Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action
KYLE POWYS WHYTE
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Michigan State University
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Indigenous peoples encompass the 370 million persons globally whose communities exercised systems of self-government derived from their own cosmologies before an ended or ongoing period of colonization. Indigenous peoples now live within areas where states, like Australia or Canada, are recognized internationally as the preeminent sovereigns (Anaya 2004). Like other communities, indigenous peoples must adapt to climate-induced ecological variations like sea-level rise, glacier retreat, and shifts in the habitat ranges of different species. Climate change adaptation refers to adjustments that populations make in response to such variations, which include actions and policies from weather-protection programs to permanent relocation. Indigenous peoples are also engaged in efforts to mitigate climate change, like transitioning to renewable sources of energy and contesting incursions of fossil-fuel-burning industries into their territories. Climate change mitigation refers to actions and policies that attempt to curtail certain variations from occurring in some way in the first place. Some indigenous peoples see adaptation and mitigation as crucial endeavors because climate variations can disrupt the systems of responsibilities their community members self-consciously rely on for living lives closely connected to the earth and its many living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, like animal species and sacred places, and interconnected collectives, like forests and water systems (Osofsky 2006; Salick and Byg 2007; Cordalis and Suagee 2008; Krakoff 2008; Macchi et al. 2008; Tauli-Corpuz and Lynge 2008; UNPFII 2008; Wildcat 2009; Kronik and Verner 2010; Tsosie 2010; Voggesser 2010; Krakoff 2011; Shearer 2011; Tebtebba 2011; Willox et al. 2011; Grossman and Parker 2012; Roehr 2012; Abate and Kronk 2013; Maldonado, Pandya, and Colombi 2013; Wotkyns 2013). Such systems include those that persist from time immemorial, like webs of reciprocal relationships between a particular community and the aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species in their homeland. They also include systems of responsibilities emerging more recently from creative, indigenous-led efforts to establish political relationships of peaceful coexistence among neighbors like nation-states, settler towns, nongovernmental and religious organizations, subnational governments like provinces, and international bodies like the United Nations (UN). Examples include treaties, formal agreements, schedules of indigenous rights, and other political instruments that increase respect, mutual understanding, and accountability among indigenous parties and parties of other heritages and nations.
In ongoing conversations on climate change, some indigenous women articulate how seriously they take the specific responsibilities they perceive themselves to have within the systems of responsibilities that matter to their communities. Such responsibilities can range from acting as custodians and teachers of local ecological knowledge to acting as conveners of political movements aiming at respectful coexistence with neighbors. For these indigenous women, the responsibilities that they assume in their communities can expose them to harms stemming from climate change and other environmental alterations. Yet at the same time, their commitment to these responsibilities motivates them to serve as enablers of adaptation and mitigation efforts (LaDuke 1999; Denton 2002; Yanez 2009; Glazebrook 2011; Tebtebba 2011). Not all indigenous women share this view, of course; however, I show why, at least for some indigenous women, this is an important way of framing their actual and potential experiences of climate change impacts (sections II and III).
I then outline an implication of this framing for theories of political responsibility between indigenous women and parties like governments and organizations in adaptation and mitigation contexts (section IV). Political responsibilities are the attitudes and patterns of behavior that various parties are expected to express through the structure and implementation strategies of political institutions like laws, courts, policies, mandates, agencies, departments, treaties, declarations, schedules of rights, codes of ethics, agreements, memoranda of understanding, and so on. The nature and expression of these responsibilities depend on the assumptions that parties make about their roles in relation to one another. I offer a starting point for the following positions: Some indigenous women have their own unique capacities for collective action that advance adaptation and mitigation. Non-indigenous parties’ political responsibilities include deferring to indigenous women’s own knowledges of and motivations for such capacities for collective action. Deference can be expressed through political institutions that bolster the conditions needed to support indigenous women’s collective action (section IV). In many cases, this political responsibility is incumbent on indigenous national governments (for example, US federally recognized tribes) and political organizations (for example, Union of Ontario Indians). The positions in this paper seek to complement the work of environmental philosophers Chris Cuomo, Robert Figueroa, and Patricia Glazebrook, who have recently argued that responsibility must be thought of in terms of the unique agencies of indigenous and other populations—instead of focusing only on vulnerabilities (Cuomo 2011; Figueroa2011; Glazebrook 2011).1 More work beyond this paper should seek to further clarify the political reforms needed to support indigenous women’s collective agencies for adapting to and mitigating climate change (section V).
2. Climate Change Impacts, Collective Continuance, and Indigenous Peoples
Section I cited the growing academic, policy, and grey literature (informally published written material) documenting actual and potential climate change impacts on indigenous peoples. A key dimension of this literature concerns how climate change impacts affect the various culturally derived responsibilities assumed by some indigenous persons as participants in particular communities. In this section, I describe the basics of why these cultural effects matter. This view arises from my perspective and particular experiences as a Potawatomi Indian living in the US, from my conversations and collaborations regarding climate change with numerous indigenous persons within and outside of North America, and from engagement with relevant academic literature from several disciplines. Although this view may not reflect the diversity of views among all indigenous peoples about climate change, I feel it nonetheless highlights important elements of the discourses cited in section I and in which I am involved as a participant.
Impacts include variations of the patterns of community relations of diverse entities. These patterns are the structures of organization, which include political, societal, cultural, religious, and familial institutions that tie together humans and multiple living, non-living, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives (forested areas, species habitats, water cycles, and so on). Climate-induced variations—or climate change impacts—are the impacts arising based on the capacity of patterns of community relations to absorb local ecological alterations stemming from climate change (Liu et al. 2007; Cuomo 2011). Climate change impacts are disruptive when structures of organization can absorb the ecological changes only by changing key components of the structures themselves. For example, sea-level rise may force a community to relocate and adopt a new economy. Shifting growing seasons may require a community to change its diet. Climate-enabled invasive species may require a community to adopt new and more attentive environmental stewardship. Such disruptions are often experienced as harmful to certain values (as in the case of a changing diet), but can also serve as a motivation for improvements (as in the case of more attentive environmental stewardship).
Many indigenous persons interpret climate change impacts as jeopardizing the values associated with the collective continuance of the communities in which they participate. Collective continuance is a community’s aptitude for being adaptive in ways sufficient for the livelihoods of its members to flourish into the future. The flourishing of livelihoods refers to both indigenous conceptions of (1) how to contest colonial hardships, like religious discrimination and disrespect for treaty rights, and (2) how to pursue comprehensive aims at robust living, like building cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, strong subsistence and commercial economies, and peaceful relations with a range of neighbors, from settler towns to nation-states to the United Nations (UN). Given (1) and (2), indigenous collective continuance can be seen as a community’s fitness for making adjustments to current or predicted change in ways that contest colonial hardships and embolden comprehensive aims at robust living (Whyte 2013).
Climate change impacts can be understood as affecting the quality of the relationships that constitute collective continuance. According to this view, collective continuance is composed of and oriented around the many relationships within single communities and amid neighboring communities that persons assume based on their culturally framed perceptions of what matters. The capacity to contest colonial hardships, for example, may require relationships of solidarity among community members that cultivate political action, furnish healing from colonial traumas (like boarding schools), and ignite spiritual awakening (Ortiz and Chino 1980; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Tinker 2004; Green 2007). It may also require establishing relationships of trust and common political purpose across indigenous peoples who face similar hardships (Mayer 2007; Grossman 2008). The capacity to build cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, and subsistence economies may require close-knit family and social relationships, such as strong intergenerational ties and shared experiences between elders and youth and sustainable regimes of land-tenure (Merculieff 2007; Trosper 2009; Wildcat 2009; Tebtebba2011). Emotion-laden relationships among species and with features of the land (like rivers or mountains) and natural interdependent collectives may also be required (Willox et al. 2011). Commercial economies require relationships that generate feasible, culturally appropriate opportunities and relationships that regulate economic production (Trosper 2007; Ranco et al. 2011). Peaceful relations with neighbors require relationships that respect the differences of each community in terms of culture, relative power to exploit one another, specific needs, and capacities to exercise agency (Alfred 1999; Holmes, Lickers, and Barkley 2002; Napoleon 2005; Turner 2006; Davis2010; Ross et al. 2010; Middleton 2011).
The significances of these relationships are realized through the responsibilities incumbent on the parties to the relationships. That is, to be in a relationship is to have responsibilities toward the others in the relationship. Many indigenous authors have described the idea of responsibility. I interpret them as seeing responsibilities as the reciprocal (though not necessarily equal) attitudes and patterns of behavior that are expected by and of various parties by virtue of the assumptions made about how the parties relate to one another within a community context (Weaver 1996; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Kimmerer 2000; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Borrows 2002; Mayer 2007; McGregor 2009; Wildcat 2009). For example, elders may assume responsibilities to mentor youth by passing on wisdom or leading certain ceremonies; younger generations are, in turn, responsible for learning actively from the elders about the nonhuman, spiritual, and ritualistic dimensions of the community and its conception of the earth, its living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives. A community may have a responsibility to care for salmon habitat; salmon, in turn, may provide food and support for other species. Community members may be responsible for kindling spirituality by not evaluating their fellow community members according to colonial stereotypes about indigenous women or by visibly standing up against policies that victimize some people because they are indigenous women (Smith 2005). Such may be understood as a mutual responsibility of honor and respect among community members. International bodies like the UN may have responsibilities to respect emerging norms that acknowledge the special needs and knowledges of indigenous peoples (Anaya 2004; Mauro and Hardison 2000). These and other similar responsibilities are among the constitutive features of collective continuance because—on this view—they enable the contesting of colonial hardships and the pursuit of robust living. Some indigenous people’s concern with collective continuance has to do with maintaining the capacity to be adaptive with respect to relational responsibilities, or all those relationships and their corresponding responsibilities that facilitate the future flourishing of indigenous lives that are closely connected to the earth and its many living and nonliving beings and natural interdependent collectives. I refer to relational responsibilities as responsibilities in the rest of the paper.
Responsibilities constitute collective continuance as part of larger systems of interconnected responsibilities. Systems of responsibilitiesare the actual schemes of roles and relationships that serve as the background against which particular responsibilities stand out as meaningful and binding. For example, a responsibility to maintain species habitat is part of a more comprehensive web of interspecies responsibilities that are tied to a community’s cosmology. Cosmology refers to the fundamental way in which community members, in common, experience everything around them as endowed or not with agency, spirituality, and connectedness. Systems of responsibilities have intrinsic value and instrumental value for communities. For example, in Wabanaki culture the responsibilities surrounding berry plants have intrinsic value because they are integral to customs and rituals and establish part of the cultural status of Wabanaki women (Lynn et al. 2013). Thus, an entire system of responsibilities is embedded in and permeates everything about the berry plants. The system has intrinsic value because it is essential for framing certain dimensions of Wabanaki existence. The berry plants have instrumental value because they are superfoods, according to nutritionists, having health benefits like cardiovascular protection. Even systems of responsibilities amid communities have both kinds of value. For example, the government-to-government relation between the US and federally recognized tribes has intrinsic value because it can honor, at least in part, indigenous senses of nationhood. It also has instrumental value because respecting tribal sovereignty is considered to be the best way to formulate, implement, and assess policies (Lynn et al. 2013; Whyte 2013).
The concept of collective continuance identifies a range of values that some indigenous persons hold in relation to the patterns of community life in which they participate. The relationships and responsibilities constitutive of collective continuance can be disrupted by climate change impacts. A reason for this is that climate change impacts can alter the ecological contexts in which systems of responsibilities are meaningful. Changes in landscapes may engender fewer opportunities for elders to assume the responsibility to teach youth in practical situations. Climate change may affect the range, quality, and quantity of species like berries, making it more difficult or even impossible for tribal members to assume the responsibilities they perceive themselves to have toward those species (Lynn et al. 2013). Anishinaabe scholar Deborah McGregor, for example, discusses how variable weather patterns, invasive species, and widely fluctuating temperatures are engendering spring conditions that make it hard to have sensitive knowledge about when to begin or stop tapping maple trees for syrup. Making syrup is a traditional cultural and familial activity that spans generations and provides a source of nourishment for family and community members. Multiple, interconnected responsibilities are bound up in this activity, among young and old, siblings, between humans and trees, and natural interconnected collectives (GLIFWC 2006; Cave et al. 2011). Disruptions of webs of responsibilities involved in relations with elders, berries, and maple trees jeopardize some of what is valued intrinsically and extrinsically by certain indigenous peoples. The severity of disruption is of course influenced and amplified by the obstructive political orders rooted in colonialism, industrialization, imperialism, and globalization to which many indigenous peoples are subject. I treat these obstructive circumstances in more detail elsewhere, though I do not discuss them in any substantial detail here (Whyte 2013).