natural world.

Photo credit: Old Woman Drying Corn, [Photographs and other Graphic Materials]; Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75; [online version available through the National Archives Catalog (National Archives Identifier 32202871) at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/32202871; November 15, 2021].

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