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Know the West

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.