Indigenous knowledges and belief systems regard population and planetary health as one unifying source, a harmonious existence sharing ecosystems. For this reason, among others, Indigenous people care for approximately 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity, despite inhabiting only 22 percent of the earth’s surface. In recognition of this critical relationship to the sustainability of our planet, the United States government elevated Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledges in their capacity to adapt and/or mitigate climate change. Such an accord, recognising the importance of Indigenous lifeways, cultures, and spirituality to the lived environment is monumental considering that the legacy of colonial subjugation led to the near total eradication of American Indian Peoples from the continental U.S..
In many respects, the Western, Eurocentric values that perpetuated the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America during this period of colonisation are also responsible for anthropogenic causes of climate change. As such, Indigenous communities view the Anthropocene, driven by globalisation and capitalist virtues, as colonialism all the same. In the interest of climate justice and health equity, however, Indigenous-led grassroots movements and community activism have deployed several campaigns recognising the failure of capitalism to not only protect the interests of Indigenous communities but also its complicity as one of the main drivers of climate change. As a result, Indigenous Peoples globally recognise the importance of movement-building in asserting sovereignty and self-determination, while also advocating for the rights of nature, as Natural law.
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified Indigenous peoples as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as a result of their dependence on their lands and ecosystems. This is supported by extant literature on climate change and associated health risks, which indicate that critical impacts unduly burden communities that suffer from inequity in social determinants of health. Within the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous communities experience lower life expectancies, higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, and poorer educational attainment, per capita, than other races. Such inequalities have been persistent and longstanding. Moreover, we understand that climate change further exacerbates existing social and health inequities by disrupting access to traditional food systems such as maize and corn, decreased water quality, and increasing exposure to health and safety hazards, including vector-borne illnesses related to rising air and water temperatures.
Altogether, climate change impacts are projected to be severe for the 576 tribal nations, due to the dependence on land to sustain traditional lifestyles, cultures, and food systems. Among other risks, melting sea ice, rising air temperatures and surface water temperatures, and extreme precipitation events are projected to have profound effects on tribal cultures and economies. Moreover, forced acculturation as a technology of settler-colonialism has resulted in shifts from a traditional and culturally-mediated lifestyle for many Indigenous communities. This is precisely the case of the nutrition transition because of colonial policies prohibiting traditional subsistence methods, which were responsible for disproportionate rates of obesity, diabetes, as well as mental and physical health comorbidities in many Indigenous communities in the U.S..
Similarly, contemporary impacts of climate change on the mental health of Indigenous Peoples are rooted in the cumulative insults of settler-colonialism, as well as contemporary violations of Indigenous rights and inequities in social and ecological determinants of health. Importantly, Ferrell and colleagues estimated that the cumulative reduction in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) lands vis-à-vis Settler-colonial and associated federal-Indian policy was 98.9 percent, with 42.1 percent of Tribal Nations losing any Land claims, altogether. Furthermore, the 1.1 percent of lands that AIAN populations retained, were in regions experiencing a higher sensitivity to climatic change, specifically, decreased annual precipitation and increased annual days of extreme heat. Finally, the authors estimated the average forced migration of Indigenous communities in the U.S. to be 239 km, which proved to be very disruptive to the continuity of Indigenous sustainability practices and Land stewardship. Consequently, Indigenous communities experience historical trauma and loss associated with the legacy of colonial subjugation.
In addition, ecological grief associated with the loss of connection to Land and place, and subsequent ecological changes over time have contributed to sometimes overwhelming levels of complex grief within Indigenous communities. Disruptions to the sense of place and associated ecosystem changes have had deleterious impacts on cultural connectedness, and sense of identity, further challenging the dependability of Indigenous traditional ecological knowledges and lifeways. Such disruptions within Indigenous communities have been linked to substance use, suicidal ideation, general distress, depression, and social isolation. Finally,
climate-induced migration or mobility has been recognised as particularly distressing when the lived environment no longer supports Indigenous lifeways and cultures. Finally, in many Indigenous territories, there is a sense of pervasive hopelessness due to the leasing of land, via eminent domain or otherwise, for mining, logging, oil, or gas energy infrastructure projects.
Though, if the persistence and survival of Indigenous Peoples, their cultures, spirituality, and close relationship to the Earth’s most delicate ecosystems have taught us anything, it is the capacity of Indigenous Traditional Ecological knowledges to steward health and wellness at social and ecological levels despite great adversity. Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies import a perspective vital to the survival of humanity and the persistence of our planet. In recognition of this, it is imperative to support the revitalisation of Indigenous languages, cultures, and lifeways, as they hold the capacity to adapt and mitigate climate change. At the same time, we must dedicate resources and allocate efforts to implement policies that decolonise the Anthropocene and give Land back to Indigenous Peoples, globally.