Tools for Change: Indigenous Heritage Month

This post is part of EHN’s Tools for Change series, edited by Nicole Welk-Joerger, in which we earmark resources on environmental-related topics from scholars and thinkers of color who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

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This list begins with a land acknowledgement

As I write this, I acknowledge that I occupy the land that was originally stewarded by the Lenni-Lenape, Nanticoke, and Susquehannock nations. As a settler, I recognize the ever-present systemic inequities that stem directly from the history of this stolen land, and I commit myself to respecting and reconciling this long history of injustice. 

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In 1990, the United States Congress passed into law the recognition of the month of November as Native American Heritage Month. The joint resolution marked the beginning of wider federal efforts to refocus U.S. commemorative holidays away from European colonizers and back towards the cultures and contributions of Native people. In 2008, legislators expanded on Native American Heritage Month and designated the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. This October 2021 marked the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (sharing the same date as Columbus Day). 

Recognitions and acknowledgments may be starts toward building more equitable futures, but they fall short of decolonial and anti-colonial efforts that would grant sovereignty, dismantle pipelines, or reclaim land for indigenous nations. The path toward these efforts takes a great deal of learning (and unlearning) that goes well beyond introductory land acknowledgments or month-long recognitions. This is, in part, why we post this Tools for Change list at the end of this month: as a reminder that these kinds of “starts” to change are not enough.    

The following is a modest list of texts and scholarship by Native American and Indigenous scholars who help bring context to past injustices and propose places to look for knowledge, resilience, and resistance moving forward. The list draws from several existing syllabi and bibliographic projects-in-progress that come out of efforts to centralize Indigenous history in North America, including the #StandingRockSyllabus, which came out of the NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective as complimentary reading for the 2016 Dakota Access pipeline protests, and a bibliography of scholarly works started by members of the History of Science Society (HSS). We highly recommend seeking out these sources and connected efforts to recognize the past, present, and future of indigenous work and scholarship in North America.

Past in Place

When people in the U.S. think of Native American history, it can be difficult to disentangle it from the myths surrounding early settlement and the “first Thanksgiving.” Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England by Dr. Jean M. O’Brien demonstrates the power of local history-making in the creation of such myths, including the myth of American Indian extinction.

Speaking of New England, you can learn more about the original Dawnland and the history of the nations who live there in Ben Franklin’s World podcast focused on “The World of the Wampanoag.” The podcast features efforts such as those of Tomaquag Museum director, Lorén Spears.

Native Digital Land is an incredible working map and blog dedicated to conversations about colonization, settlement, and much longer historical indigenous relationships with land and place, especially in North America. Led by an indigenous Executive Director and Board of Directors, this source provides a great visual representation of the diversity and history of place.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoover writes about when place becomes embodied through pollution and contamination in The River is in Us. The book speaks to the work of the Akwesasne community in New York to fight for the health and culture of their lands in the wake of toxicity.

Present with Science

With its best-seller accolades and addition to many lists and syllabi, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a must-read on the subject of traditional ecological knowledge. The book acts simultaneously as a natural history and a ceremony in knowing the world and telling stories about it.

Dr. Zoe Todd has used social media to do important public work related to personal and professional experiences as an indigenous academic. Todd’s publications include “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn,” which calls for closer examination of seemingly “new” theoretical apparatuses in the social sciences which actually originate with indigenous scholars and scholarship.

Dr. Max Liboiron explains how environmental science and activism often continue to operate within a colonial worldview in their book Pollution Is Colonialism. The book serves as a model for anticolonial science, highlighting Liboiron’s work through the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR). 

Dr. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui provides a similar critique to Liboiron’s book with her article “Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization” from South Atlantic Quarterly. She argues that academic scholars of decoloniality often reproduce coloniality and relations based on domination in their scholarship, and she emphasizes that with discourse on decolonization, there must also come action. 

Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk describes how Indigenous theories of the technosciences, as she produces in “Miskâsowin: Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society,” may work to disrupt colonial ontologies.

Future with Action

In her article, “Tuft Life: Stitching Sovereignty in Contemporary Indigenous Art” in Indigenous Futures, Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette writes about the politics of artwork and how indigenous artists use traditional methods to promote future visions for First Nations.

Adrienne J. Keene writes about College Horizons in this Harvard Educational Review article, illustrating how this precollege access program may give a positive template for understanding how spaces that provide knowledge about the college application process can also help cultivate a strong college-bound Native identity.

Audra Simpson explores sovereignty and the power of political refusal as a legitimate alternative to political recognition in Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States.

Kim TallBear calls for a critique of American exceptionalism and the myth of the American Dream by using the Dakota framework of “good relations” in “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Tallbear suggests that focusing on a spatial narrative of caretaking relations may provide one way to move beyond the progressive, hierarchical structures that continue to promote violence rather than equity.

*Cover image: The warrior “Low Dog” by Red Dog (1884), Wikimedia Commons.
This is a 19th-century example of “ledger art.” At this time in U.S. history, accounting ledger books served as great sources for paper, and many Plains tribes in North America (among other groups) used ledger paper to produce art and images. Some contemporary Native artists today continue to practice “ledger art” to communicate and complicate the layers of history, representation, and resistance found in Native American communities. Some tear pages from what might be considered historical or archival material, manipulating it and painting over it. The resulting works are beautifully-layered representations of past, present, and future. For more information, consider the work of artists Donald Montileaux and Sharron Ahtone Harjo.

[*Cover image description: A drawing of a figure wearing traditional Plains tribe attire on a horse with a drum and staff. The drawing is made over lined paper.]