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Native American Heritage Month and the Environment

By George Leddy

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Thanksgiving brought to a close Native American Heritage Month, with Friday, November 24 being Native American Heritage Day. The confluence of the two allows us to balance the time to be grateful with a healthy questioning of the myths surrounding the Pilgrims and their treatment of the Native people. America’s autochthonous peoples have endured centuries of dispossession and genocidal violence at the hands of European settlers and yet remain vibrant cultures. Today many First Nations have become powerful critics of the destruction of the natural world from Alaska to Patagonia. That is also true in California.


As part of the Climate-Palooza series of lectures and events on November 14 at West LA College, the California Center for Climate Change Education hosted Professor Dina Gilio-Whitaker, author and researcher on environmental issues in Native America. Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s book, As Long As Grass Grows is subtitled “the indigenous fight for environmental justice, from colonization to Standing Rock” is a comprehensive recapitulation of Native struggles in the United States. In her presentation she traced policies and outcomes through the eyes of 19th century art, the genocidal impact of “manifest destiny”, and the dispossession of land from its original inhabitants. She also showed us how this struggle goes well into this century, where Native people in this country find themselves at the center of many environmental battles.


In California there are many examples of places and conflicts in which indigenous people play a pivotal role. This can be quite complicated as was the case of recent unsuccessful Chumash Indian claims on Pacific waters of the San Luis Obispo County at Morro Bay. At the same time, litigation over water rights in Fresno between the Hoopa Tribe and the infamous Westlands Water District resulted in a favorable outcome to the tribe. Further north, the Yurok Tribe has welcomed the removal of the Iron Gate dam on the Klamath River—the biggest dam removal in US history. Recovery of the river will replenish their salmon culture and fishing way of life. (See this YouTube video.) And now, finally, California will get its first fully accredited tribal college since the closing of the Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in Davis in 2005. The California Indian Nations College in Palm Desert has been offering classes since 2018 and has a class of 140 students today.


The complexity of these problems in California requires that people in higher education dedicate better resources to Native American Studies and develop curriculum in all areas, including law. Despite our relatively large native American population, the state has little by way of education, either for Native Californians or as part of our general K-12 and college curriculum. One school in Los Angeles that has made a significant impact is the Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America. This Los Angeles-based school is now working on a “land back” effort in El Sereno. Restoration of a neglected slope with native plants will also be adjacent to the school’s campus and the Elephant Hill ecological restoration project.


Today, indigenous people throughout the world play a pivotal role when it comes to biodiversity and resource protection. 80% of the world biodiversity is found on land that is inhabited by traditional indigenous peoples, who are only 5% of the world’s population. Indeed, they are the guardians and stewards of the world’s natural wealth, and, more often than not, have values and practices that diverge from those imposed upon them by modern societies, be these industries, such as cattle ranches, mining, oil and gas drilling, and extensive agriculture, or restricted access to water and aquatic resources. This puts them into direct, and at times violent, conflict with the oil industry, loggers, ranchers, miners, and farmers. Many examples of more sustainable natural resource use and management can be found in indigenous practices such as forest fire management and soil husbandry as well as respect for wildlife and water protection.


Sources and Further Reading


Project 562: A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans


BEAU YARBOUGH | November 27, 2023, The Mercury News, “California has no accredited Native American colleges. That could change.”


Silvia Foster-Frau, July 29, 2023, Washington Post, “Tribe fights to preserve California coastline — and its own culture”,


Lauren Sloss, Oct. 25, 2023, New York Times, “Clean Energy, Cherished Waters and a Sacred California Rock Caught in the Middle


HOOPA VALLEY TRIBE: California Supreme Court denies Westlands’ appeal, December 1, 2023


MELISSA GOMEZ, STAFF WRITER, MARCH 21, 2023, Los Angeles Times, “L.A.’s only Indigenous school helps return land to California’s Native population.”


IAN JAMES, STAFF WRITER, Photography by BRIAN VAN DER BRUG, Videography by ALBERT BRAVE TIGER LEE, OCT. 5, 2023, Los Angeles Times, “The largest dam removal in history stirs hopes of restoring California tribes’ way of life.”


Liza Gross, December 2, 2023, Inside Climate News, “Indigenous Leaders Urge COP28 Negotiators to Focus on Preventing Loss and Damage and Drastically Reducing Emissions


Anita Hofschneider, Senior Staff Writer, Nov 29, 2023, Grist, “Here’s what’s at stake for Indigenous peoples at COP28

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