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Blair Stonechild is a professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada and author of Challenge to Civilization: Indigenous Wisdom and the Future.

We are witnessing a continuing failure to deal effectively with the climate crisis, and in opposition to phasing out fossil fuels are parties who benefit directly from the continuation of the oil economy. Indigenous peoples continue to raise their concerns, but their voices are barely heard.

One of the greatest tragedies of contemporary society is that it has failed to recognize the wisdom of Indigenous peoples. Our societies have existed ever since the emergence of modern humans 200,000 years ago, and we have always valued and respected the environment. Ironically, colonizers justified the seizing of Indigenous lands by claiming that the original occupants were not making proper use of the resources. In the eyes of settlers, this was a glaring waste of natural resources.

Indigenous resource policy has always aligned with our sacred beliefs that we are to be stewards of the land. We take this responsibility seriously, as it is imperative to provide for future generations. In what is now North America, when newcomers arrived they caught fish by the basketfuls, hunted billions of passenger pigeons to extinction, and nearly drove millions of buffalo to oblivion. Other animals suffered, such as beaver trapped for their pelts. Soils, fertile through eons of plants and herbs that grew naturally, were blown away in the Dirty Thirties because of agriculture. Indigenous natural resource policy had been to leave nature alone, and in doing so, let it thrive. Today, we harvest resources as fast as possible to keep the economy going, but what will this mean for the future?

Settlers, for the most part, were escaping conflict or scarcity in their own lands when they journeyed to a “new world.” As they flocked to the Americas, Indigenous peoples experienced an apocalypse. Instead of seeing the land and its creatures as sacred, newcomers saw everything as commodities to be bought or sold. Indigenous cultures prioritized caring for one’s own surroundings rather than coveting those of others. They could share and barter as part of fostering peaceful relationships. This is not to say that Indigenous life was perfect. They faced challenges and conflicts, but as part of their values, they also practised rigorous spiritual ceremonies for healing.

I describe this philosophy of existence as ecolization – a world view in which humanity is not the central purpose of, but rather lives in harmony with, creation. Civilization, which arose barely 6,000 years ago, was a departure from these ancient ways. People began to look at how the environment could be controlled and exploited. This led to the amassing of wealth, and then fighting over resources. Unfortunately, scholars describe human history as beginning with civilization, and dismiss anything that went before as unremarkable and unworthy.

The discovery of the Americas ignited a new era of exploitation for economic purposes. Profiting from lands, minerals, animals and plants went global. Indigenous peoples, when not eradicated by disease, were destroyed by weapons more devastating than they could ever imagine. The template for modern nations was established during this period of Indigenous dispossession, as international boundaries, merchant banks and global transportation networks proliferated, all in the name of “progress.”

It has only been since the 1820s – a mere 200 years ago – that non-Indigenous peoples finally became the majority of the world’s population. Coincidentally, that was the last point at which the human population, which stood at about 1.5 billion, could be considered to be in sustainable balance with the natural world. Around this time, rationalism, science and technology became the predominant ideologies, replacing Indigenous spiritual attitudes. Ideological warfare was waged against Indigenous peoples by telling lies – Indigenous peoples were characterized as evil and lazy, with no sense of the value of their lands. These fallacies still live in today’s public consciousness. When we try to adapt to survive in today’s competitive consumer lifestyles, we are accused of giving up our cultural values. Many think that we have little intellectual or practical value to offer.

Why is this relevant or important to the climate crisis? Those who are paying attention know that there are looming existential challenges for humanity. We are frequently given dire warnings that fossil fuel use needs to be dramatically curtailed in the next seven years, or we will be in for extremely unpleasant and irreversible changes. I blame this on the intellectual, economic and technological systems that non-Indigenous peoples have set in motion, and now do not know how to stop.

Indigenous peoples lived humble and modest lives, eschewing the temptations to abuse what the Creator provided. Our beliefs and culture dictate that we continue to call for what we believe is right: respect for the natural world and for one another, humility to admit errors, and to do what is right for future generations.

Indigenous peoples have proven that we can successfully survive for millennia. We call on our non-Indigenous brethren to realize that they now need to stop taking from the planet, and be willing to make sacrifices for a better future. Just as civilization was created over the course of two centuries, cannot a new enlightenment occur in which we rediscover a healthy relationship with the natural world? Doing this will not be painless, as it will involve unravelling not only the oil economy, but also other industries that are damaging our planet. But it is time to listen to Indigenous voices, and to respect our wisdom. Humanity’s survival depends on it.

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