Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is policy director and a senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), policy director and a senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, discussed her research around environmental justice in Indian country and moving toward a transformational land ethic as the third featured speaker in Niagara University’s “Transformative Visions” presidential speaker series on Oct. 27. 

Gilio-Whitaker’s presentation combined the work from her current book, “As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock,” with her forthcoming book on settler privilege and a transformational land ethic.

“Environmental justice is really a discourse,” she said. “And it includes a lot of different elements—activism, theory, policy, and law.” 

Gilio-Whitaker, who is also a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, considered herself to be an environmental activist since the early 1980s, she said, but it wasn’t until she took her first environmental injustice class as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico that she discovered the indigenous people were largely absent from the available literature on the topic. In graduate school, she found no native perspectives, she said. 

“So I set out to understand what does environmental justice theory look like when American Indian people are centered,” she said.

That research, which was based on the premise that environmental injustice is different for American Indians, encompassed settler colonialism; the political relationship of American Indians, as a nation, with the state; the landmark 1823 Johnson v. M'Intosh Supreme Court decision which has become the foundation of federal Indian law today; and progress, modernity, and ecocide.

During the presentation, Gilio-Whitaker discussed the protests organized by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the impact of the Grand Coulee Dam on salmon in the Columbia River, uranium mining in the Colorado Plateau, and the environmental movement’s role in these issues. 

She also noted that indigenous knowledge, as it relates specifically to ecology, should be part of any discourse on environmental justice. She described the practice of Native Americans to hold annual prescribed burns for forest and grassland maintenance as one example of the kind of indigenous knowledge that can and should be incorporated in our common fight for a just and sustainable future. 

“Indigenous knowledge is so critical because it has the ability to change the way we think and our approach to living on land,” she said. “And that’s transformation. Transformation has to happen on all levels … We can’t have institutional-level transformation without individual transformation, and vice versa. If we want to have a future for our grandchildren, we need to have a different relationship to land and our environment.”

The next speaker in the “Transformative Visions” presidential speaker series is Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of Alliance of Families for Justice, who will discuss criminal justice, policing, and prisons on Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. Register here: www.niagara.edu/speakerseries111720.

For more information about the series, contact Kevin Hinkley, khinkley@niagara.edu, or Dr. Reilly, dreilly@niagara.edu.



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