Decolonizing our Environmental Movement

Article by

Last May the Healthy Environment portfolio team was honored to sponsor and participate in the University of Oregon Symposium on Environmental Justice, Race and Public Lands. The event organizers at the University Center for Environmental Futures put together an amazing lineup of presenters that included students, practitioners and academics. There were many provocative talks and ideas shared, and we wanted to share a few reflections on several of the themes that we’ve been talking about since the event.

Decolonization as part of our equity commitment

When Meyer began its equity journey, we started by exploring racism as a systemic, institutional problem of power, and we used this exploration as a foundation for building a shared framework for understanding oppression and privilege and how they operate at individual, institutional and systemic levels. Since then we have continued to expand our analysis by learning about how oppression operates across different identities in addition to race and how different forms of oppression interact with one another. We have also adopted new practices for operationalizing our equity in our work.

In the past couple of years, we have begun to learn more about decolonization and how deeply entrenched colonial language and practices are in the work we do as well as the work we support in communities. Like racial equity work, decolonization requires us to deconstruct thinking, processes and practices that focus on or reinforce the conquering of land and treating nature as a commodity, accumulating wealth at the expense of others, creating a hierarchy of power based on race and identity, and perpetuating a single story of history to support these systems, practices and ways of thinking. Decolonization was a key overarching theme of the UO symposium, and we heard about a number of ways that the environmental movement perpetuates colonial thinking and practices. I offer these takeaways from the symposium in the spirit of shared learning and to support our collective work to elevate the value of indigenous knowledge and leadership as well as to begin to understand the colonial narratives that are deeply entrenched in the mainstream environmental movement.

What’s wrong with talking about “our public lands”?

Speakers at the symposium talked about how the dominant public lands discourse and practices used to protect public lands tend to reflect and perpetuate settler colonialism: the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society. By talking about “our public lands,” we ignore the truth that all land in the U.S. was tribal land first and that these lands we call “public” were stolen from tribes. This mindset erases the history of Native communities’ relationship with the land and also reinforces a possessive way of relating to land as being “ours.”

Kyle Powys Whyte, one of the keynote speakers, explained that indigenous peoples’ relationship with land is understood as being more consensual and viewed as an “ancestral kinship” relationship. This is very different than the dominant culture view in the U.S. and the legal and management practices that govern land as property, which are based on the view that humans are separate from nature and that nature and land are commodities.

Laura Pulido, University of Oregon professor of ethnic studies and geography, talked about how the use of the Antiquities Act to create new national monument designations that expand public lands can also reinforce settler colonialism, even in some cases where tribes and communities of color are involved in creating these new designations, but not leading them. In her analysis, she shared that “monuments” mark victories, versus “memorials,” which are about not forgetting the past, including the indigenous trauma of the past. Public lands efforts don’t generally include repatriation of land to tribes, which is a crucial element for meaningful decolonization, nor do they lift up the true and complete history of indigenous communities’ past and current relationship to the land.

Tribes have much to teach about climate change adaptation

Whyte talked about how the narrative around climate change as a “dystopian future that humans have never experienced” also reinforces settler colonial thinking because it ignores the actual dystopian histories that tribes and indigenous communities have experienced. They were forced from their ancestral lands and displaced to new ecoregions and reservations, and they have been resilient in adapting to these displacements and new climates by developing new ways of living. He described dozens of examples of tribes and indigenous communities that have been taking their deep knowledge and lived experience with climate change, marrying that with traditional governance systems and science, and applying it to climate change adaptation planning. He noted that this experience and planning expertise is not widely understood, and it is not being fully recognized for its potential impact on climate change adaptation efforts.

Healing is a crucial part of diversity, equity and inclusion practice

Diversity, equity and inclusion trainers and practitioners presented a panel on the opening day of the symposium. The need to integrate healing into this work ran through all their remarks. Without thought and attention to healing, the damage and trauma that individuals and communities have experienced as a result of white supremacy and institutional racism can be reinforced and re-experienced. The work of developing trauma-informed, healing practices and tools needs more attention and widespread adoption. Without this essential work, we are likely to replicate tactics and behaviors that are born out of systems of oppression and privilege and not reach transformative change in our society.

Decolonizing collaborations between students, researchers and indigenous communities

Throughout the symposium, participants had the opportunity to hear a number of indigenous leaders, students and researchers work together in collaboration using approaches and practices that support decolonization and indigenous self-determination. Anna Elza Brady shared the story of the tribal-led effort to establish the Bears Ears National Monument. In contrast to other monument designation campaigns, this effort, which has been led by tribes, has centered on tribal culture, spirituality and self-determination from the very beginning.  We also heard about a collaborative research effort between researchers and the Karuk Tribe that focuses on the use of traditional wildfire practices — “Fire as medicine” — to create healthier forests and support tribal sovereignty and spiritual health in tribal communities across the West. This project supports the much-needed shift away from the forest management regime emphasizing fire suppression that has dominated the West and is a key driver in fueling the severe megafires that we are experiencing.

The four reflections I’ve shared offer a small glimpse into the many rich ideas and work discussed at the symposium. Much more could be said. If you also attended and left with other key takeaways or new ideas based on what you learned or if you have reactions to this post, please share your comments and ideas.

A link to the keynote presentations by Kyle Powys Whyte and Carolyn Finney can be found here.

–– Jill