Photo shows: a Field Medic wearing camo and a red headband that reads: "Water is Life," raising her right fist. A large wood fire behind her blocks a road. Fellow Water Protectors behind her also have fists raised.
Oceti Sakowin Camp. Photo by Avery White.

Over the next two months, NPQ, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), will publish on a weekly basis a series of articles that lift up Native American voices to highlight issues concerning environmental justice in Indian Country and identify ways that philanthropy might more effectively support this work.

Greetings. I am excited to kick off a new article series focused on Native communities and environmental justice. This series builds on the one NPQ and First Nations co-developed last fall and will highlight voices of respected Native American nonprofit leaders who are on the frontlines addressing so many of the fundamental environmental challenges of our time.

Too often, Native voices in all aspects of American life are silenced and marginalized. But here Native community leaders will speak directly for themselves about their important work to positively transform Native communities and build sustainable futures.

Throughout the United States, Native communities are actively working to combat environmental racism and climate change. These Native leaders are working to elevate indigenous knowledge and practices as it relates to Native lands and natural resources.

Here’s a little context about some of the critical environmental justice and climate change-related work under way in Native communities.

1. Environmental justice is not a new idea in Native communities.

It is important to acknowledge that Native communities have long had a different relationship with the environment compared to individuals from Western society. Although there are differences among Native communities, the worldview of Native people generally sees the land and environment as intrinsically intertwined with human development and wellbeing. Native people have long acknowledged that decisions we make today have lasting effects on future generations. Thus, we have a responsibly to act as accountable stewards of the land and environment for future generations. Some nations have termed this as planning for “seven generations.” As David Wilkins, Lumbee, writes in Indian Country Today, this means that each generation is responsible “to teach, learn, and protect the three generations that had come before it, its own, and the next three. In this way, we maintained our communities for millennia.”

But it important to not romanticize Native relationships to land and the environment. Wilkins warns us to avoid the “destructive myth of mystical, all-seeing Natives. In truth, our peoples were visionary but not in a passive, new-age way. We actively tended our families and our clan-ties by holding the lives, memories, and hopes of all Seven Generations close.”

In contrast, when white-dominated nations emerged on what is today called the North American continent, they believed it was their Manifest Destiny to conquer the land and all of its inhabitants from sea to shining sea. Euro-Americans believed that humans were atop the earth’s hierarchy (by divine placement). Thus, precious land and resources should be exploited for the benefit of human development and progress. In this worldview, there is no acknowledgement, accountability, or responsibility for future generations.

In sum, Native people have long held a worldview that connects human and community health to the health of land and the environment. It shapes and perpetuates Native identities, cultures, and worldviews. And, today, as concepts such as stewardship become more important to the sustainability of our entire planet, there is added value in listening to Native voices, who were environmentalists before environmentalism became popular.

2. Native communities have long been on the frontlines fighting against environmental racism and promoting environmental justice.

Climate change-related events and environmental degradation have increasingly gripped headlines as citizens feel the brunt of these manmade crises. But one message rarely makes headlines: study after study documents that people of color and low-income communities have been and will continue to be hit the hardest by environmental degradation and climate change.

In fact, new research has suggested that climate change factors like air pollution are disproportionately caused by consumption of goods and services by white Americans yet are disproportionately inhaled or experienced by people of color. Thus, conversations about climate change cannot be separated from environmental justice and active efforts by communities of color to combat