An Indigenous Systems Approach to the Climate Crisis

To build better futures, we need time-tested wisdom.
Illustration: David Solnit.

The following is an excerpt from Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua, and out last month from Haymarket Press.

A colleague recently told me that climate justice is about building ties between people, their land, and their traditional, ancestral ways. In all my years of doing environmental work, this is one of the most succinct ways I’ve heard to describe what climate justice means for Indigenous people and communities: reconnecting to our land is an integral piece of addressing climate change for both our Nations and our wider communities.

To understand why, we need to take a closer look at how the last few generations of Indigenous peoples have been removed from our lands and lifeways, and how far-reaching the consequences of those actions have been. When settlers arrived and colonization began, as NDN Collective program officer PennElys Droz explains, our economic systems were targeted for disruption and destruction:

Removing a peoples’ means of providing for themselves is a cunning way to suppress and control them. George Washington famously led the burning of Haudenosaunee seed houses. The United States encouraged the slaughter of buffalo to destroy the ability of the Plains Nations to provide for themselves. And in California, settlers methodically destroyed the oak trees that the people depended upon. A state of dependency was intentionally created, with the Nations having to look to their colonizers for survival assistance.

When Indigenous peoples across North America were forced into boarding schools, they were subjected to assimilation and punished for speaking their languages, and their cultures were vilified. At the same time, the Indian Removal Act gave president Andrew Jackson the authority to negotiate with Tribes in the South to relocate west of the Mississippi, so that white settlers could develop those lands. When the 1956 Indian Relocation Act was signed into law—part of the Indian Termination era—Native people were encouraged to move to urban areas with promises of better jobs and prosperity, though, more often than not, they were met with the oppressive cycles of systemic poverty and discrimination.

The policies enacted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries didn’t just violate Indigenous rights and sovereignty, dissolve treaties, and eliminate reservations. They also made way for the extraction of resources by oil and fossil-fuel corporations from our Native and Tribal lands. But even though connections between the climate crisis and the removal of Indigenous peoples from our lands are stark, they are often overlooked. If we are to save our planet and its resources, we must be willing to interrogate this harmful, pervasive connection and work to repair it at the source.

We know now that the mismanagement of forests by several government agencies, including the US Forest Service, in a misguided attempt to protect trees, has led to worsening wildfires across Western states like California, Montana, and New Mexico. And because capitalism—powered by the fossil-fuel industry—prioritizes profit over human life and ecological well-being, we see this story play out repeatedly across the country, whether it be pushing pipelines through sacred lands and water systems or destroying old-growth forests in Alaska, which are some of our best carbon sequesters.

Removing Indigenous peoples from our land took away our ability to carry and pass on traditional ecological knowledge, such as how to manage lands, our connection to traditional food ways, and our traditional economic structures. There is much to learn, for example, from the Indigenous peoples who have practiced controlled and deliberate burns that restore ecosystem-wide health. Recently, the Yurok people in California have partnered with local fire departments to bring back the ancient practice of controlled burns, which allowed hazel to grow in the area for the first time in many years. The success of this partnership demonstrates the importance of centering Indigenous people and our knowledge of the planet in the fight against the climate crisis.

A green book in the grass

“Every Indigenous Nation had a traditional economy,” PennElys Droz explains:

A way of gathering and distributing what we needed to live and thrive, that was connected to extensive trade routes across the Americas and allowed for the exchange of the gifts of the land, knowledge, language, and culture. These economies developed based on countless generations of learning from our homelands and each other, learning to care for the beings that give us life while ensuring their continuance. These economies also reflected an understanding that our homelands are living beings to be engaged with in good relationships, in order to receive the blessings of abundance, and the importance of keeping good relations and resource distribution among community members.

Whether it was two hundred years ago or today, when we exploit, extract, and/or pollute Indigenous lands, we destroy the critical knowledge and technology that is needed to manage the climate crisis.


NDN Collective is a systems organization that uses Indigenous frameworks and knowledge to tackle issues like climate change. We know that when even one part of a system is not working, the entire system is impacted. Therefore, we work holistically and with solutions front and center: as we advocate and mobilize our communities to end their dependence on the fossil-fuel economy, we are also resourcing and investing in them to create pathways to reconnect with their lands, culture, and traditional knowledge. We take this approach because we know that the results will foster climate justice and allow Indigenous communities to take back the power that comes with having a mutually beneficial relationship with our land.

Despite generations of being attacked and forced from our lands, Indigenous-led organizations and brilliant individuals are helming innovative efforts to fight back, furthering climate justice by connecting Indigenous people to our rightful land and ancestral knowledge. In Cordova, Alaska, for example, Native Conservancy is working to build a regenerative Indigenous economy as it battles mining that could devastate both the traditional lands of the Eyak people and the regional ecosystem. A case in point: in 1989, Dune Lankard watched as the Exxon Valdez tanker hit Bligh Reef and spewed tens of millions of gallons of crude oil into Dune’s homelands and ancestral waters in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, an event he refers to as the “day the water died.” Since the devastating oil spill, Dune has worked enthusiastically and tirelessly as a community leader, protecting more than a million acres within the Cooper River Delta and 1,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Kodiak, an area permanently protected from development. And by building a regenerative economy, Dune and the Native Conservancy are working to strengthen the inherent rights of sovereignty and subsistence and the climate resiliency of their community. At this moment, Dune’s team is hard at work building a community kelp seed nursery and conducting research for kelp cultivation. The goal is to build the first Native community–run kelp restoration project in the Exxon Valdez spill zone, and, by supporting Native ownership of wild kelp seed, to empower Native villages to manage their own means of growing kelp.

Kelp provides more than a source of food—as Dune puts it, “What you get is a product that can be used for a variety of purposes such as nutraceuticals, compost, fertilizer, biofuels, and many other byproducts”:

In addition to being a food and excellent fertilizer for onland farming, kelp offers immense benefits to the environment. It improves water quality, provides valuable habitat for hundreds of ocean species, and it has the potential to mitigate climate change impacts such as ocean acidification. Kelp can also serve as an incredibly effective carbon sink; estimates suggest that kelp forests can sequester five times the carbon dioxide of terrestrial forests. In other words, growing kelp is a win-win-win: for our Native communities, our ailing blue planet, and for creating a new resilient, restorative, regenerative economy.


Operating in the rural Navajo Nation, Native Renewables—founded by Wahleah Johns, who recently began a new role as the senior advisor at the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs—empowers Native communities by giving them access to renewable solar energy. Not only does Native Renewables address the challenge and infrastructure gap of Native and Tribal communities lacking access to electricity by installing off-grid solar PV systems, they also build capacity in our communities by leading workforce training. Since its founding, Native Renewables has cohosted several classroom and hands-on workshops in Arizona, New Mexico, and Alaska on solar energy technology and how this form of renewable energy can support our communities.

Native Renewables integrates cultural values and teachings into their work by bringing in Indigenous cosmologies about the sun and providing tools that connect solar energy education and language revitalization. Navajo Nation can and will continue to be a model for the rest of the nation, as they continue transitioning from fossil fuels. Native Renewables is supporting this transition by equipping their communities with the skill sets and resources to achieve true energy sovereignty and liberation from the fossil-fuel industry.


At their root, the Green New Deal and other regenerative solutions and progressive policies around climate justice are actually Indigenous models. As we continue to mobilize for comprehensive climate justice legislation, and as we begin to see more recognition of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in federal policy making, it is imperative that we center Indigenous communities and grassroots leaders who have been on the ground implementing place-based solutions for decades. Indigenous people know what it takes to save our planet and the life-giving resources it provides. ♦

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