Syracuse, NY – A new partnership between the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s (ESF) Center for Native Peoples and the Environment (CNPE) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) will serve as a bridge between traditional ecological knowledge and Western scientific approaches, embracing a “two-eyed” way of seeing and informing conservation.
“This partnership arises out of shared interests and common goals to conserve cherished landscapes and biodiversity,” said Dr. Robin Kimmerer, CNPE Director, botanist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is also the author of the bestselling book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.’ “This as an opportunity for co-learning between the CNPE and TNC and Indigenous communities, who are a critical partner in this work.”
The four-year partnership includes an $800,000 grant from TNC and has three main components:
- New and strengthened relationships among ESF, TNC and Indigenous Nations
- Advancement of land justice by increasing access for Indigenous Peoples to lands in their own original territories
- Re-story-ation, which involves co-developing a new narrative on Conservancy preserves that restores Indigenous Peoples’ engagement with their ancestral homelands and gives voices to their perspectives in interpretation, education, and stewardship practices.
“We are grateful for The Nature Conservancy’s gift and excited about our new partnership. The gift will ensure that Dr. Kimmerer and her colleagues’ work will extend throughout New York State and nationwide,” said ESF President Joanne M. Mahoney. “The opportunity for the CNPE to shape how people re-learn history will be both impactful and important for generations.”
The partnership grew out of a meeting that CNPE hosted in 2019 inviting TNC, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and land trust representatives to meet with Haudenosaunee environmental leaders.
The grant-supported Ph.D. student will allow for the creation of a pilot project for TNC preserves in what is now called New York state, that could be a model for decolonizing approaches to conservation at a larger scale. In addition to land conservation, the partnership is designed to advance land justice. A 2019 UN report documented that indigenous-held lands worldwide have better conservation outcomes than public lands, due to indigenous stewardship practices and ethics.
“We are honored to embark on this transformative partnership,” said Bill Ulfelder, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York. “Robin Kimmerer’s work teaches us about restoration and reciprocity and provides hope for a different way forward based on Indigenous relationships with the living world.”
The Nature Conservancy is committed to lasting conservation that actively involves people and partners linked to the natural systems it seeks to protect. For generations, profound and painful challenges such as colonialism, forced resettlement, and exclusion from natural resource decisions have undermined Indigenous Peoples’ agency and ability to manage their lands and waters. When the legacy of these challenges is addressed, Indigenous Peoples and local communities can lead us to a world where people and nature thrive together—as they have done for millennia.
“Much conservation philosophy in the United States is derived from a colonial perspective that separates land and people and failed to recognize the importance of indigenous land care practices,” noted Kimmerer. “Native peoples were in fact brutally removed from their homelands to establish public conservation areas, in profound acts of injustice. We also recognize that every single acre of privately conserved land in the U.S., is on Indigenous homelands and the relationship between original people and these lands has been lost in colonization. This project recognizes and begins to address these historic injustices.”
I am surprised that this article has elicited no comments so far. This is critical race theory for indigenous people and will result in great adjustments to American History as it is taught in our schools. In the Adirondacks we live among one of the last vestiges of American Indian Policy – the Mohawk Reservation that straddles the border. The reservation with a casino, a hotel and recently, pop up marijuana shops as described in the NYTimes, Mohawk immersion schools and the very best child care center I have ever seen in the North Country and social programs for the elderly. I have other inputs, our church supports one Indian Reservation, Red Shirt, in South Dakota and another Ct. non profit, Simply Smiles, supports another, Cheyanne River. Through the Grand Canyon Trust we were early supporters of the Bear’s Ears National Monument so I am conversant with the usual ways that non profits aid in the efforts to strengthen life and culture on the reservations. As this nation moves forward in critically examining our past with impetus from the BLM movement and others, it is so interesting that the same emphasis has arrived on our doorstep as regards our very own indigenous American neighbors,
Indigenous peoples are in a tough spot, because they need non-indigenous allies, yet the impetuous usurpation of their traditions and values continues to pose a major threat to their own cultural survival. At the risk of being overly general, I will share that most Native American tribal members that I have encountered are keenly aware of this–they have been dealing with these issues since before it was mandatory learning–and they are pretty insular and resistant to critical theory or politicizing. Their culture and language has survived all of this time under occupied rule, and they are not about to let politics and the hypocrisy of the flavor of the month get in the way of that. Voting and participation in our state and national governments is avoided in all but the most dire circumstances, i.e. when their ways of life are further threatened. I have seen that they truly care about the land, not about egoizing tribalism, and I respect that.
Yet, there have been some notable examples of unscrupulous individuals, both “fake native” and real, who have gotten swept up into the New Age version of indigenousness (and I am not talking about pan-Indianism) that has time and time again only served to add to the devastation of indigenous cultural survival. Often, this has not necessarily been the fault of the indigenous individual, but rather a tragic result of a lack of understanding about the difficulty or impossibility of truly “teaching” indigenous values to a Western audience, an audience that cannot resist imposing an outsized participation in the performance.
Case in point: the tragedy of the indigenous informants of R. Gordon Wasson, the notorious CIA-funded banker-ethnobiologist who sent shockwaves through indigenous and Western communities alike. His encounter with Maria Sabina, who shared the ritual consumption of new-to-science psilocybin mushrooms with a group of mycologists, dramatically transformed life for both the inhabitants of Mazatec territory, where counter-cultural Westerners still carouse the countryside as psilocybin tourists, at one point leading to a military blockade to keep them out, and for the inhabitants of Western nations, where a sizeable proportion of the population now participates in the consumption of the mushrooms. The question remains: Do the gains in Western scientific knowledge, or benefits to the Western society, justify the cost to native informants? Could things have been done differently, better? In the case of Maria Sabina, the knowledge gained by Western culture of an apparently genuine indigenous tradition was enormous, but nonetheless it is a good example of a momentous cultural exchange out of which the Mazatec did not necessarily emerge as the victors.
Another Wasson informant, Keewaydinoquay Peschel, is maybe lesser known, and the consequences of her relationship with Wasson are more difficult to tease apart, yet that relationship is arguably more consequential by that very fact. In this case, following her elopement with Wasson, Peschel became progressively enmeshed into intellectual counter-culture circles, where she still remains the legendary posthumous guru of a suspicious number of commercial New Age practitioners. The problem is not even that she became the fetishized center of orbit of an urbane constellation of vicariously and righteously indignant intellectuals, or that she shared her knowledge with the world directly as both a Western doctor of anthropology and as an indigenous informant. The problem is that there is a convincing argument that the knowledge that she shared (mainly mycological) was merely rebranded Western tradition, campus counter-culture ideology and cherry-picked ethnographic excerpts from world culture, masquerading as a long-lost Ojibwe tradition of which she was allegedly the last bearer. The problem which then arises is that this type of masquerade gradually supplants native tradition, even for the natives themselves, under the contorted, ever-changing face of assimilation.
Now, I really enjoy Dr. Kimmerer’s writings–she is both gifted and eloquent, well-versed and not lacking for originality. But by these very virtues, she has become an internationally acclaimed public figure, and I know of more than a few hippies who carry her books around as they tear through sensitive ecosystems, eating rare biological organisms and burning white sage (yikes, please stop harvesting white sage!). And I know that this is inevitable if she is to write about the topics that she does, which have been getting hippies off from the get-go, but I ask the same questions: Could we all do better for ourselves, our fellow humanity and our fellow biological brethren? Intentions aside, how will this latest inter-cultural endeavor go down in history? …As the double-edged razor-blade of a Maria Sabina event, as a dizzyingly impenetrable Keewaydinoquay Peschel guruship, or, and I truly hope that this is the case, as a genuinely benevolent Gladys Tantaquidgeon advocacy, one that preserves and champions indigenous knowledge for the benefit of the people with whom it originated, not as the political-industrial plaything of rebellious children.
We’re finally waking up to the fact that the whole country isn’t our land and we’ve made a mess of it. There should be Native American input for maintenance of and even outright ownership of Adirondack lands.