Dear Settler Environmentalists: Let’s Talk About Land and Our Complicity in Colonization
Updated: May 18, 2021
To my fellow settlers who care about sustainability—let’s talk.
At the end of the day, we all just want to see a future. We want to know that generations from now, people will be able to experience the same things in life that we could.
This wish often comes out as, “We want to save the planet.”
It’s time to confront this.
We cannot be the hero of the story—we never were and we never will be.
From one settler to another, let’s talk about how we can rethink our relationship to land and confront our complicity in colonization.
Confronting Our Colonial Past (and Present)
The colonization of so-called “Canada” has caused the immense erasure and theft of Indigenous land, culture, and spirituality.
Colonization at its core is a project made to uproot Indigenous people and to separate them from their knowledge and land in order to create a system that relies on the knowledge and approaches of the European colonizers. This has erased decades of traditional knowledge systems which focus on the reciprocity of a land-human relationship.
Settlers when first arriving ignored Indigenous management of their ecosystems and instead called it all “nature”. They replaced traditional food systems with their own and removed Indigenous peoples from their place and their knowledge of place through the reserve system.
The effects of this erasure are still heavily felt because these are not one-time occurrences. These acts and many like them live in our institutions with the continued goal to erase Indigenous culture.
Colonization and the Climate Crisis
Colonization attempts to remove humans’ relationship to land as part of spirit and life. It forces land to be capital—something to be owned and to service us through the extraction of food, water, and shelter. The colonial perspective of land is not as the gift-giving, living, being it had been known as for generations before, but instead, a thing to serve its purpose for people.
This view of the land is what has created the world of unsustainability so common now.
Colonization makes space for the apathy people feel when confronted by the exploitation and death of this planet.
Colonization through violence and theft has created a worldview in which land is money, something to take and something to have. It’s important to understand that because of this, mass exploitation of resources is allowed. Under Indigenous management and view of land, this would not be the case.
Centring Indigenous Ways of Knowing
It’s important to note that there isn’t one Indigenous view of land. So-called “Canada” before colonization was made up of hundreds of different cultures, spiritualities, worldviews and practices in many different Indigenous communities. Indigeneity to land is global too—Indigenous people exist all over the world.
Lumping all these understandings of land as one single “Indigenous view” is problematic and erases many different place-based learnings.
Many of the reciprocal practices found within these communities cannot be separated from the place or the people. Land and water care was and is deeply interconnected with community and culture, and the land is not the same everywhere. There is no one solution to the climate crisis because each community has different needs. Indigenous knowledge of the land is diverse, intimate, and generational.
Indigenous knowledge of the land is not just one view, not just one practice—it is hundreds of simultaneous ones creating practices of gratitude for the relationships between land, water, human, and non-human relatives (plants, animals, spirits). Indigenous knowledge of the land is localized, is personal, and is historical.
Nowadays, after hundreds of years of colonization trying to erase this knowledge, Indigenous communities continue to be resilient. These communities are disproportionately affected by climate change and often will be the first to have knowledge of its effects.
With generations of knowledge of their place, Indigenous peoples have the ability to notice changes far better than any Western science and know better the interconnectedness of their ecosystems and how these changes may affect them.
Confronting Our Complicity in Colonization
In moving forward, it’s important to draw on Indigenous views of the land—to rethink it in a lot of ways. And it’s important to understand where current thoughts of land are coming from—that they originate from a place of exploitation and theft that works to uphold colonialism.
Within the climate movement, marginalized groups and their contributions are ignored, taken advantage of, or stolen.
Because of this settlers, cannot take any truly sustainable, reciprocal action on the Earth’s current crisis without first rebuilding trust and seeking justice for those who have been exploited.
Climate action without Indigenous peoples at the lead and in reciprocal, meaningful partnerships is harmful. It’s further erasure of knowledge of these places and does not focus on the relationship-building that needs to be done between people and Earth. Before climate action can happen, trust needs to be rebuilt.
It’s important to understand that in order for real change to be made in the fight for environmental justice, Indigenous people’s knowledge has to be centred.
They must be acknowledged, respected, and upheld.
Doing so can mean viewing the land, water, and animals as gifts and as relationships. It can mean viewing these aspects as reciprocal and loved, as their own beings, with their own sovereignty.
As Anishinaabe and Citizen Potawatomi Nation author Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “it is not the land which is broken, but our relationship with it”.
Future Ecologies — “Camas, Cores, and Spores” (LINK)
What on Earth — “How Indigenous knowledge could help fight climate change” (LINK)
“Building a Sustainable Future: Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change Action” — Melissa Wankiewicz (LINK)
“Native Land, Native Leadership: Restructuring the Climate Movement” — Mali Obomsawin (LINK)
“Indigenous communities are at the forefront of climate resilience” — Climate Justice Resilience Fund (LINK)
“FNLC Statement: Indigenous Peoples Must Be Partners in Canada’s Climate Change Discussions” — Union of BC Indian Chiefs (LINK)
“(How) Climate Change is a Hangover of Colonialism, Exploitation, and Slavery” — Umair Haque (LINK)
“Colonialism and Climate Change: Deborah McGregor Calls for more Indigenous Input” — Carelton Newsroom (LINK)
Kimmerer, R. W. 2017. The Covenant of Reciprocity. In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Ecology, pp. 368-381: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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About the Author
T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.