Indigenous science: Ancestral knowledge could help protect the planet

Victor Manuel Hernandez believes he wouldn’t be alive today without a banana tree. As a 14-year-old fighter during the Civil War in the 1970s In El Salvador, he hid under a lush green tree frond when the army attacked him The camp. He was shot and a bomb fell directly above his head. But as he remembers, the bomb fell on the leaves of the banana tree, which he thinks Prevent it from igniting – protect it from death.

After the attack ended, he mustered the force to break a branch of the tree, which he used as a crutch to walk to neighboring Guatemala for help. In his novel, he tells: “Nature did not only protect me.” Fresh Banana Leaf: Healing Aboriginal Landscapes Through Aboriginal Science, a new book written by his daughter Jessica Hernandez, an indigenous Maya Shorte ecologist and Indigenous ecologist Beniza-Zapotec. “You saved my life.”

He writes, “Nature protects us as long as we protect nature.” Hernandez, who is now Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Washington, 31 years old. “Knowledge of our ancestors has been preserved in our communities,” she added in an interview. “It is a valid form of knowledge that is not necessarily validated by Western methods, such as publications and books.” This kind of knowledge forms the basis of indigenous science, Hernandez says, and is critical to caring for the land.

Indigenous peoples and local communities take care of much more of the planet than protected areas such as national parks, and about 80 percent of the species diversity known to live on Earth is on land owned or managed by these groups. This is despite centuries of genocide, racism, and what Hernandez, academics, and other activists refer to as settler colonialism — the deliberate displacement and obliteration of indigenous peoples by outsiders.

“Conservation continues to teach scholars that scientific knowledge is more valuable than indigenous knowledge,” Hernandez wrote. This position ignores a dizzying array of visions in Aboriginal communities, From the medicinal knowledge of the plants and animals of the Amazon to the preservation of coral reefs in Australia to the established burning practices of the West.

I recently spoke with Hernandez about the potential of indigenous science to change the way we think about—and do—conservation, and the work Western conservationists need to do to address inequality and discrimination in this field. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How conservation excludes indigenous science

Sarah Sacks

When did you first realize that the way you perceive your relationship to the environment was different from the prevailing Western view?

Jessica Hernandez

As early as primary school. When I sat with my parents, they would tell me stories about plants as if they were our relatives. they learned [in school] About the plant cycle, the water cycle, and all those life cycles that never really integrate humans into the picture. Look at the life cycle of a fish and you’ll see eggs all the way to an adult fish, but you’ll never see the bonding with humans. The way Western sciences are taught, even in grades K-12, is that we are still separated from nature and nature is its own thing.

Sarah Sacks

As I pointed out early in the book, many Aboriginal languages ​​do not have a word for memorization, and instead use words like “healing” or “caring”. How do these differences play out in practice?

Jessica Hernandez

When we look at memorization, we always try to memorize one thing. We try to save a tree, then we lose the whole forest.

In fact, conservation should be more comprehensive. Often the reason why there are endangered species, and we continue to see ecosystem loss, is that there are many driving factors destroying those landscapes. Memorization should begin to focus on seeing the bigger picture, which is healing.

Sarah Sacks

She talks about the difficulties of trying to integrate Indigenous science into academia. What are some of the tensions in having more Aboriginal scholarship included in Western conservation science?

Jessica Hernandez

When you are the first indigenous people in certain areas [of study]You have to try these things to start breaking those glass ceilings that keep Aboriginal sciences from blending in.

The history written about us is not necessarily from a positive perspective. It is from the anthropological lens. Anthropology can provide a positive lens, but anthropology in the past was more like, “We’re studying these uncivilized people, and they’re kind of savage.” It bears that stereotype of an “ecological noble savage”, where indigenous peoples are these mythical creatures in tune with nature – not necessarily people who possess knowledge or who can also adapt to their environments as we do today.

Sarah Sacks

I devoted a chapter to the idea of ​​“environmental colonialism” and how this has led to this ongoing negative impact on our environment. What does this term mean, and how does it relate to the ways in which original science continues to be undervalued?

During the 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans joined in political activism inspired by the African American civil rights movement. This was a protest against violations of tribal fishing rights along the Columbia River in Washington State.
Corbis via Getty Images

Jessica Hernandez

We always focus on the effects of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples, but not necessarily on the effects that it also had on animal or plant species.

Look at Washington State salmon. We know that the tribes had to fight for their right to hunt. [In a 1970s court case, United States v. Washington, Judge George Boldt ruled that tribes were entitled to half of harvestable salmon under 19th-century treaties. The decision sparked a backlash from non-Native fishers.] Eco-colonialism forgets to include indigenous science, or traditional ecological knowledge, that the tribes of Washington state have to protect salmon, and continues to focus on a Western conservation lens that ignores the bigger picture.

What actually affects salmon from the overall lens? [Western conservation scientists] She focuses on urbanization, which is one of the factors affecting salmon, but we don’t focus on how to mitigate these effects. They focus on the arches [tunnels that drain water from one side of a road to the other and can be difficult for salmon to navigate], but we don’t necessarily focus on things like ocean acidification and other toxins being released into the oceans.

Salmon resembles the spiritual kinship of coastal tribes. It’s a basic cultural species as opposed to what recreational fishing teaches us: we fish to consume it, but we don’t really have that special connection or that celebration of fishing. In a way, ecological colonization is also a kind of pitting indigenous fishermen against recreational fishermen.

Charting a path forward for Aboriginal science

Sarah Sacks

How do you begin to make room for taking Aboriginal knowledge seriously and acting on it, within the constraints that exist in conservation science today?

Jessica Hernandez

Engaging with real history is one way Western conservationists can begin to dismantle those layers. For example, the Sierra Club began calculating the date on which it was founded. There is a lot of anti-blackness and racism ingrained in it. [“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in a 2020 blog post outlining the group’s racist roots.]

When Western conservationists begin to understand the real history, which is sometimes uncomfortable because we are part of a system that has this really harmful and violent history – especially against people of color and, in this case, indigenous peoples – then we can begin to understand what actions that we can take.

Sarah Sacks

Your book reminds me of him Sweet Grass Braiding by indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kemerer, in that your lived experience – and that of your community – is very present. Why is it important to include this when talking about indigenous science and conservation?

Jessica Hernandez

When we look at how to do conservation or how to treat our environments, we tend to forget what indigenous peoples have It adapts to all these changes. Our societies adapted to colonialism. We are adapting to climate change because the climate is already affecting our societies.

One of the things I wanted to include was the lived experiences of indigenous peoples from various settler frontiers. Settler colonialism in the United States differs from the settler colonialism rooted in Mexico or Central America. We tend to forget that many indigenous peoples, even within the United States, were internally displaced from their reservations or to the cities. They must also adapt their relationship to their environments.

I also wanted to share that banana trees are not a native species in our lands [in the Americas]. Older people have taught me that invasive species are relatives displaced in the sense that they were displaced from their ancestral lands. But they are still relatives because they still have a soul.

Sarah Sacks

How do you see the fit of Indigenous science with larger initiatives to cure the planet?

Jessica Hernandez

One of the things I notice is that the Biden-Harris administration is trying to integrate traditional environmental knowledge into environmental policies. [In November 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum that recognized Indigenous science and formed an interagency working group that aims to build on it.] The presidential memorandum clearly does not have that much legal authority. So hopefully that will build up a discourse where bills can be passed through the Senate or through the House, and move this judicial process forward so that they have more weight.

I also see more Native Americans or Native Americans in this administration, like Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. And then we have the first Aboriginal director of the national parks [Charles “Chuck” Sams III, a Umatilla leader].

One way we can address the invalidation of Indigenous science is to integrate it into the school curriculum. I have been able to teach Introduction to Climate Science in the last quarter and have also incorporated Indigenous Science. So the students were not necessarily just learning Western sciences; They were also learning indigenous sciences.

We talked about the epidemic of missing and killed Aboriginal women that is happening and how that relates to our environment. We read case studies that show that when Indigenous women are given a plot of land, their entire community prospers more than when a man is given the land.

It’s like peeling those layers of onions to get to the root cause. We are actually processing our landscapes and treating ourselves as people.

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