Oftentimes, when we think about climate change, we think of it as a distant and “far removed from daily life” issue. Yet, while some of us have the luxury of not being affected by climate change in our everyday lives, others are not so lucky. On the frontline of the climate crisis are Indigenous communities. Whether here in the United States, or abroad in the rainforest of the Borneo jungle, the climate crisis has spread to all corners of the Earth, and has severely impacted the Indigenous groups that live with and on the land.
This new series will focus on both the experiences and the work of Indigenous artists, and highlight Native narratives, history, traditions, art, and cultures that have been severely oppressed and almost wiped out. There are many mischaracterizations and misinformation about Indigneous cultures and people, and I will attempt to address these as I make my way through the series. As an Indigenous artist myself, I am honored to contribute to this platform and uplift the voices of a people that have long been silenced.
My American Indian mother raised me to understand the past and present struggles of my people, and as a student very interested in climate justice, I simply cannot ignore the current and future struggles that Indigenous communities are facing. Our people did not suffer through, and survive colonization and genocide, to endure the lasting impacts colonizers had on this land. Understanding how Indigenous communities are being affected, and understanding their devastating histories, might lead us to think more sustainably about ways to repair our Earth and our relationship with those that have cared for it for millennia. Because of the urgency of our environmental crisis, we can neither afford to ignore the people, culture, traditions, and art that we will lose, nor can we refuse to take action.
Colonization is, arguably, the starting point of today’s climate crisis. Native peoples viewed the land not as a commodity, as something to exploit, but rather as something that sustained them as they sustained it. Indigenous groups cared for the land and those who inhabited it, and worked to live in harmony and balance with their home. Colonization brought not only the removal of Indigenous groups from their native lands, but the exploitation of these lands for capitalistic gain. As societies of the New World were built, and as natural resources were stripped away, the balance that these Indigenous groups worked hard to protect and maintain was broken.
After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to research and assist on a play that was being developed, written by Isabelle Rogers and James Taylor. This Is A River tells the story of the Indigenous People of the Sarawak region of Borneo in Malaysia. I saw firsthand the detrimental effects of the climate crisis and how it was severely impacting the Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan people. Because of the lack of attention these pressing issues receive in the U.S., it had been easy for me to distance myself from them. But as we made our way downriver, with the beautiful, lush, green rainforest surrounding us and a vibrant soundscape pulsing with life filling our ears, only to then see entire hillsides of rainforest destroyed and stripped in front of our eyes, I felt no longer removed from the issue. It was laid out before me, and I couldn’t look away. And although you may never float down the Baram river, or speak with the incredible Indigenous communities that call that land their home, I ask you to not look away. I ask you to listen to the empowering artists that are part of this series, and to work to create a safe and sustainable world for all.
The artists that will be featured here have not only worked to create a space for Indigenous voices and art, but often address mischaracterizations, retell narratives, and advocate for social and political change. Artists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who has changed the face of hip-hop while using his art as a medium to talk about environmental issues and Indigenous conservation, is a prime example. As he explains in his My Story section on his website:
My music is both a tool for resistance, and a medium to tell my story. My dad taught me that all life is sacred. When I was a little boy, we would always talk about our responsibility to protect our land, our culture, our earth as Indigenous people. These teachings are the foundation of the music I write and the things I fight for.
At just 20 years old, Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organization. He has spoken at the United Nations several times, and regularly uses his voice and platform to talk about the effects of fossil fuels on the Indigenous and other marginalized communities. There are many other Indigenous artists who are creating small waves of change and telling their own stories. They may not be as well known, but their voices deserve to be heard.
It is my hope that this series will create space for these Indigenous voices – the same voices that are undeniably important for the climate conversation. We may not live on our homelands anymore, but our relationship to the Earth runs far deeper than the land we have been taken away from. It is my belief that we all have something to learn from the traditional Indigenous ways of caring for the Earth, and of creating a safe world for our children and grandchildren.
Over the next few months, I will be sharing my interviews with various Indigenous artists from around the world. We must listen to learn, and through this process I know I will absorb knowledge that I hope I can pass on to you. Aheeiyeh, my friends.
(Top image: Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Downloaded from CNN.com.)
This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.
GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.