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Addressing Climate Changes with Indigenous Knowledges and Intercultural Collaborations

by Heather Lazrus, Julie Maldonado, Paulette Blanchard, Kalani Souza, Bill Thomas & Daniel Wildcat

Amidst another consecutive summer filled with wildfire smoke from the burning western United States and severe drought conditions in major western watersheds, unprecedented and ongoing flooding in Bangladesh and European countries, and other extreme events globally affecting greater numbers of people living in precarious situations, how do we acknowledge and address the climate crises? While our scientific instrumentation and emergency response apparatuses work overtime to characterize and respond to the shifting baseline of extremes under a rapidly changing climate, we need new strategies to build a future for our human and non-human generations yet to come.

We are encouraged by decades of recognition of the value of Indigenous People’s knowledge systems and wisdom – recognition of the validity of observations and practices that are embedded in place and that have enabled survival for thousands of years and recognition of wisdom that connects humans fully to all other life on Planet Earth: we are not separate from our non-human relatives, and we depend on one another for survival. Essentially, we believe that we cannot solve the climate crises with the same thinking that created it – we must look more broadly. Partnerships between Indigenous knowledge holders and Earth scientists are an encouraging pathway forward, with significant potential.

However, at a time when social unrest during a global pandemic is throwing deep social disparities into stark relief (think of the momentum of Black Lives Matter) we need to proceed in collaborations between Indigenous knowledges and Earth sciences with optimistic and justice-forward caution. What is often called “co-production” of knowledge with the intention of bringing together insights from both Indigenous and Earth science backgrounds can inadvertently do more harm than good – by extracting Indigenous knowledges from the peoples and places to which it is sacred, by further subjugating Indigenous collaborators to a system from which they do not benefit, and even by further removing Indigenous Peoples from sovereignty over their knowledge and lands.

These ideas will be further developed in a forthcoming contribution to PLOS Climate, where we elaborate on why we need a culture change in Western scientific institutions, and where we share some of the considerations that are essential to centering equity and justice in intercultural collaborations. Our insights are based on what we – a partnership of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists – have learned cumulatively from many collaborators, colleagues, and friends over decades of doing this work. Our collaboration is housed in the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences. The Rising Voices Center facilitates intercultural, relational-based approaches for understanding and adapting to extreme weather and climate events, climate variability and climate change. The Center brings together Indigenous and other scientific professionals, tribal and community leaders, environmental and communication experts, students, educators, and artists from across the United States, including Alaska, Hawai’i, the Pacific and Caribbean Islands, and around the world, to assess critical community needs and to pursue joint research aimed at developing optimal plans for community action towards sustainability. Rising Voices acknowledges the inherent value of Indigenous knowledge systems and Indigenous science, adaptive practices and processes, honoring them equally with Earth sciences.

Heather Lazrus, Ph.D., is a Project Scientist in the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and co-director of the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences. In her research she investigates the cultural mechanisms through which all weather and climate risks are perceived, experienced, and addressed.

Julie Maldonado, Ph.D., is the Associate Director for the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), a non-profit, link-tank for policy-relevant research toward post-carbon livelihoods and communities. In this capacity, she serves as co-director of the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences.

Paulette Blanchard is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Geography at the University of Kansas, and 2018-2020 Diversity and Inclusion Fellow with University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Her current work addresses Indigenous science and mentoring in science, science education, Indigenous led environmental movements, and activism.

Kalani Souza is a gifted storyteller, singer, songwriter, film director/producer, poet, philosopher, priest, political satirist, peacemaker, mediator, and educator. He is a Hawaiian Practitioner and Cross-Cultural Facilitator with the Olohana Foundation.

Bill Thomas is the Senior Advisor for Islands, Indigenous and International Issues for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management. His areas of focus include indigenous engagement around climate and its implications for local, regional and national security across the Pacific, Caribbean and continental US.

Daniel Wildcat, Ph.D., is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and an accomplished scholar who writes on Indigenous knowledge, technology, environment, and education.

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