Interview with Kyle Whyte
“Colonization has always inflicted anthropogenic climate change on indigenous peoples. Whether it’s forced removal, deforestation, or pollution, we can see countless examples of this. Most of these were cases of industrialization coupled tightly with colonization,” says Kyle Whyte, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University.
By: Dave Saldana
Climate change is nothing new for indigenous peoples. It’s something they’ve had to deal with for centuries. Dispossessed of their land by invaders and colonists, they’ve had to leave behind ecosystems to which generations had conformed their lifestyles and cultures, forced to adapt to new climates, sometimes at the end of a gun.
But the present iteration of climate change, one that threatens to alter civilization and society as we currently understand them, brings with it new challenges for settler states and the indigenous peoples within their borders.
“Colonization has always inflicted anthropogenic climate change on indigenous peoples. Whether it’s forced removal, deforestation, or pollution, we can see countless examples of this. Most of these were cases of industrialization coupled tightly with colonization,” says Kyle Whyte, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University. “The history of colonization and the current policies that nations like the U.S. have towards [Native American] tribes are going to make it so they’re going to get harmed in a lot of ways by climate change.”
Whyte focuses on environmental justice and Native American philosophy. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, which was displaced from its historical homeland in the woodlands of the western Great Lakes region to the grassland plains of Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma, he has some understanding of how indigenous peoples have had to adapt to environmental circumstances beyond their control.
“There are actually a couple of issues in action here,” Whyte says. “There’s the mitigation issue—how do we stop what we know are the drivers of anthropogenic climate change—the other is adaptation. The question there is, do tribes have the scientific support and the respect for their own forms of knowledge to be able to engage in adaptation for the continued existence of tribal cultures, societies, and ways of life.” Whyte addresses this question through work that supports ethical collaboration and dialogue between indigenous peoples and scientists, such as the recently released Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives and the 2014 Shifting Seasons Summit.
One of the ways global warming and industrialization will likely impact indigenous populations, Whyte says, is that it will likely harm—or entirely eliminate—fish and game species that they have relied upon not only as food, but as spiritual and cultural touchstones. Many indigenous nations are granted special rights to hunt and fish those animals, but what happens—legally, morally, ethically—when human activity destroys habitats and ecosystems that those animals need?
“Treaties protect tribal members’ access to cultural and economically important species,” he says. “But they don’t often have flexible mechanisms for climate change.
“So for example, a tribe has a right to fish a certain fish species within a prescribed area. If that fish moves outside of that treaty area, then the tribe actually no longer has a recognized right to engage with that fish species. That’s actually a threat to tribal sovereignty.”
This is not a hypothetical situation, as Whyte has written on regarding treaties and reservation boundaries in the U.S context. It has played out in the tar sands of northern Alberta, where the First Nations in Fort Chipewyan, downriver on the Athabasca from the extraction and processing sites in Fort McMurray. In July, researchers from the University of Manitoba released a study finding dangerous levels of contamination in fish and game consumed as part of the traditional diet of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree people of the area. Previous studies had found increased incidence of cervical cancer and rare cancers of the bile duct among people who live and hunt along the river.
On the opposite end of the planet, the island nation of Kiribati and the people of the Carteret Atoll in Papua New Guinea and the island of Taro in the Solomons are losing their homelands to rising oceans caused by global warming. They have become victims of an economic system in which they have had little if any say.
Whyte says he’s encouraged by actions taken by indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada in opposition to industrialization that threatens current tribal lands, and has published work addressed to scientists about how they can support actions ranging from external science networks and tribal governmental programs to the Mother Earth Water Walk.
A recent and widely publicized effort, the Cowboy/Indian Alliance, links tribal lands with farms and ranches from seizure by the oil industry for the Keystone XL pipeline. The organization staged a thousands-strong march on Washington, DC, in the spring, with a horseback ride-in and tepees set up on the National Mall, drawing attention to their rejection of the pursuit of profit at the cost of environmental degradation.
Whyte says this is something the tribes know too well, and may finally have the political strength to prevent.
“Tribes didn’t benefit from industrialization and colonization. These were processes that removed tribes from land and completely altered tribal landscapes,” Whyte says. “So resistance you see today against tar sands and other environmental situations are tribes stepping up and taking leadership against policies that allow for continued colonization through imposition of a non-indigenous worldview. This is a moral issue that scientists who work with tribes must understand.”