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Indigenous Environmentalists Connect Environment and People

Campus discussion touches on importance of traditional knowledge

Students, faculty, friends and family packed the Native American Forum March 5 to listen to author Kari Norgaard and Karuk environmentalist Ron Reed discuss Norgaard’s most recent book, “Salmon and Acorns Feed our People: Colonialism, Nature, and Social Action.”

Before the speakers began, Cutcha Risling Baldy, assistant professor of Native American studies, announced the NAS department’s 25th anniversary at Humboldt State University.

An introduction followed, led by Reed’s son, Charlie. Charlie Reed, a recent alumni from HSU’s NAS program, has continued as an environmentalist to help battle climate change. Before the talk began, Reed said it was important to give proper acknowledgement to the lands of Indigenous peoples. HSU sits on ancestral Wiyot land, and recognizing the land’s history is of utmost importance.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between our environment and our people.”

Charlie Reed

“Whether you are a faculty member or student or just a community member, it starts with a conversation,” Charlie Reed said. “You never know who is in the room who has something to offer or give back the things that have been taken from Indigenous people.”

Growing up with his father, Reed learned about his culture and the traditional ceremonies that tied in not just physically, but spiritually with the environment.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between our environment and our people,” Charlie Reed said.

With a warm thank you to the Reed family and the community, the floor was given to author Norgaard and Ron Reed. Reed introduced himself and what he learned as a child. Reed said learning the traditional ways of his people at a young age taught him how to sustain the environment.

“That’s where it all begins, ladies and gentlemen, when you have the ability to be taught things that you don’t even know you’re being taught,” Ron Reed said. “That will stay with you the rest of your life.”

In one of Norgaard’s chapters, she mentions an Indigenous tradition of using fire to cleanse or manage the land. Western science has given us the narrative that fire is dangerous and destructive. Thanks to “Smokey the Bear” and other forms of wildfire prevention advertisements, fire is seen as something to fear.

Even though fire can be seen as scary, Norgaard argued it’s also a way to help manage landscapes by getting rid of invasive species and even enhancing plant growth. Indigenous peoples used fire to help the environments they lived on, not to destroy or cause damage. Reed stressed the importance of bringing that narrative to our attention.

“We’re trying to get back to an intact world. Climate change can be a vehicle for that because of the awareness it brings to so many.”

Kari Norgaard

“We Native Americans—we the family—cannot let that narrative go,” Ron Reed said. “I don’t need some lone ranger to tell me the way. I know the way.”

With Indigenous knowledge and science being pushed to the side when it comes to environmental issues, Norgaard said settler colonialism is still causing misinformation about the knowledge base of Indigenous peoples. Norgaard said this is changing.

“Indigenous concepts and ideas have been making their way into academic spaces,” Norgaard said.

Climate change is perhaps the most pressing modern issue, but Norgaard and Ron Reed agreed it would help bring more awareness in our communities.

“We’re trying to get back to an intact world,” Norgaard said. “Climate change can be a vehicle for that because of the awareness it brings to so many.”

The consensus of the talk was that combining Indigenous knowledge with western science can change the way we view the world as well as how we take care of it. Coming together and working with each other on both sides of science can also help combat climate change. From the ways of the rivers to the fires of the forests, Indigenous knowledge can teach us more about our world.

“We need all the community on the river, but don’t forget us,” Ron Reed said. “Don’t forget the first people on this nation, on this ground that has created the environment that we’re trying to reestablish in this world today.”

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