12 January 2014

Learning from – and Standing Beside – Our First Nations Sisters and Brothers

Thanks to Nina for writing last week with the title of a book to check out. Reading about it reminded me of something I was told long ago.

Indigenous (Native or aboriginal) North Americans (First Nations and Inuit peoples in Canada) have withstood assault after assault after assault by the marauding European explorers, settlers and resource exploiters. Assaults on their territories, their livelihoods, their health, their sovereignty, their pride and their identities. 

And yet, they're still here. Try as my European ancestors might, they could not eradicate, annihilate, obliterate or even assimilate the people who were here first. The First Nations "won" (if we ignore the attempted genocide, disintegration of families and communities, continued discrimination, rampant poverty and associated widespread health problems) because of their resilience.

Aboriginal peoples around the world showed themselves to be resilient. And now, climate change is testing that resilience once again. Many Native communities are among the most vulnerable to the ravages of climate disruption.

I'd never considered resilience as something that could be asserted. Yet, there it is, in a title: Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis. This 2012 book edited by Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker is a collection of Native and non-Native voices and perspectives on the climate change crisis. From the description:
"Indigenous nations are on the frontline of the current climate crisis. With cultures and economies among the most vulnerable to climate-related catastrophes, Native peoples are developing responses to climate change that serve as a model for Native and non-Native communities alike. 
"Native American nations in the Pacific Northwest, First Nations in Canada, and Indigenous peoples around the Pacific Rim have already been deeply affected by droughts, flooding, reduced glaciers and snowmelts, seasonal shifts in winds and storms, and changes in species on the land and in the ocean. 
"Having survived the historical and ecological wounds inflicted by colonization, industrialization, and urbanization, Indigenous peoples are using tools of resilience that have enabled them to respond to sudden environmental changes and protect the habitat of salmon and other culturally vital species. They are creating defenses to strengthen their communities, mitigate losses, and adapt where possible."
Winona La Duke, executive director of Honor the Earth and White Earth Land Recovery Project, said:
"In the times of the unraveling of our world, it is essential to stand against the combustion, mining and disregard for life. Life is in water, air, and relatives who have wings, fins, roots, and paws, and all of them are threatened by climate change — as are people themselves. 
"Grossman and Parker have done an excellent job in telling the stories of climate change, and the people who are standing to make a difference for all of us. Change is indeed made by people, and climate change must be addressed by a movement, strong, strident, and courageous."
Reviewer Chris Arnett suggests that "in promoting an indigenous worldview, there is a slight tendency throughout the text to essentialize Indigenous people for their unique resilience or capacity to weather change, when resilience is a characteristic of all people." He then admits, "All contributors acknowledge that Indigenous people, or any people in a close relationship with place over time, have unique firsthand knowledge of place and, as this book shows, science supports such a view."

That reminds me of a suggestion that came up at the Council of Canadians AGM a year or two ago. Well, it came up in conversation out in the hallway, with someone who could maybe be considered a little "fringe." He thought that all Canadians should ask to be adopted by a First Nations band (tribe) and then renounce their Canadian citizenship. That way, he said, we could really join together to fight the federal government and their "Tar sands and pipelines of the people, for the people, by the people" philosophy. 

You know how much I like synchronicity. At dinner with a friend last night, she mentioned a 2011 documentary called People of a Feather (see the trailer here), which tells the story of the Sanikiluaq Inuit community in Hudson Bay, whose traditional dependence on the eider duck has been threatened by giant hydro-electric projects. "Inspired by Inuit ingenuity and the technology of a simple feather, the film is a call to action to implement energy solutions that work with nature."

Our friend at dinner also mentioned a segment of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks science show called The Mental Health Toll of Climate Change. It seems the resilience we spoke of earlier is starting to meet its match among Labrado Inuit as the changing climate impacts their traditional lifestyle so negatively. That's got to feel like a real kick in the teeth, after surviving so much.


  1. I agree completely that compassion is needed - unfortunately, it often seems to be scarce currency.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog and article - very interesting observation about the different cultures between different kinds of scientists. Oh, for an end to reductionism.

  2. I agree completely that compassion is needed – but how do we inspire more compassion? I practice Buddhism and encourage others to do so too, but I'm not sure compassion is advancing as fast as the climate disaster...

    Thanks for your comment on my blog/article - interesting and valid point about different scientific cultures.

    I do like your take on these issues...

    Stay in touch,


  3. Hi David,
    Thanks for writing! The whole point of my blog was to explore compassion as the means to a solution of the climate crisis. Alas ... I sometimes find it very difficult to feel compassion for the fossil fuelled movers and shakers! So even my own compassion is scarce at times. ;-)
    For the Children,


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?