Indigenous Mitigation of Natural Hazards

If you are a person of Western culture who’s starting to understand the real natural world, then you’re beginning to understand how surprisingly Western culture has flipped the perspective so that things that are upside-down are aggressively claimed to be right-side up. You might even be starting to realize how often things with no up or down to them at all are being surgically altered to “fix” them, just because Western culture is so determined to make the world look and act the way it thinks it ought to, rather than as it simply does and has for 5000 million years of very successful sovereign existence.

What are we to do when people convince themselves that a solar farm big enough to change the climate will stop climate change? Or that problems created by a car culture based on speed, performance, and individual independence will be solved by laying waste to whole new areas of the earth in order to build slightly different cars that still prioritize speed, performance, and individual independence? And how can we navigate social and political currents that are so bipolar that the only perceived alternative to these plans is to insist things are just fine as they are and that, in fact, we need to take restrictions off corporations and encourage them to extract even more from the Land because it generates a healthy economy?

I harbor no illusions that Western culture will suddenly come to its senses and stop doing these things. But I wrote all the pages of this exercise after reading the publications of a few clearly good-hearted evaluation professionals who seemed to genuinely want to find a way into the Real world that the Land, Indigenous people, and all the other Nations, the seen and the unseen, inhabit. And I do have hopes for you. The question is: What can you do with the Knowledge you’re starting to acquire now, if the larger culture is a juggernaut that’s going to continue mowing down ecosystems no matter what?

I have several concrete suggestions for you, ranging from small and simple actions to a bigger one that might actually start to make a difference. I’ll start with the smaller personal ones on this page. Among the smaller suggestions, at the very end of the list on this page, is a lovely idea for personal actions in which you can personally engage that can help make a difference, as  laid out in a video interview with Tero Mustonen of Snowchange. Once you’ve reviewed all the ideas listed here, please continue on to a bigger suggestion for making a real difference, which is laid out on this page.

1. When engaged in environmental intervention of any kind, apply the ethos “First, do no harm.” This was part of the original Hippocratic Oath* sworn by physicians for centuries. People who want to heal ecosystems should swear to the same ethos today. It might not change things, but at least it might get people to start thinking a little differently about the casually destructive things they do. This phrase also fits the concept of Ecocide, since that’s often the outcome of the harm that is done.

2. Refuse to go along with bad ideas. If you’re an evaluator, you’re used to telling people that the project they’re planning is not ethical and needs to be modified. Hire Indigenous people as consultants to get the firepower you need. Stand up for Life and the Land. It’s no fun to be seen as a wet blanket who keeps opposing proposal after proposal in some group’s big planned system. You might lose work over it. You might be attacked over it and will certainly be criticized and ridiculed. But you’re a professional with a level of credibility that carries weight. Use it. If enough people do this, it begins to gather momentum.

3. Hire Indigenous people as consultants. Give them the floor in meetings. Back them up to clients. We have Knowledge and we have sovereign authority. If you invite us into the places of power where decisions are made, and you let go of your own power so we can rise on the wings of the situation, you will see what can happen. Stop asking us what we think so you can quote us a time or two in your report. You have cultural power. That’s a microphone. Hand it to us so we can hold it out to the Land and let the Earth speak.

4. Keep learning. Collaborate with Indigenous colleagues in venues where you are the minority. In such venues, we are able to hold the Center and Reality tilts back to right-side up. It’s a difference even people from Western culture who are very new to Indigenous worldview can perceive and appreciate. In situations like that, you will learn a great deal if you listen and feel. If you ask questions, be prepared to be asked questions in return since that’s Indigenous pedagogy. Don’t let it throw you. It’s not an act of challenge

5. Support Indigenous organizations and people. When we say we are marginalized, we mean we have been pushed so far outside mainstream society that even the professionals you’re dealing with often live in substandard housing, have only a few changes of clothing, and can’t afford good dental care. Elders who carry the most precious Knowledge often suffer the most from want. Many of us have given up professional jobs to devote ourselves to this essential work at this time in the world’s history, We work for the Land and for Indigenous peoples and Knowledge because it matters. Imagine what we could do if we had resources. Supporting nonprofits like the one I founded, whose website you are on, and paying appropriate consulting fees to Indigenous Elders you hire for your projects helps Indigenous people to remain alive and productive in a world that has treated each of us with contempt, ridicule, and violence. You can, as an individual, help to even out the imbalance of power and resources that have made our lives uphill climbs and that limit our ability to do all we really can to help the world right now.

6. Promote and support Indigenous leadership. We Know. We have paid a very high price to hang onto the sacred Knowledge we have carried and protected through all the Age of Winter we have endured since First Contact with people of Western culture. We are resilient. We are strong. As many Indigenous people have pointed out, we’ve essentially been through the “apocalypse” your people fear but we are still here. We Know how to get through these times. We know the way. Let us lead.

7. Speak up. Educate your peers. When you see someone bend the statements of Indigenous scholars or Elders so they seem to support a Western cultural perception of the natural world, say something. Stand up for the Indigenous person whose words are being misappropriated and for the Land that’s being egregiously misrepresented in the process. Tell people it is not metaphor to say the Land is alive, and that even though you are still working to understand what this means you know Indigenous people actually and literally experience this reality so it’s something that other people darned well need to take seriously. At the very least, they need to stop saying we’re just being poetic. Buy them Tyson Yunkaporta’s book, or Vine Deloria’s Spirit and Reason if you’re feeling feisty about things. When you read a particularly good paper by an Indigenous person, or see a particularly good video, tell your colleagues and then sit down and ask them what they thought about it. Make the dialogue happen and then bring Indigenous people into it whenever you can by including us on your professional teams. And pay well enough when you do that to make it work. Most of us work many more hours than you do because the Land and our people are suffering so intensely and need help, but we earn far, far less than you do. Help us help you. Help us help the Land to survive, and as many Nations as possible with it. (And remember that the term “Nations” does not refer only to human beings.)

8. Remember that many things humans see as natural disasters are reset mechanisms the Land uses to heal and restore itself when it’s been seriously damaged or compromised. After a natural disaster, compassionate action needs to be directed to humans who have lost shelter, food, and clothing. The Land itself should be left alone to do what it needs to do, and protected while it does this. Do all you can to prevent “clean-up” or “restoration” of the Land itself that’s organized and carried out by people of Western culture. Stand firm against extractive industries that insist they are simply making things neat and tidy. Mitigation measures to protect human life and property need to focus on human structures and behaviors — putting houses on stilts or buying out seaside property so people can relocate, for instance, rather than building seawalls. But remember that humans are part of the ecosystem, so even modifying human structures and behaviors can have unintended environmental consequences. Make RFTO and/or McPhee’s Observed Laws your own personal watchwords.

9. Stop talking about linear apocalypse and start using circular language such as birth-death-rebirth or the seasonal round. Apocalypse talk just exacerbates panic. And you know what happens to the environment when Western culture panics. When other people talk apocalypse, tell them what we face is an age of winter instead, and explain what this means.

10. Protect every square inch of the Land you personally can, including all the things that live on and with the Land, and learn about the natural environment in the place where you live so you can be more aware of how to do this. You can learn more about this from Snowchange’s Tero Mustonen, in this interview at Youtube. Advance the cursor on the time arrow (on the video at that site) to about the 29-1/2  minute mark (29:33, specifically) and play it through to about 34:30 to hear suggestions for things you can do where you live. Pay particular attention to Tero’s admonition: “Don’t manage the land.” Remember McPhee’s Observed Laws.

None of these suggestions can change what’s happening at the level things need to change, as quickly as things need to change in order for the Land to begin healing itself. But I have a concrete suggestion for that as well, and I will tell you it came to me as a Vision. This has real significance. It’s why I put so much effort into this exercise, is that I knew some of you were to be part of this Vision but that you didn’t yet know enough to join us. That meant you had to learn. This exercise was the result.

I invite you to review the reasons that Indigenous people must lead now. And, as we finish this long journey now, please do me the honor of permitting me to share this Vision with you. The order in which you do these two things is up to you.


*Apparently, the actual phrasing wasn’t in these exact words. You can explore the precise language used at the Harvard Medical School site I’ve linked here if you wish. It’s worth noting, however, the article’s observation that “first, do no harm” is a goal that “sets the bar rather low” for a healing effort. All of this simply make me think it could be a very, very good place to set the bar when establishing a working ethos for environmental interventions.