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Hypatia Symposium – Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action by KYLE POWYS WHYTE

Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action

hypatia_coverkyle_powys_whyteKYLE POWYS WHYTE
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Michigan State University


The following is an excerpt, click here to read the full article

Browse the entire special issue here

1. Introduction

Indigenous peoples encompass the 370 million persons globally whose communities exercised systems of self-government derived from their own cosmologies before an ended or ongoing period of colonization. Indigenous peoples now live within areas where states, like Australia or Canada, are recognized internationally as the preeminent sovereigns (Anaya 2004). Like other communities, indigenous peoples must adapt to climate-induced ecological variations like sea-level rise, glacier retreat, and shifts in the habitat ranges of different species. Climate change adaptation refers to adjustments that populations make in response to such variations, which include actions and policies from weather-protection programs to permanent relocation. Indigenous peoples are also engaged in efforts to mitigate climate change, like transitioning to renewable sources of energy and contesting incursions of fossil-fuel-burning industries into their territories. Climate change mitigation refers to actions and policies that attempt to curtail certain variations from occurring in some way in the first place. Some indigenous peoples see adaptation and mitigation as crucial endeavors because climate variations can disrupt the systems of responsibilities their community members self-consciously rely on for living lives closely connected to the earth and its many living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, like animal species and sacred places, and interconnected collectives, like forests and water systems (Osofsky 2006; Salick and Byg 2007; Cordalis and Suagee 2008; Krakoff 2008; Macchi et al. 2008; Tauli-Corpuz and Lynge 2008; UNPFII 2008; Wildcat 2009; Kronik and Verner 2010; Tsosie 2010; Voggesser 2010; Krakoff 2011; Shearer 2011; Tebtebba 2011; Willox et al. 2011; Grossman and Parker 2012; Roehr 2012; Abate and Kronk 2013; Maldonado, Pandya, and Colombi 2013; Wotkyns 2013). Such systems include those that persist from time immemorial, like webs of reciprocal relationships between a particular community and the aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species in their homeland. They also include systems of responsibilities emerging more recently from creative, indigenous-led efforts to establish political relationships of peaceful coexistence among neighbors like nation-states, settler towns, nongovernmental and religious organizations, subnational governments like provinces, and international bodies like the United Nations (UN). Examples include treaties, formal agreements, schedules of indigenous rights, and other political instruments that increase respect, mutual understanding, and accountability among indigenous parties and parties of other heritages and nations.

In ongoing conversations on climate change, some indigenous women articulate how seriously they take the specific responsibilities they perceive themselves to have within the systems of responsibilities that matter to their communities. Such responsibilities can range from acting as custodians and teachers of local ecological knowledge to acting as conveners of political movements aiming at respectful coexistence with neighbors. For these indigenous women, the responsibilities that they assume in their communities can expose them to harms stemming from climate change and other environmental alterations. Yet at the same time, their commitment to these responsibilities motivates them to serve as enablers of adaptation and mitigation efforts (LaDuke 1999; Denton 2002; Yanez 2009; Glazebrook 2011; Tebtebba 2011). Not all indigenous women share this view, of course; however, I show why, at least for some indigenous women, this is an important way of framing their actual and potential experiences of climate change impacts (sections II and III).

I then outline an implication of this framing for theories of political responsibility between indigenous women and parties like governments and organizations in adaptation and mitigation contexts (section IV). Political responsibilities are the attitudes and patterns of behavior that various parties are expected to express through the structure and implementation strategies of political institutions like laws, courts, policies, mandates, agencies, departments, treaties, declarations, schedules of rights, codes of ethics, agreements, memoranda of understanding, and so on. The nature and expression of these responsibilities depend on the assumptions that parties make about their roles in relation to one another. I offer a starting point for the following positions: Some indigenous women have their own unique capacities for collective action that advance adaptation and mitigation. Non-indigenous parties’ political responsibilities include deferring to indigenous women’s own knowledges of and motivations for such capacities for collective action. Deference can be expressed through political institutions that bolster the conditions needed to support indigenous women’s collective action (section IV). In many cases, this political responsibility is incumbent on indigenous national governments (for example, US federally recognized tribes) and political organizations (for example, Union of Ontario Indians). The positions in this paper seek to complement the work of environmental philosophers Chris Cuomo, Robert Figueroa, and Patricia Glazebrook, who have recently argued that responsibility must be thought of in terms of the unique agencies of indigenous and other populations—instead of focusing only on vulnerabilities (Cuomo 2011; Figueroa2011; Glazebrook 2011).1 More work beyond this paper should seek to further clarify the political reforms needed to support indigenous women’s collective agencies for adapting to and mitigating climate change (section V).

2. Climate Change Impacts, Collective Continuance, and Indigenous Peoples

Section I cited the growing academic, policy, and grey literature (informally published written material) documenting actual and potential climate change impacts on indigenous peoples. A key dimension of this literature concerns how climate change impacts affect the various culturally derived responsibilities assumed by some indigenous persons as participants in particular communities. In this section, I describe the basics of why these cultural effects matter. This view arises from my perspective and particular experiences as a Potawatomi Indian living in the US, from my conversations and collaborations regarding climate change with numerous indigenous persons within and outside of North America, and from engagement with relevant academic literature from several disciplines. Although this view may not reflect the diversity of views among all indigenous peoples about climate change, I feel it nonetheless highlights important elements of the discourses cited in section I and in which I am involved as a participant.

Impacts include variations of the patterns of community relations of diverse entities. These patterns are the structures of organization, which include political, societal, cultural, religious, and familial institutions that tie together humans and multiple living, non-living, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives (forested areas, species habitats, water cycles, and so on). Climate-induced variations—or climate change impacts—are the impacts arising based on the capacity of patterns of community relations to absorb local ecological alterations stemming from climate change (Liu et al. 2007; Cuomo 2011). Climate change impacts are disruptive when structures of organization can absorb the ecological changes only by changing key components of the structures themselves. For example, sea-level rise may force a community to relocate and adopt a new economy. Shifting growing seasons may require a community to change its diet. Climate-enabled invasive species may require a community to adopt new and more attentive environmental stewardship. Such disruptions are often experienced as harmful to certain values (as in the case of a changing diet), but can also serve as a motivation for improvements (as in the case of more attentive environmental stewardship).

Many indigenous persons interpret climate change impacts as jeopardizing the values associated with the collective continuance of the communities in which they participate. Collective continuance is a community’s aptitude for being adaptive in ways sufficient for the livelihoods of its members to flourish into the future. The flourishing of livelihoods refers to both indigenous conceptions of (1) how to contest colonial hardships, like religious discrimination and disrespect for treaty rights, and (2) how to pursue comprehensive aims at robust living, like building cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, strong subsistence and commercial economies, and peaceful relations with a range of neighbors, from settler towns to nation-states to the United Nations (UN). Given (1) and (2), indigenous collective continuance can be seen as a community’s fitness for making adjustments to current or predicted change in ways that contest colonial hardships and embolden comprehensive aims at robust living (Whyte 2013).

Climate change impacts can be understood as affecting the quality of the relationships that constitute collective continuance. According to this view, collective continuance is composed of and oriented around the many relationships within single communities and amid neighboring communities that persons assume based on their culturally framed perceptions of what matters. The capacity to contest colonial hardships, for example, may require relationships of solidarity among community members that cultivate political action, furnish healing from colonial traumas (like boarding schools), and ignite spiritual awakening (Ortiz and Chino 1980; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Tinker 2004; Green 2007). It may also require establishing relationships of trust and common political purpose across indigenous peoples who face similar hardships (Mayer 2007; Grossman 2008). The capacity to build cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, and subsistence economies may require close-knit family and social relationships, such as strong intergenerational ties and shared experiences between elders and youth and sustainable regimes of land-tenure (Merculieff 2007; Trosper 2009; Wildcat 2009; Tebtebba2011). Emotion-laden relationships among species and with features of the land (like rivers or mountains) and natural interdependent collectives may also be required (Willox et al. 2011). Commercial economies require relationships that generate feasible, culturally appropriate opportunities and relationships that regulate economic production (Trosper 2007; Ranco et al. 2011). Peaceful relations with neighbors require relationships that respect the differences of each community in terms of culture, relative power to exploit one another, specific needs, and capacities to exercise agency (Alfred 1999; Holmes, Lickers, and Barkley 2002; Napoleon 2005; Turner 2006; Davis2010; Ross et al. 2010; Middleton 2011).

The significances of these relationships are realized through the responsibilities incumbent on the parties to the relationships. That is, to be in a relationship is to have responsibilities toward the others in the relationship. Many indigenous authors have described the idea of responsibility. I interpret them as seeing responsibilities as the reciprocal (though not necessarily equal) attitudes and patterns of behavior that are expected by and of various parties by virtue of the assumptions made about how the parties relate to one another within a community context (Weaver 1996; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Kimmerer 2000; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Borrows 2002; Mayer 2007; McGregor 2009; Wildcat 2009). For example, elders may assume responsibilities to mentor youth by passing on wisdom or leading certain ceremonies; younger generations are, in turn, responsible for learning actively from the elders about the nonhuman, spiritual, and ritualistic dimensions of the community and its conception of the earth, its living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives. A community may have a responsibility to care for salmon habitat; salmon, in turn, may provide food and support for other species. Community members may be responsible for kindling spirituality by not evaluating their fellow community members according to colonial stereotypes about indigenous women or by visibly standing up against policies that victimize some people because they are indigenous women (Smith 2005). Such may be understood as a mutual responsibility of honor and respect among community members. International bodies like the UN may have responsibilities to respect emerging norms that acknowledge the special needs and knowledges of indigenous peoples (Anaya 2004; Mauro and Hardison 2000). These and other similar responsibilities are among the constitutive features of collective continuance because—on this view—they enable the contesting of colonial hardships and the pursuit of robust living. Some indigenous people’s concern with collective continuance has to do with maintaining the capacity to be adaptive with respect to relational responsibilities, or all those relationships and their corresponding responsibilities that facilitate the future flourishing of indigenous lives that are closely connected to the earth and its many living and nonliving beings and natural interdependent collectives. I refer to relational responsibilities as responsibilities in the rest of the paper.

Responsibilities constitute collective continuance as part of larger systems of interconnected responsibilities. Systems of responsibilitiesare the actual schemes of roles and relationships that serve as the background against which particular responsibilities stand out as meaningful and binding. For example, a responsibility to maintain species habitat is part of a more comprehensive web of interspecies responsibilities that are tied to a community’s cosmology. Cosmology refers to the fundamental way in which community members, in common, experience everything around them as endowed or not with agency, spirituality, and connectedness. Systems of responsibilities have intrinsic value and instrumental value for communities. For example, in Wabanaki culture the responsibilities surrounding berry plants have intrinsic value because they are integral to customs and rituals and establish part of the cultural status of Wabanaki women (Lynn et al. 2013). Thus, an entire system of responsibilities is embedded in and permeates everything about the berry plants. The system has intrinsic value because it is essential for framing certain dimensions of Wabanaki existence. The berry plants have instrumental value because they are superfoods, according to nutritionists, having health benefits like cardiovascular protection. Even systems of responsibilities amid communities have both kinds of value. For example, the government-to-government relation between the US and federally recognized tribes has intrinsic value because it can honor, at least in part, indigenous senses of nationhood. It also has instrumental value because respecting tribal sovereignty is considered to be the best way to formulate, implement, and assess policies (Lynn et al. 2013; Whyte 2013).

The concept of collective continuance identifies a range of values that some indigenous persons hold in relation to the patterns of community life in which they participate. The relationships and responsibilities constitutive of collective continuance can be disrupted by climate change impacts. A reason for this is that climate change impacts can alter the ecological contexts in which systems of responsibilities are meaningful. Changes in landscapes may engender fewer opportunities for elders to assume the responsibility to teach youth in practical situations. Climate change may affect the range, quality, and quantity of species like berries, making it more difficult or even impossible for tribal members to assume the responsibilities they perceive themselves to have toward those species (Lynn et al. 2013). Anishinaabe scholar Deborah McGregor, for example, discusses how variable weather patterns, invasive species, and widely fluctuating temperatures are engendering spring conditions that make it hard to have sensitive knowledge about when to begin or stop tapping maple trees for syrup. Making syrup is a traditional cultural and familial activity that spans generations and provides a source of nourishment for family and community members. Multiple, interconnected responsibilities are bound up in this activity, among young and old, siblings, between humans and trees, and natural interconnected collectives (GLIFWC 2006; Cave et al. 2011). Disruptions of webs of responsibilities involved in relations with elders, berries, and maple trees jeopardize some of what is valued intrinsically and extrinsically by certain indigenous peoples. The severity of disruption is of course influenced and amplified by the obstructive political orders rooted in colonialism, industrialization, imperialism, and globalization to which many indigenous peoples are subject. I treat these obstructive circumstances in more detail elsewhere, though I do not discuss them in any substantial detail here (Whyte 2013).

4 comments on “Hypatia Symposium – Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action by KYLE POWYS WHYTE

  1. Carson V.
    August 19, 2014

    By addressing indigenous women’s responsibilities in a climate-context, Whyte is contributing to a greater awareness and understanding of challenges facing indigenous communities today. This work stands alongside a growing body of literature that highlights the too often marginalized work of Indigenous women.

    Indigenous women’s issues are chronically overlooked in scholarship, although the contributions of Indigenous women to political and social movements are great.
    This article’s emphasis on analyzing Indigenous women’s issues through a lens of responsibility is also of great value. As a young Indigenous person, I have found there to be a lack of Indigenous perspective in the academy. Whyte situates what could be construed as a case of indigenous water rights and environmental crisis, and instead provides a perspective which demonstrates how responsibilities between parties guide many Indigenous social actions. The distinction between rights-based and responsibilities-based thinking is one I have seen made elsewhere (e.g. Wildcat, Red Alert!), and exemplifies why having Indigenous perspectives in scholarship is critically important. Indigenous worldviews do not exist in contrast to western worldviews, and instead provide alternative lenses through which to understand and analyze issues. By viewing climate impacts to women in light of women’s responsibilities towards water, culture and community, a clearer understanding of indigenous peoples’ political and social movements emerges.

    Whyte’s description of persisting and emerging responsibilities demonstrates how Indigenous conceptions of relationships are continuing to adapt to novel situations. While this point may seem obvious, it exists in opposition to a century of scholarship which has painted Indigenous worldviews as static or fixed-in-time. This article explores how Indigenous people maintain our connections with traditions, while also drawing from teachings and worldviews to develop new solutions and relationships. In doing so, it demolishes the myth and Indigenous people exist frozen in time, and also constructs an elegant model to aid the reader in understanding how the collective continuance of Indigenous people is tied both to persisting and emerging responsibilities.

    A responsibility-based framework also lends itself to promoting collaborative and peaceful relationships with one’s neighbors. By emphasizing systems of responsibilities, Whyte provides a template for Indigenous communities and their neighbors to create mutually beneficial relationships. While this is not a key point of his article, I believe that it is an example of the underlying complexity of his arguments. This work is part of a larger analysis of climate-issues which describes Indigenous peoples’ adaptive capacity and potential for positive change in terms of responsibilities. Whyte’s article clearly articulates a perspective found in many Indigenous communities, and explores how notions of responsibility are guiding climate action in Indigenous communities today. It also raises new possibilities for Indigenous community empowerment, and collaboration with non-Indigenous communities. Whyte drives this point home when he states that “[a] fourth theory of political responsibility can be glimpsed here that starts with deference to what indigenous women know is needed for implementing their own unique forms of collective action (Thomas 2006). Via their political institutions, parties like the UN, nation-states, corporations, and consumer groups would see themselves as being responsible for bolstering the conditions needed for indigenous women to succeed in exercising their own forms of collective action.”

  2. chaonemallory
    August 19, 2014


    Your article makes an important addition to the current discussion regarding the importance of validating and cultivating situated knowledges as a response to the impacts of climate change on all societies/cultures, but especially indigenous ones. From your work emerges the understanding that if knowledges are (and ought to be) situated then so is a sense of responsibility—situated within ecosocial contexts, which include that which is disrupted and altered by climate change. Others in this forum and elsewhere theorizing about the political challenges produced by the impacts of climate change have usefully asked: What kinds of knowledges do non-dominant cultures and groups have that will help us to understand what is going on and what to do about it? What kinds of non-traditional frameworks for understanding and relating with the world can we draw upon to help us deal practically, sustainably, and ethically with climate change and other environmental exigencies? These sorts of questions, though by no means obsolete, have at this point been fairly well articulated. In my view, what your article does is to extend the question concerning knowledge and epistemological frameworks to questions concerning ethico-political responses, arguing that these as well be situated, that the perspectives of those marginalized through systems of oppression such as colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and industrialism be not just heard but elevated, for, as you argue, both intrinsic and instrumental reasons in the struggle to preserve systems of life on the planet in the wake of the impacts of climate change.

    To follow up on this general assessment, then, I have the following remarks/questions. The understanding of the relation between the epistemological and ethical (i.e. that knowledge systems are culturally located and are embedded in systems of power, and that values stem from and are reinforced by knowledge systems) is well understood at this point in feminist and most environmental thought. What seems to be less-well developed at this point, and what I think your article makes a useful attempt to do, is to outline more specifically what the political actions/responses/avenues ought to be that do indeed take account of and give voice to the perspectives of the marginalized, particularly indigenous women. In that regard, it seems that we must reconceive of what constitutes political engagement, and reconceive of the political itself. I especially appreciate this analysis from your paper:

    “The indigenous women’s networks described…are not forms of collective agency motivated by what another society understands to be a fair form of political participation for indigenous women. They are forms of collective action based on structures that indigenous women see as furnishing regional and global-scale participation and representation for their culturally inspired concerns and ideas, and that are most appropriate for addressing how their communities are affected by climate change impacts. They are forms of collective action that seek to engender global relations of coexistence on indigenous people’s terms.” (Whyte)

    Thus it seems that part of what you are suggesting is that politics, especially political responses and engagements regarding climate change, are performative rather than procedural; that is, individuals and communities create the systems of responsibilities by enacting them in within specific conditions, relations, and worldviews/cosmologies. If this is the case, are indigenous practices grounded in traditional knowledges, especially those done by women, always already political? Perhaps we can argue that, but how would such practices be recognized as a form of political articulation and action that is enforceable on a more global scale, as in the UN treaties you mention? It’s clear that they should be, but, in addition to theorizing about it, how can these political instruments be re-designed such that they highlight the knowledges of indigenous women? As a more general follow up to that question, I wonder if you (or others) might have anything to say about the movement between the epistemological, the ethical, and the political that is revealed by the challenges to all three systems by climate change?

  3. Cecilia Herles
    August 19, 2014

    Your contribution adds to the growing scholarship about the politics of food and climate change. Considering the challenges being faced by indigenous communities, it’s important to examine the ways in which climate change can disrupt food practices and food ways, such as the intergenerational activity of tapping syrup.

  4. Amber Katherine
    August 22, 2014

    Thank you so much for this awesome overview and argument for deference. I could not agree with you more! I Imagine a dose of deference is needed across the board in environmental discourse, but after reading & commenting on the geo-engineering essay (this issue) that seems like a great place to start! What can you imagine that might look like? I will most definitely pair this essay with Chris Cuomo’s “Gender on Ice” which provide a model of the sort of relation researchers might begin to make their standard if they wish to meet your challenges. Here is the link to Cuomo’s essay, And use them together in my Environmental Ethics course. Again, thanks for your amazing analysis! Amber

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