Introducing non-Native people to an Indigenous Worldview

  • November 19, 2021
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  • Deborah Carter McCoy

Two Paths to One: Next Steps to Integrate an Indigenous Understanding into Environmental Work, offered in partnership with Bemidji State University, created an introduction for non-Native people to an Indigenous worldview. During the event participants were introduced to holding dual identities and points of view, understanding the value of centuries of Native practices, and resources for guiding non-Native people to an awareness of privilege. Environmental Initiative’s partners, board of directors, and staff members are intentionally delving more deeply into difference knowing that advantages can be gained by integrating different ways of thinking and knowing into cultural norms. Cultural norms are tied to many things, including race and this event created an opportunity for those attending to consider their own racial lens and how it integrates with their current work.

Two Paths

Bemidji State University Sustainability Director and Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin Director Erika Bailey-Johnson works for Mother Earth. At the beginning of our gathering, she reminded attendees that humans depend on all other life for survival, and we are responsible for caring for the Earth and all its offerings. Additionally, she invited awareness of how each of us presents ourselves to others and how people receive us. Awareness and perception have an impact on learning experiences. This duality is not just in physical appearances but applies in Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin (NEE-zhoo gwy-ah-ko-chi-gay-win) as well. Niizhoo-gwayakochigewin is an Ojibwe phrase which translates to “two ways of doing the right thing in the right way.” Environmental Initiative Award-winner Hope Flanagan identified the same practice in our recent conversation with her.

Acknowledging that one person, one perspective, one “right” way is not the only way expands our ability to learn, experience, and collaborate. The Bemidji State University program of the same name aims to bring about understanding and engagement of both Western scientific and centuries-held Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to build positive relationships and create long-term, sustainable changes in the world. Erika reminded us that we are part of nature, not separate. As we work toward a sustainable future, she encouraged us to reframe our thinking by asking “Should we?” instead of declaring “We should.” when making new products, plans, and programs. Taking time to evaluate the source of our decision-making framework, explore what context and which voices—including those of the Earth—are missing, and identify intended and unintended consequences is part of the process when asking “Should we?”

A Travel Guide

Native people are people of the present. As with White-dominant culture, Indigenous people living today have centuries of cultural and familial history to bring context into daily practice. Unfortunately, White-dominant culture reinforces stereotypes of the past and limits understanding of the present. Bemidji State University Assistant Professor of Indigenous Sustainability Studies Awanookwe Kingbird-Bratvold offered a clear message to attendees: Learn about other people. In her conversation with us she created an analogy to travel. When many of us travel to a new place we buy a travel guide or spend hours online researching our destination, so we have awareness of culture, attractions, and language. The same opportunity is available to us within the United States for learning about Tribal Nations’ lands, people, and practices – modern and historic.

Awanookwe shared the value she places on cultural ways of being which requires nurturing, support, and shared experience. She taps into her DNA and cultural memory through traditional practices such as developing food sovereignty and cooking meals with and for others. For thousands of years, Indigenous people depended on a sustainable relationship with the environment. Indigenous knowledge provides perspectives and approaches to sustainability based on thousands of years of relationship with the land which provide each of us an opportunity to explore the question Erika suggested we ask, “Should we?”

Being White

Working as director for the Future Services Institute in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Henriët Hendriks knows firsthand the challenges of learning and listening differently. Through collaborations with a wide range of individuals at the Future Services Institute, Henriët has experienced awareness of being White and being asked the questions:

  • Where do you come from?
  • Who are your ancestors?
  • What benefits have you gained from that history?

Answers to these questions are not as simple as many of us have been taught. Decades- and centuries-old decisions tied to a White cultural legacy have implications for how White people interact with others through power, privilege, and perspective. As White people explore the historic and modern impacts of decisions made by ancestors, we open a door and have the opportunity to “Be a good guest.” From a place of humility and knowledge we can sit around a table with difference at the center and find answers to the question “Should we?” as we create solutions for our most pressing environmental challenges.

What can you do?

The presenters provided an excellent reading list and podcast suggestions highlighted in the Materials section. After exploring the resources and personal reflection, consider how your work can be expanded to consider racial equity with a particular focus on Indigenous ways of knowing. As Earth’s climate continues to warm, global biodiversity continues to decrease, and soil and water quality continue to decline, we can agree that diverse approaches offer often-unexplored opportunities for robust solutions.

Thank you to our Policy Forum Series sponsors Dorsey & Whitney, LLP and Wenck, now a part of Stantec, and thank you to our event sponsor EOR.