This is how we save the planet from ourselves

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Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil. Photo by Tarciso Albuquerque

This is how we save the planet from ourselves.

Audio version:

We listen. We watch. We remember.

The human species has coexisted with all other life on Earth since our kind entered the equation. But as we grew and evolved, we disconnected from the natural world and our place in it.

Many of us forgot our names, our stories, our places of origin. We lost our songs, our medicines, our portals, our dreams, our ancestors, our breath, our ceremonies, our ways back, our ways to heal, our ways to evolve, our ways to nourish and invest in life.

And too many of us continue to cause more harm than health, even with clear knowledge of the consequences of our insatiability and the technology to effectively change our ways.

The Earth slapped back this year. And, of course, it wasn't the first time.

But did we listen? Are we able to hear, amidst all the noise, all the distractions? Are we able to step outside ourselves and see ourselves?

It’s time for us to listen again to the natural world and those who still speak her languages, those who have carried her voice through thousands of generations.

Chapter 1

Body as land

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Illustration by Ojibwe woodland artist Josh Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley

I have been reporting on Indigenous-led climate solutions for three years.

I had the chance to travel to different communities across so-called B.C., where I learned about community-driven alternative energy solutions — run-of-river hydro facilities, solar projects, food sovereignty programs, Indigenous law-based tribal parks, framework agreements and land-use plans.

But Indigenous climate leadership is worldwide.

I have been living in Brazil for the past year, where Indigenous communities continue to fight for their lives, rights and territories and, with that, for the Amazon, the rivers, the health of the entire planet. And yet, despite ongoing community-driven outcries and solutions, from the so-called global North to the South, some of the most over-exploited peoples continue to face off against pipeline expansion activity, extractive mining, massive agri-business and politicians exercising surprising authority over recent colonial legal systems that place profit over people and the planet.

Indigenous leadership, Indigenous-led conservation and Indigenous laws are the solutions to climate change. The COVID-19 crisis has been telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years.

Tla-o-qui-aht natural resources manager Saya Masso has been a key player in growing clean energy solutions in his nation. Photo by Peruzzo

Indigenous Peoples make up less than five per cent of the world's population and protect more than 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity.

I do not believe the burden to save the planet rests with Indigenous people. I believe the future of our life on the planet rests with ancient law.

Indigenous Peoples in colonial countries continue to fight to survive — to push back against systems built to eradicate or assimilate. And yet, despite the ongoing and intergenerational impacts of colonization, Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines of environmental protection movements, their bodies often the only force protecting the ecosystems we all depend on.

What I mean to say is that there are people who are in conversation with the worlds beyond the world of appearances and who are better positioned to bring us all back if we want to continue to be a part of this life on Earth. La'goot Spencer Greening says it better: 10,000-year-old Indigenous libraries are society's best hope for environmental vitality.

Chapter 2

People who know

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Many people don't realize that traditional totem poles, like the one standing in so-called Tofino, in unceded Tla-o-qui-aht territory, depict natural law, master carver Joe Martin told me on March 25. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

All across the world, there are people who still know and honour the names of places, winds and waters.

There are people who know why their ancestors did what they did — when and why they hunted or harvested, why they conducted ceremony in the way they did.

There are people whose calendars reflect the natural cycles of life. There are people who understand what it is to leave a place better than when you found it, whose respect for reciprocity is as instinctual as a salmon that returns to its spawning grounds to die.

There are people whose internal technologies are more advanced than our artificial technologies, people who navigate endless bodies of water with their senses, people who see the silver or lightning spirits or feel the memory of place.

There are people who let the spirit of the day in when they open the door in the morning before they step outside and people who pour some out or lay a plate before they take a drink or eat. There are people who have been taught how to do the work to let spirit speak through, to incorporate the supernatural, orixas, ancestors.

There are people who ask permission before they traverse a body of water or harvest medicines, people who drop prayer-infused tobacco before they build a home and people who recognize themselves in others in their everyday greetings. There are people who sit in silence for days, without food and water, to remember again the teachings of sacrifice and suffering, people who sweat, bleed and break, more spirit than human.

There are people who know how many fish to pull from the river, when to give back, when to not go out at all. There are people building energy solutions that flow with the cycles of nature, rather than seek to destroy them.

From a despacho ceremony with Q'ero Pampamesayok (wisdom-keeper) Juan Gabriel in October 2019. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

The point is, we have nothing to lose and everything to learn from the natural world, those who know her oldest stories and laws and those who embody them in their everyday lives. If we want to restore balance, we must look back to those who have different value systems embedded in their languages, laws and cultures — values of reciprocity, respect and connection.

We have built an unnatural world. We have poured our time, money and resources into technology, and we have been careless about the destructive impacts.

Artificial intelligence reflects human ignorance in many ways.

We cannot build ourselves out of this mess. As far as those of us with enough money to do so wish to gaze into deep space, we will not find the solutions that already exist. We cannot colonize other planets after we destroy this one, we are not immune to the viruses we cause, and if we need yet another reminder, we cannot eat money.

We are slowly killing ourselves, choking ourselves out on metal, smoke and plastic. We have made it extremely difficult to reach a state of clarity, presence and peace. We are normalizing this new normal — masks, alcohol, distance, fear. Many of us are functioning on autopilot, driven by embodied trauma, acting out of ignorance, the illusion of separation, the victim mentality or chronic chemical addictions. We’re addicted to likes, photos, the entertainment industry, the distraction industry, alcohol, drugs, sex, short-lived attention, external admiration, gaming, violence, buying, consuming, forgetting.

I see our species sloppier than we must have been before. But there is hope, there is always hope. People everywhere are waking up, evolving into the awareness that we cannot continue with the way things were. People are not well and want to be well, drawn back into a deeper sense of balance, belonging, place and purpose.

I have spent this COVID-19 health pandemic listening to Indigenous leaders, all with their own stories of struggle, trauma, resistance and old ways forward.

Chapter 3

Will we listen?

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Miykoh Walker plays with a stick at Fire Lake in Saulteau First Nation territory. Photo by Emilee Gilpin from a story about Caribou guardians.

I heard about how some nations work with different levels of the Canadian government to put their laws into a script Canada can understand.

I saw how nations will spend decades in Canadian courts to have their stories, rights and lives recognized, and with that, all of the territories they protect. But Indigenous Peoples have fought to defend the sacred with their bodies, too.

We witnessed and continue to witness communities fighting back against colonial governments in Brazil, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and beyond. We saw, from the U.S. to Europe, buildings burned, statues beheaded, streets overtaken. We witnessed youth take over the legislature in Victoria, mocking the Canadian government with the power and authority of laws that have existed for tens of thousands of years.

The solutions are there, and we are hungry for change. Will we listen? Will we remember? Will we make room for those who still dance with divinity? Will we get out of the way of the future generations and let them bring us back to balance? I hope so.

Thank you to all of you who have been a part of this journey. Canada's National Observer did something different when it commissioned this project. They took a chance, they heard me out, they believed my voice was authentic, not biased, and they supported the many voices of Indigenous leaders, chiefs, elders and community members we have had the pleasure to hear from over the years.

Hiy hiy.