US visitor says Indigenous knowledge can tackle climate crisis

By Emma Ruben

US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland this month called for Indigenous-led conversation to combat climate change in Australia and beyond.

Speaking at the Perth US Asia Centre in WA, the first Native American to serve as a United States cabinet secretary gave a keynote address on the importance of Indigenous knowledge and leadership in tackling the climate crisis.

Haaland was visiting Australia to highlight the importance of collaborative conservation and international partnerships to inform the global effort to fight the climate crisis.

Haaland spoke candidly of her own Indigenous heritage and how important it had been to her in her current role.

“At one point in time, the department I now lead was tasked with either exterminating or assimilating Indigenous like me, a painful history that our two countries intimately share,” Haaland said.

“I’m the first cabinet secretary who brings the trauma of surviving federal assimilation policies to the decision-making table.

“As secretary, I stand on the shoulder of those who came before me who survived those painful pages of our history, so that I can be here today.”

Indigenous knowledge and management help combat the climate crisis in the US

Haaland said the US government has invested in the restoration and conservation of public and native lands and waters to meet their climate goals.

“Many of the challenges we face today – a warming planet, the loss of habitat and wildlife, dying coral reefs – these could have been lessened or completely avoided if early colonists had valued the stewardship practices and environmental wisdom that tribes have cultivated over thousands of years,” she said.

“As Secretary, I have the distinct honour to travel to visit Indigenous communities across the United States, who maintain their inherent connection to the land, a connection intrinsic to their cultures, languages, and ways of life.

“This is a lesson the entire world can and must benefit from if we want to save this planet for our grandchildren.”

Last year, the US government signed a co-management agreement between the Department of Interior and the five tribes of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Bears Ears National Monument. (Image website US Dept Interior)

Through this agreement, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Pueblo of Zuni will be able to participate and apply their Indigenous knowledge to the long-term management of the monument.

In June 2022, fish production and staffing at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery was transferred to the Nez Perce tribe within the State of Idaho.

Ancestors of the Nez Perce people maintained fishing villages and harvesting traditions that honoured the cycles of the fish and the Clearwater River.

First Nations knowledge informing climate sustainability

Haaland noted the Queensland Indigenous Women’s Ranger Network was using Indigenous knowledge to protect endangered ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2022, several Aboriginal and Torres Strait delegates, including the National Native Title Council and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander International Engagement Organisation, attended COP27 in Egypt to elevate First Nations voices as an active part of the climate change solution.

More Indigenous knowledge from Emma Ruben in Cosmos:

Culture, Country and the challenge of change

Caring for country extends beyond the land

The endangered warru facing challenges

Member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and Noongar Law academic, Dr Hannah McGlade, says Australia is yet to make the same strides in terms of including First Nations knowledge in climate legislation.

“We of course have some initiatives underway… I don’t think we’re at the level of the US and I think that’s certainly something we can take from her visit,” McGlade says.

“We certainly aren’t anywhere in this ballpark or in the realm of relationship building, investment and attitudinal change that we’re seeing in the US.

“I hope we can get there. I know we have a strong commitment from Prime Minister Albanese and Minister Linda Burney to the Voice and that will be integral to seeing the kind of change, relationship and investment into Indigenous peoples participation and support for addressing climate change.”

At the end of her address, Haaland called for both the US and Australia to heed past tragedies and learn from them, and to use Indigenous knowledge to guarantee a future for the planet and “our children”.

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