Green capitalism might have you believe that using reusable cups can save the world. But have you ever used a cup that was entirely made without fossil fuels or “renewable” energy (as in energy that was produced with mined rare earth minerals)? This type of production necessarily discounts long-term sustainability and environmental reciprocity. From krathong, or banana leaf cups, used in Southeast Asia, to woven cedar cups of the Coast Salish peoples, environmentally balanced cups exist. In fact, technologies and land management practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge are far more numerous, sophisticated and sustainable than white supremacy and global imperialism have led you to believe.   

Indigenous peoples around the world carry a greater implicit knowledge of sustainability than the majority of self-proclaimed “environmentalists.” From the industrialized Western perspective, explains Yale professor Benjamin Cashore, climate change is a “super wicked problem.” In the class Global Environmental Governance, Cashore noted that policy experts working on national and global levels to try and stop climate change also contribute disproportionately to the causes themselves. Whether that means flying to environmental conferences or continuing lifestyles that perpetuate intensive environmental degradation, most environmentalists are part of the problems they are half-heartedly trying to solve. 

Indigenous peoples’ worldviews tend to focus on relationship building and adaptation within their known ecosphere rather than attempting to overcome the limitations of the land — like settlers are attempting and failing to do sustainably. Unfortunately, environmentalists often target Indigenous peoples for their stewardship. In October of this year, Mi’kmaq fishermen in Nova Scotia had their fishing operations burned down by primarily white fishermen, who tried to justify their actions under the guise of concern for environmental regulations. 

To be clear, the 250 lobster traps set by Indigenous fishermen under treaty rights were not a threat to the 5700 predominantly white commercial fishermen in the area. This month, the Membertou and Mi’kmaq First Nations bought a 50 percent stake in Clearwater Seafoods, becoming the owners of the waters where many of the white supremacists are fishermen. As Chief Terrance Paul of the Membertou First Nation wrote, “for 13,000 years, the Mi’kmaq have sustainably fished the waters of Atlantic Canada … For so many years our communities were not welcome to participate.” 

Indigenous peoples have historically been violently excluded by Western environmentalists. This story might reach a victory for the Indigenous fishermen. However, colonization, imperialism and racial capitalism have not only dispossessed Indigenous peoples of land but also criminalized Indigenous relationships with land and water management. This harms everyone, human and non-human.

In September of this year, air quality was reported above Extremely Hazardous from British Columbia to California, for weeks in some places. This Extremely Hazardous air resulted in an acute spike in respiratory deaths in the short term and will continue to affect everyone exposed because of decreased lung function. This will disproportionately impact systematically marginalized communities — much like the coronavirus pandemic. It’s true that dry conditions have been exacerbated by climate change. But the Indigenous practice of controlled “flash” burns that quickly clear out underbrush, preventing larger and hotter fires, may have prevented the fires and their resulting hazardous air quality to a large extent. 

Unfortunately, in the early 1900s as Indigenous peoples along the West Coast were being murdered, forcibly displaced from their homelands and sent to residential boarding schools, the Indigenous practice of cultural burning was criminalized. Many of these cultural burning practices are still largely outlawed. As Tribal Chairman Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono explains, “We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out.” This stands in stark contrast to the out-of-control burns along the Western Seaboard of Turtle Island; this summer, more than 86,000 acres burned in Big Basin, California (the ancestral homelands of the Muwekma Ohlone and Awaswas tribes) as a result of lightning strikes. (More than 4 million acres are estimated to have burned across the state of California so far this year, equivalent to more than 4 percent of the total landmass; Yale’s campus is 373 acres). While lightning could not have been prevented, the fire’s scope certainly would have been limited if cultural burning practices were allowed. 

Let me be clear: it is not the job of Indigenous peoples to fix the systemic problems that settlers created. Through the work of colonialism and settler legal systems, Indigenous people are treated as inferior. “Repatriations” goes beyond white settlers apologizing. What is needed is an unsettling (as in removing the settler mentality) of the land and governance systems. This unsettling necessarily includes the liberation of Black people and Afro-Indigenous peoples. Land back isn’t a metaphor; Indigenous peoples deserve their sovereignty, to be able to practice and adapt their lifeways, while the land deserves agency over itself

The Yurok people granted personhood to the Klamath River in 2019 because it was among the only ways for the settler state to recognize that the land itself has both spirit and rights. As of this month, the plan for dam removal on the river has been revived because of the advocacy of Indigenous peoples and co-conspirators. To care for the land, we must recognize that the land has its own relations, which includes Indigenous peoples and their beliefs, practices, languages and right to exist. It is long past time for environmentalists to reimagine and unlearn their settler principles and to respectfully follow the lead of Indigenous communities. Indigenous Sovereignty, land back and Black liberation are essential aspects of a sustainable future. Environmentalists should act accordingly.

AMY NICHOLS (of the Barrett Family of the Samish Nation) graduated from Yale College in 2020. Contact her at amy.nichols@yale.edu