Words were medicine; they were magic and invisible. They came from nothing into sound and meaning. They were beyond price; they could neither be bought nor sold.
— N. Scott Momaday
Will Steger’s eyewitness climate story is the foundation of Climate Generation, and the climate stories of our staff and the individuals and communities we work with are woven throughout our programs. We know that stories are a powerful way to connect with others on climate change by making the issue personal and relevant. There is also a growing body of research to show that the more we talk about climate change, the more likely others are to take action.
I was honored, privileged, and humbled to be welcomed onto the Bad River and Red Cliff Ojibwe lands to learn and listen through the Climate Strong! Institute. The Climate Strong! Initiative is a partnership with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, University of Wisconsin-Extension, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, 1854 Treaty Authority, and Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, with funding through a NOAA Climate Resiliency Grant.
My experience at the Institute expanded the boundaries of what I consider story, the importance of language, and the power and opportunity of climate solutions that come from Indigenous communities.
The systemic and violent elimination of Indigenous Peoples throughout the United States includes a deliberate focus on extinguishing Native languages through punishment for speaking them and sending Native youth to boarding schools. This loss not only disconnects people from their culture, but damages thousands of years of knowledge and traditional ways of knowing. During the Institute, Damon Panek, a White Earth Tribal Member and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ranger spoke to us about the Ojibwe language.
“To me the Ojibwe language sounds like this place…and our place shapes us. Everything is built into language: our ideas, our values, the land.”
Ojibwe refer to animate and inanimate objects as beings — seeing us all as equal. Ojibwe words oftentimes include clues about the being. For example, a spider, asabikeshiinti, directly translates as the netmaker. This knowledge, when brought into the context of climate change can tell us information about the changes that may have occurred over the thousands of years the Ojibwe people have lived on the land.
In the early 1800s, treaties established an area across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, ceding Ojibwe homelands and their rich natural resources to the U.S. government for sale and settlement. Despite the fact that the Ojibwe retained the rights to hunt, fish, and gather on the ceded lands, this limited their ability to practice their way of life. It was not until 1983 that these rights were upheld by U.S. Courts. Today, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) provides natural resource management expertise, conservation enforcement, and public information in support of off-reservation treaty rights for the 11 member Ojibwe tribes located within the ceded territory.
GLIFWC recognizes that the impacts of climate change will have enormous implications on ceded territories and treaty rights.
They also know of the valuable knowledge held beyond “western science” or scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) in the stories and language of the Ojibwe people. With this recognition they developed a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment that integrates SEK alongside Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), gathered through interviews with elders on their observations and knowledge of Ojibwe culture and history. This resource is powerful in that it expands the concept of story beyond a tool for personal connection into something that can provide knowledge and solutions to climate change.
In addition to GLIFWC’s Vulnerability Assessment, another resource was developed in partnership with partners including the Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science, the 1854 Treaty Authority, and the USDA Forest Service. The Tribal Adaptation Menu is meant to be used when making decisions on how to address climate change at a community level. It is a unique resource that incorporates a cultural lens on climate solutions decision making. In some ways, its title does it a disservice because it is by no means a process that should only be implemented on tribal lands.
We were honored to have Joe Rose, a Bad River tribal elder, share his knowledge and experience with us during the course of the week at Climate Strong! Joe described this time we are in as the “time of the quickening,” when everything is moving fast. He explained that we are at a fork in the road where we must decide whether to take the hard path or the natural path. He spoke of the natural path as the Ojibwe lifeway, and their knowledge as a special gift.
“Along with a special gift goes responsibility. The responsibility to share this gift with others.”
I listened to Joe say this with a feeling of gratitude, knowing that despite hundreds of years of genocide against his people, he was offering solutions and support.
I cannot begin to express the gratitude and awe I feel for this offering, and the hope it inspires in me that we have the potential to make change if we listen to words and stories, and practice acts of humility and grace.
I want to acknowledge that these are only brief reflections. It would be impossible for me to fully capture this experience, or give the people that gave so much the full respect they deserve, especially through the English language.
I do hope that by sharing my thoughts I raise some awareness of the strength, vitality, and innovation of the Ojibwe people and communities, as well as the powerful solutions that come out of communities too often left on the sidelines.
I bring this experience back to Climate Generation to share and integrate into our work in the coming year. When we acknowledge that we are on stolen, Native land, I will feel it more truly in my heart, and I will be able to weave in why solutions led by frontline communities based in traditional knowledge are important and what the Ojibwe people have to offer us as a gift.