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Scholars look to Indigenous knowledge and practices in fight against climate change

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University of Michigan & Washington University
Kyle Whyte (at left) and Kellie Thompson joined Monday’s noon talk show.

As humans grapple with how to protect the environment and sustain life amid intensifying climate issues, St. Louis-area universities and other local institutions are looking to time-tested approaches for ideas as they kick off a free virtual conference later this week.

One of those ideas has to do with kinship, an ancient concept that Kyle Whyte, the George Willis Pack Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, has embedded into his contemporary research.

“A lot of times when people think about kinship they think about their relationships with immediate family members. But for a lot of Indigenous people, we use the concept of kinship both to include that, but in ways that are pretty different,” Whyte, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, explained Monday on St. Louis on the Air.

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Kathryn M. Buder American Indian Studies Center at Washington University

“A kinship relationship is any relationship that when you take it seriously, you know that it gives you the support network that you need to face some of the big challenges that you’re going to face in your life.”

It requires trust, consent and accountability, the professor explained, rather than a formal law or code. And when it comes to progress on climate issues, he said, mainstream society has not abided by such notions.

“In the rush to lower [our] carbon footprint,” Whyte explained, “we’re seeing many different engineers and politicians and environmentalists offer solutions to climate change, whether it’s renewable energy or nuclear energy or hydropower, and almost all of these solutions are ones that if they’re practiced they are actually very harmful to Indigenous people.”

He offered solar power, which relies on supply chains involving the mining of various minerals, as one example.

“Oftentimes those mines are right next to Indigenous peoples’ territories, where they live, work and play,” Whyte said. “And often the companies that engage in the mining, they don’t have procurement or other types of policies that would ensure the local community is safe but also benefits economically. … You’re also seeing hydropower, for example, large-scale dams being put forward as a solution to climate change.

In combating climate change, a call to collaborate and learn from Native Americans
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with indigenous scholars Kyle Whyte and Kellie Thompson.

“And there still hasn’t been a solution to that particular technology that doesn’t lead to the flooding or inundation of the communities that are nearby — oftentimes Indigenous people.”

Such issues resonate with Kellie Thompson, one of the organizers of this week’s “Indigenous Knowledge & Sustainability” forum.

“That happened in my Native community up, too, up in New York,” said Thompson, a member of the Seneca who is the director of Washington University’s Kathryn M. Buder American Indian Studies Center. “So I know exactly some of those effects [and] what that can look like to families, to communities, to the environment. … When we’re talking about some of these things, we have to not only include Indigenous voices but incorporate them into the solution in really meaningful ways.”

About a dozen Indigenous speakers’ knowledge will be in the spotlight during the forum, which promises a deep look at strategies “used for centuries to care for the land [and] to care for the environment in a very responsible, reciprocal way,” according to Thompson.

“I would love for [people] to attend this conference, as many events as they can, to listen to the maybe new [to them] Indigenous perspective and knowledge and wisdom when we think about the land and the environment — and to maybe take away something that they can use in their everyday lives, too,” said Thompson.

On Monday’s talk show, she and Whyte joined host Sarah Fenske for a look at how an ancient emphasis on shared responsibility and reciprocity can inform contemporary efforts toward sustainability.

“Indigenous Knowledge & Sustainability” kicks off Wednesday. It’s sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Zoo, the Kathryn M. Buder American Indian Studies Center at Washington University, the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Native American Studies Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the Center for Spirituality & Sustainability at SIUE, and SIUE's College of Arts & Sciences.

It wraps up on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 11.

Related Event
What: Indigenous Knowledge & Sustainability forum
When: Wednesday through Monday
Where: Online
For more information and to register for various sessions, see the conference page on UMSL’s website.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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