Indigenous researcher talks decolonizing environmental justice

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Graphic by Yunkyo Kim

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, an Indigenous academic, discussed the importance of decolonizing environmental justice.

Russell Leung, Reporter

Indigenous author and California State University San Marcos Prof. Dina Gilio-Whitaker discussed decolonizing environmental justice movements at a Tuesday event.

Weinberg Prof. Melissa Rosenzweig moderated the talk, which was hosted by the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture. Gilio-Whitaker, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington, discussed the environmentalist movement in relation to the colonization of Indigenous land before detailing the role that Indigenous people should play in the environmental justice movement.

She tied these ideas to her 2019 book “As Long as Grass Grows.”

Gilio-Whitaker said ecocide, the killing of an ecosystem, corresponds with cultural genocide for Indigenous people. The Colville Confederated Tribes suffered both when they saw a severe drop in its local salmon population after the United States government constructed dams on the nearby Columbia River, she said.

“Our people, people of the Columbia River — this whole region — understand themselves as salmon people because the salmon were so central to our lives because it’s such an important food source,” Gilio-Whitaker said. “And it becomes, really, the center of our cultures.”

To decolonize environmental justice, she said, the movement must recognize past and present colonial structures and acknowledge Indigenous people’s distinctive relationship with land. She added that Indigenous knowledge in areas like forest management is important. Gilio-Whitaker also called on the government to honor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which establishes their prerogative to free, prior and informed consent on matters concerning their land.

Gilio-Whitaker said the Biden administration seems to take environmental justice seriously and even Congress is starting to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into the movement. In fact, the House Committee on Natural Resources hosted a hearing last week on environmental justice in Indigenous communities.”

“I felt like, ‘Wow, somebody read my book!’” Gilio-Whitaker said. “And they’re actually employing the framework that I laid out.”

Rosenzweig said Gilio-Whitaker’s emphasis on consent, recognition, accountability and reciprocity were important standards of Indigenous environmental justice.

Indigenous environmental justice expands beyond environmental racism to emphasize the role of colonial invasion and land theft, Rosenzweig added.

“Attending to Indigenous environmental justice requires recognizing and supporting Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination,” she said.

Weinberg Prof. Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, who helped plan the event, said Gilio-Whitaker’s work underscores the direction she hopes the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture is headed.

Marion Suiseeya added that comprehending the complexities of land-based relationships is a key aspect of its vision.

“Being attentive to the multiple ways in which people understand and experience environmental change is really important if we want to find solutions,” Marion Suiseeya said. “That’s what we’re trying to cultivate in our program.”

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