by Michelle Nieviadomy
The earth provides everything we need: food, water, clothing, and shelter. For Indigenous peoples, she provides cultural and spiritual fulfillment as well. The earth is our source, not a resource. Creator gave her as a gift to all humanity to live well, live in harmony, and live in balance with her and all her inhabitants. Yet we are living in a time where our earth is in crisis. As we search for solutions, answers, and justice, the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples brings great wisdom and teachings in how to care for our earth.
In my office sits a dry and discolored braid of sweetgrass. (Sweetgrass is one the medicines harvested from the earth for Cree ceremonies.) An elder came into my office one day, and as she picked up this braid she said, “you took too much.” I knew exactly what she meant: I could not use the medicine for ceremony any longer now that it had dried out. Our teachings tell us to take only what we need. This braid of sweetgrass now sits as an ornament of sorts, which was never its intention. It is a reminder that Indigenous teachings show a way of living that respects, honours, and protects the earth.
As strong advocates for climate justice, allies for the earth’s livelihood, and protectors of her resources, Indigenous peoples have a deep connection with the earth. Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and communities. So it was no surprise to see Indigenous peoples from around our vast global village at the COP21 climate negotiations. We were hopeful but disheartened to realize that here too we must battle to make our voices heard, especially since Indigenous peoples have so much to contribute and offer around climate change.
As an observer during the negotiations, I realized rather quickly that Indigenous peoples did not have a formal voice at the table of this international summit. What’s more, Indigenous rights were on the chopping block from the draft text of the agreement. Fortunately, Canada’s position valued Indigenous peoples as Prime Minister Trudeau said during the negotiations:
I have instructed Canada’s chief negotiator for climate change and her team to strongly advocate for the inclusion in the Paris Agreement of language that reflects the importance of respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. We have also highlighted the importance of considering Indigenous traditional knowledge alongside scientific analysis.
Despite the Prime Minister’s appeal, Indigenous rights failed to stay in the final text of the Paris Agreement. It was a somber moment. For someone who has invested my mind, body, and soul in Indigenous justice, it was a moment of lamentation. From my Cree perspective, Indigenous and climate justice work together. When those who carry inherent teachings of the earth were not heard, it felt like defeat. It was a stark reminder: there is much work to be done for the sake of justice.
I am just a strand in the web of life. But one strand in such a strong diverse global community! Creator does magnificent work in weaving all the strands of people together to pursue justice for his earth and his people. COP21 gathered people from all walks of life with different worldviews to play their part, to use their voice and to advocate in their way for the sake of the earth and her justice. We all have a part to play.
The Christian Reformed Church is playing a powerful role by lending their voice through the Climate Witness Project. This unique project is stirring church communities and members within the denomination to awareness, advocacy, and action. The synergy in this project is inspiring to say the least. Over 30 church congregations have already signed on.
With vision, partnership, and solidarity it is possible to live well, live in harmony, and live in balance with the gift Creator has given to us: the earth. As she continues to provide for our needs, may we live in such a way that preserves and protects her.
Michelle Nieviadomy works at the Edmonton Native Healing Centre. She was a member of the Christian Reformed Church's delegation to the COP21 climate talks in Paris.