Learning to Listen to Native Voices

Living in D.C., the land of museums, it’s rather shocking how little I visit them. But last week, while visiting the National Museum of the American Indian, I experienced a small, but very insightful exhibit called “Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change.”

In college, I had read a lot of case studies talking about the indignities Native Americans have suffered because of environmental changes brought by industrial society. One of my heroes is Dorothy Stang, a nun who worked with indigenous people to protect the rainforest. In 2009, she was gunned down by armed beef ranchers who were against her work.

However, in these narratives, the voices of the indigenous people themselves were often lost or never even mentioned. Dorothy Stang’s story is a perfect example – I heard about her from an obituary in Outside magazine, but I have no idea what the names of the people she worked with are. Not to put down her memory – I think she was admirable – but it is just one of so many examples where the person from a developed country gets the acclaim while the native people fighting side-by-side are ignored.

This exhibit was refreshingly different, in that it specifically looked to amplify the voices of indigenous people. It featured photos of them, quotes from them, and video by them. Of course, many of their descriptions were translated into English, but there was little else standing between the speaker and the spoken-to visitor. Unlike traditional exhibits, where the video editor or photographer is non-native, even the sponsoring organization is run by indigenous people. The exhibit was organized by Land is Life, an advocacy and education organization for the rights and self-determination of indigenous people.

Bandolier bag titled "Kotcha Faces Climate Change," designed by Cody Elizabeth Harjo, Seminole / Otoe / Creek / Cherokee / Iowa

As a result of this directness, the voices speak serious truth to power. People from the Gwich’in tribe in the Alaskan wilderness describe how climate change is slowly but steadily affecting the Artic ecosystem. With 75 percent of their food wild-collected, their lives are tied to natural cycles in a way that is completely foreign to me. Although I cannot fathom living in a place that reaches -70 F, the fact that they can refer to it as “Shangri-La” impressed upon me their immense dedication to and understanding of their home. Another set of stories from Papua New Guinea’s islands talked about how in 2008, some of these islands had a devastating storm they called King Tide. Despite the storm’s ferocity, the communities faced it down alone, with no international or even federal help. In fact, the storms have been so much worse than usual that most of the islanders are moving to the mainland. As one islander (Hannah Muleu) said, “We feel it’s not safe on the island anymore.” One of the speakers (Amos Tapo) literally stated, “Now [the same countries] should be responsible for helping me in the time of climate change. I am not the cause of what’s going on. I am an innocent man.”

The exhibit even showed stories of people declaring their voices. One of my favorite pieces was a set of four videos, which were made by native groups in Mexico and Peru. After receiving community media training and videocameras, they created films speaking to both the world and their community about their culture. One video by the Yaqui Mexican community described how “water calls water,” an eloquent concept describing both the ecological and social consequences of a giant hydroelectric dam.

Beyond climate change’s direct effects, the exhibit also devastatingly illustrated the (mostly) unintended consequences of climate change mitigation. Two different sets of pieces focused on indigenous groups suffering significantly from poorly thought-out, corporatized carbon offset projects. In Ecuador, one project planted an exotic tree species that degraded the native ecology, contributing to a disastrous fire that burnt all of the planted trees. While the Dutch electricity company that was responsible for the project received carbon credits to “offset” burning fossil fuels, the community received nothing but pain.

Overall, the exhibit was very thought-provoking and is a good way for people interested in climate change to listen to those most affected. (My number one rule of activism, as I just described in my last post.) It’s incredibly rare to directly hear from indigenous communities and this exhibit offers a set of unique perspectives. Unfortunately, the exhibit at the museum ended only a few days after I visited. Thankfully, the stories from the entire exhibit – and even more – is available online at the Conversations with the Earth website. I highly recommend checking out the site and spending some serious time gazing on the photos, reading the stories, listening to the audio, and watching the video clips. I promise you, listening to these people is worth the effort.

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5 Responses to Learning to Listen to Native Voices

  1. Rhys says:

    Hi Shannon,

    Thanks for alerting me to this exhibit … I plan to check it out tomorrow.

    I just discovered your blog and am excited to see your interests in biking, sustainability and climate change! I’m considering starting an environmental-themed blog with a local DC-area focus, and I’d love to connect with you over the phone or in person to get your thoughts and advice on the concept. Please shoot me an email so we can chat!

    • Unfortunately, the exhibit itself closed at the museum on January 2. I just happened to be at the museum with my parents to catch it. But definitely check out the project’s website – they really do have all of the materials from the exhibit on it. The only physical object in the exhibit that wasn’t a multimedia display was the bag I have the photo of, so you’re not missing much.

      Thanks for the props on my blog! I don’t see a link to your email, but if you’d like to email me, you can do so at willbikeforchange at gmail dot com. I think it’s useful to think about what type of blog you want to run overall – a news blog (like Wash Cycle), a personal essay blog (like mine or Tales from the Sharrows), a tips blog, etc. That will help you really focus.

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