Opinion: Climate scientists are finally learning what Indigenous elders like me have been teaching for generations

When you assume that scientific knowledge is superior to Indigenous wisdom, you make collaboration impossible.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A song sparrow flies amongst the cattails at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve near Layton on Thursday, May 9, 2024.

Over the last six months I have been asked to participate in conferences about sustainability. I have given lectures, talks and panel discussions about the future of the world we live in.

As a Native American tribal elder, storyteller and activist, my perspective is deeply rooted in the teachings of my people who lived sustainably with the land for generations. Our relationship with the environment is sacred.

What I have come to realize is that this capitalistic system is not sustainable. I could even make the argument that the system itself, and those who participate in it, realize that it is not sustainable and that is why we are creating sustainability offices within our companies, schools and government to minimize the effects of our decisions when it comes to stewarding our environment.

Our current capitalistic model says that we can take that land over there, and extract, deplete, develop and even destroy it, for the sake of short-term profits. Maybe we need to start asking ourselves: Should we? And if we do, at what cost is it going to come to future generations?

Maybe it is time we should start putting a price on the things that we do not put a cost on today. Let us put a dollar cost on what the development would do to our air pollution. Let us put a dollar cost on how much more traffic is going to be added to our highways and railways. How much more water is going to be required to sustain that development for the next 50 years? Then, just maybe, if the price that the future generations are going to pay is too great a cost to our environment, maybe that development isn’t such a good idea. It is time that we change our thinking and consider the health of not only the people, but also the health of the watersheds that nourish our lakes and rivers and our non-human kinfolk.

Did you know that the Iroquois Nation leadership does not make any decisions without considering what effect that decision will have on seven generations ahead? Think about the implications for our future, if that is how leaders are governed. There is an old Native American proverb that says, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” What kind of world are we leaving them? What will their world like?

By embracing the principles of community, stewardship and sustainability, which is inherent in Indigenous cultures, we can pave the way for a more harmonious future. By forming new kinships, forging new solidarities and renewing our relationships, we can address both the social and ecological needs that our current capitalist system is failing to address.

Scientists are finally discovering what tribal elders have been teaching for generations, that we are all connected. Politicians are finally discovering what the Iroquois already knew, that we must govern for the benefit of future generations. We cannot sacrifice our children and grandchildren’s future, for the sake of short-term profits. There is not enough science in the world to overcome our selfish behaviors.

We are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift. Now is the time to braid together Indigenous knowledge and values about our stewardship, with cutting-edge science and innovation to create policies that steward our water and our environment and our climate for the foreseeable future. This will require a collaborative approach that recognizes the importance of both knowledge systems. When you assume that scientific knowledge is superior to Indigenous wisdom, you make collaboration impossible.

The proposed Inland Port and the continued pursuit of the Bear River Development not only threatens to pollute our air and congest our streets — they risk depleting the precious water resources needed to sustain the Great Salt Lake.

Almost 10 years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe from South Dakota found themselves in an environmental crisis. This movement was the largest gathering of Indigenous peoples and allies in over a century. A central theme that motivated tens of thousands of people to participate was, “Mni wichoni,” or “Water is Life.” What this phrase meant was that the growth and prosperity promised by an oil pipeline was not worth sacrificing our sacred obligation to protect the water that nourishes all of us.

Some fossil fuels are inevitable, and will be needed until other forms of green energy are developed, but by investing in green infrastructure, promoting renewable energy and implementing water conservation measures, we can protect our environment and ensure that our community thrives without sacrificing our natural and cultural resources. These solutions honor the earth and preserve it for future generations, fostering a legacy of environmental stewardship and justice.

(Photo courtesy of Darren Parry) Darren Parry is the former Chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation.

Darren Parry is the former Chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. Darren serves on theBoard of Directors for Utah Humanities and the PBS Utah. He attended the University of Utah and Weber State University and received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education. In 2024, he received an Honorary PhD in Education from Utah State University. Darren is the author of “The Bear River Massacre, A Shoshone History” and teaches in the Environmental Humanities department at the University of Utah. He lectures around the country on Native American issues surrounding history and Indigenous views related to sustainability.

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