Dr. Kyle Whyte, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan, addressed moral and political issues concerning climate change and Indigenous peoples at a Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs event Tuesday night.

Whyte started off by addressing the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land where they live. In Native culture, the environment — abiotic and biotic factors — are viewed as personal relatives rather than as providing  recreational or financial value, Whyte said.

“People feel more responsible if their relationships to the land are the same as the relationships grounded in other people,” Whyte said. “That will motivate you to protect the environment far more than if you think there is a financial problem in the future.”

Indigenous communities have been greatly affected by climate change as much of their culture relies on fishing and harvesting of crops that are going extinct, Whyte said. Furthermore, environmental agencies seeking to address the risks of climate change have not prioritized the rights of Native Americans to the land.

“If you look at actually what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis, you can tell that there’s actually not a lot at stake for them. It’s not a priority,” Whyte said.

In the past, the United States has taken Native land to use for farming or leasing, which eventually led to it being used and destroyed by extractive industries like the oil industry. Rackham student Heather Gregg pointed out that Native American customs involving land are also being threatened by climate change.

“Many of our (Native) cultural practices are being threatened due to climate change, and are being forgotten or exploited due to settler colonialism,” Gregg said.

Whyte said environmentalists in recent years have moved to build clean sources of energy, such as hydroelectric dams and wind turbines to address climate change, but they target land belonging to Indigenous peoples for these projects, disregarding the impact it will have on their culture and their relationship with the environment. Many people crafting these policies disregard both Indigenous consent and treaties that they have signed with the United States government, he added.

“The way in which Native people are able to represent themselves within law and policy is certainly inadequate right now,” Whyte said.

Whyte said the lack of representation and support within government makes it difficult to advocate for positive change. He added that education on these issues is lacking.

“In the educational system, hardly anybody learns how the United States, driven by racial capitalist desires and driven by an understanding that it was okay to colonize people, quickly created disruptions that Native people have had to adapt to,” Whyte said. “The fact that they’re not part of the cornerstone of our education is extremely troubling.”

LSA sophomore Solomon Milner, who has been working with Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the Native American Student Association in an effort to promote decolonizing the University, said it is important to talk about climate justice as an issue that negatively impacts vulnerable communities. 

“I believe that academia, as it stands right now, is not accessible or equitable for many Indigenous communities,” Milner said. “Conversations surrounding climate justice must always include the voices of Indigenous people because we are one of the communities that is most negatively impacted by climate change, and yet it feels as if no one is willing to listen to us.”

In order to restore their resources, Whyte said Native Americans are focused on changing how power and relations of power associated with land are understood, with a focus on building a better future. He said as a country, the United States must prioritize both action to address climate change while respecting the culture of Indigenous people. 

“It’s time for us to talk about what our futures are,” Whyte said.

Daily News Contributor Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu

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