Decolonizing climate change: stories of indigenous peoples

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 11:00am

Painting from Abbe Museum

Painting from Abbe Museum Buy this photo
Courtesy of Trina Pal

I am not an Indigenous person, nor am I First Nations. I acknowledge that I am writing this piece based solely on research and travel and do not represent the voices of Indigenous people across the world. However, I think it’s important that we listen to the experience and wisdom of Indigenous people in tackling an issue as large as climate change. As a nation, we have a lot to learn about our relationship with our surroundings. 

This past summer, I stopped by the Abbe Museum nestled in the middle of Bar Harbor, the largest town on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Mount Desert Island is more famously known for Acadia National Park, where I had spent the last three days hiking and exploring. Equally as important as national parks is the history of its land: Who originally inhabited this area of earth, and what are their stories? With this mindset, I stopped by the Abbe Museum on our last day in Bar Harbor, and a gentle, sloping cream-colored building with olive green trimmings welcomed me inside.

The Abbe Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate since 2013, is in collaboration with the Wabanaki, the People of the Dawn. The Wabanaki Confederacy includes the Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Nations, all of whom have inhabited what is now known as Maine and Southeastern Canada for generations. The Wabanaki are known as the People of the Dawn due to their location in Turtle Island (now known as North America); they are the first people to see the sunrise over Turtle Island, and thus the first to see the dawn. 

Visiting the Abbe Museum made me rethink my environmental education thus far. I’d only learned about white, eurocentric environmental pioneers in middle and high school; names like Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt may sound familiar to you. But what about Indigenous pioneers, who have lived in harmony with the environment for centuries to a much greater extent than settlers ever have? 

This is all part of a larger process of decolonizing environmental history and climate change, which, among other goals, includes understanding that Western ways of environmental thinking and teaching often overshadow perspectives of Indigenous people. Indigenous people around the world are protecting forests and their biodiversity, which sequesters carbon and protects natural resources. Indigenous people can teach us how to live sustainably through their agricultural practices, having depended on the environment their whole lives. Indigenous people are protesting against large oil companies and deforestation, recognizing that these practices contribute to increased worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. 

We can all learn from Indigenous perspectives on our climate crisis, and the Abbe Museum is no exception. The exhibit “wolankeyutomon: Take Care of Everything” focused on the conservation of sea life and emphasized the Wabanaki’s relationship with whales and other maritime creatures. The whale of Maine appears in Wabanaki stories as Bootup, whose back allowed for travel across the Western Atlantic, waters that are sacred to the Wabanaki. Whales have been poached and harpooned by humans for many years. Recently an equally alarming problem has come to light: the discovery of whales washed to shore with stomachs full of plastic products. 

The painting included in this article immediately caught my eye when I stepped into the exhibit, and for good reason. There are very few ways to misinterpret the message conveyed: Single-use plastics are threatening our marine biodiversity, including whales, one of the most ancient species on this earth. The Ziploc bag that you casually toss in the trash, the plastic fork that is thrown away instead of reused, the plastic bag that you insist is more convenient than a reusable one: All of this contributes to the problem. 

Too often, I’ve come across the perspective that climate change can only be solved by large corporations changing their methods of production. Yes, a huge part of the problem lies with big oil and political lobbying. But another part lies with our flawed understanding of what we can do, individually and collectively, to help the environment. Grassroots change is hard, but it can spread like wildfire if you allow it to. 

Undoubtedly, Indigenous people are welcome to these changing habits and have a breadth of knowledge to contribute to our understanding of the environment. A small panel tucked in the back of the Abbe Museum allowed visitors to input their personal commitments to help the environment on an iPad with the responses being projected continually on a large screen above. There’s more to this climate crisis than we think and spreading information from different cultures and ways of life is critical to our relationship with this planet.