How to Indigenize the Green New Deal and environmental justice

Native nations and activists must have a seat at the table.

 

The Green New Deal is one of the most progressive legislative proposals from the federal level in recent years. At a time of accelerating climate change, even with all its limitations the proposal remains the only serious national response to climate change put forth by either side of the legislative political divide. Even though the Republican-controlled Senate unsurprisingly dismissed it in March, the plan seems unlikely to go away quietly. 

For Native nations and activists, the Green New Deal holds promise. Its commitment to principles of environmental justice is highly relevant to us, but can only work if articulated in a way that addresses our specific concerns. We might think of this as “Indigenizing” environmental justice and see the Green New Deal as decolonizing work. 

We need to imagine new frameworks for law and policy that articulate with specificity what Native people envision as a more just system, one that accurately represents our interests. This can best be accomplished by reinforcing the inherent sovereignty of tribal governments — recognizing our nationhood and political relationship with the U.S.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. is the only one out of four Native Americans in Congress to support the Green New Deal.
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

The bill promises to obtain free, prior and informed consent for “all decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements with indigenous peoples, and protecting and enforcing the sovereignty and land rights of indigenous peoples.” This pledge alone is a radical shift toward justice, and yet there are ways to bolster it and build upon it for the future.  

In the laws that govern Indian trust lands — i.e., reservations — one of the biggest problems plaguing the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government is the tension between consultation and consent. Federal law requires meaningful consultation in cases involving development projects near trust lands, like the Dakota Access Pipeline. But as Standing Rock made clear, consultation can too easily be ignored. And, more to the point, consultation does not equal consent.

The Green New Deal’s insistence on free, prior and informed consent goes a long way toward Indigenizing environmental justice. Adding language that reinforces the United States’ endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would further this goal.  As the Lakota People’s Law Project and Indigenous Environmental Network have noted, however, there is room for improvement. One of the biggest problems is that capitalism, as it stands, remains unquestioned. Capitalism as a driving force for climate change must, at the very least, be interrogated, and already-existing Indigenous rights frameworks and language can help us do this.

When the Green New Deal talks about environmental justice, or “systemic injustices,” tribal nations are lumped in with other “frontline and vulnerable communities.” However, the government-to-government relationship of tribal nations to the state sets us apart from other communities. Our different histories, political sovereignty and unique relationships to the land must be highlighted and kept separate to tackle systemic environmental injustices. Given the habitual whitewashing of history and dismissal of tribal nationhood, Indigenous peoples are not adequately acknowledged in environmental justice policy and the law. Maintaining a measured separateness helps avoid historical erasure and the tendency to conflate Indigenous peoples with other settler and immigrant populations. It also moves lawmakers and the public toward a better understanding of environmental justice and tribal self-determination.  

To further illustrate the differences, environmental justice policy and law hinge on the fraught concept of environmental racism. Tribal nations and individuals clearly experience racism, but land and treaty violations are more a matter of the infringement of Indigenous collective political rights — a concept mainstream law has difficulty recognizing — rather than individualistic civil rights, the basis of anti-discrimination law. The more we can distinguish our political existence from a race-based one, the better.  

Indigenous knowledge is a vital aspect of indigenizing environmental justice. A Green New Deal that recognizes Indigenous worldviews will help create a paradigm shift based on relationship to the natural world, not its reckless exploitation. The Fourth National Climate Assessment of 2018, for example, notes the importance of traditional ecological knowledge to “climate change impacts and strategies for adaptation.” 

Additionally, the Green New Deal must hold the U.S. accountable for historic and systemic injustice toward Indigenous communities. The Fourth Climate Assessment approaches this by acknowledging that limits to self-determination can intensify the effects of climate change. It also recognizes colonization as responsible for trauma and other health impacts associated with climate change. Adding accountability to the Green New Deal acknowledges U.S. colonial history, decolonizing the present and opening the door to greater justice and self-determination.     

Incorporating these concepts into a Green New Deal will go a long way toward encouraging the acceptance of responsibility for five centuries of imperialist takeover of Indigenous lands in what is now the United States. New frameworks of justice can be realized as we speak into existence a habitable future for life on this planet.      

What environmental justice means for Indian Country is highly misunderstood. So far, only one of the four Native Americans in Congress, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., even supports the Green New Deal. As complex and challenging as it is, the proposal gives us an excellent opportunity to continue to refine our definitions through the dual lenses of settler colonialism and Indigenous self-determination.  Climate change’s growing urgency demands nothing less than our seat at the table — for the sake of our children and the seven generations to come.  

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and an independent educator and consultant on Indigenous environmental justice policy. She is the author of As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Indigenous Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock (Beacon Press, 2019). Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.