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Indigenous climate action leaders discuss racist colonialism with Dr. Gabor Maté


Raging wildfires in California and Turkey, hurricanes in the U.S. southeast, flooding in West Africa, droughts in Iraq and Syria and other environmental catastrophes across the globe traumatize hundreds of thousands of people. Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, founder and director of Indigenous Climate Action, has a different view of these events than what we typically see. She says the trauma of climate change spans generations and is interwoven with colonization in the form of modern extraction practices. It’s also wrapped up in her worldview, where identity and natural surroundings are inseparable.

“From our relationships in our kinships, to the eagles, to the bears, and to the moose and the muskrat in my territory, these are part of our relations. And so, when we see them start to unravel, the system starts to unravel, whether that's through the hands of colonization, whether that's uranium mining in the 1970s, to the tar sands extraction in the 1990s and into the present day, we're seeing our lands being torn and ripped apart and destroyed,” she said.

“And that's coming on top of the colonial impacts that we felt from our children being ripped out of our homes, from our languages being stripped from the mouths of our families and our communities, from the forced assimilation tactics. And there's trauma upon trauma upon trauma.”

Deranger was one of three speakers in a recent conversation entitled “Climate Crisis, Fragmentation and Collective Trauma,” facilitated by noted trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté. The other speakers were Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder, traditional healer and shaman from Greenland; and Bayo Akomolafe, author, teacher, and the executive director of The Emergence Network. The speakers discussed how climate change trauma is much more layered than traditional Western ideas about it, how it has impacted indigenous people for generations, and what it would take to upend the destructive path forward. The conversation is offered as part of a package that includes the documentary The Wisdom of Trauma, which features Maté’s work.

Angakkorsuaq said the trauma from climate change that his community has experienced is enormous and likely will get much worse. “How do we know that from our world?” he asked. “I am from the top of the world, in a country called Greenland, which is a Danish territory. I live right next to the biggest ice (sheet) in existence in the Northern Hemisphere. When I was born, just about 74 years ago, it was up to five kilometers thick and (extended) to the very lake where my ancestors come from, and where my family has lived for about 6,000 years.”

Now, he said, the ice has shrunk to two kilometers thick. During the summers, the ice melt into the rivers has led to a dangerous rise in the surrounding ocean levels. “The impact is enormous,” he said. “As the ocean rises one millimeter, the waves become 10 times bigger.”

Deranger is from Saskatchewan, Canada, and grew up near Lake Athabasca, which is fed by the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Alberta, Canada; it’s the largest inland fresh-water delta in North America. The water table there has gotten so low from climate change and from being diverted to hydroelectric power plants that it’s affected the ability of her people to obtain enough fish for survival.

“The destabilization of the precipitation patterns in the climate is changing the way in which water moves in our lands and territories. Places that were traditional fishing grounds are no longer fishing grounds anymore, because the water is too low and the water is too warm,” she said.

“And now people are having to travel further and further out from our great lakes to find sustainable food sources. And what this does, the message that it sends to our communities is that our way of life, those kinships, those relations that we have with these ecosystems and these places, is not of value.”

To interrupt the generational pattern of trauma caused by climate change, Deranger said, it comes down to recognizing its root causes—racist capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy—and determining “how we uncouple ourselves from that and move forward in a way to solve the crisis that doesn't ignore those (root causes).”

Ignoring the impact on people

Bayo Akomolafe agreed that the Western view of climate change is reduced to externalities, discounting how it affects life experiences. For example, he said, in his native Nigeria, Lake Chad has lost 90% of its water since the 1960s. That has forced people to migrate and affected how people relate to one another.

“As the water started to dry out in Lake Chad," he said, "the farmers and goat herders started to come down from the hinterlands into Nigeria, and that caused conflict. And now we have wars in the middle belt, we have the farmers and goat herders and the more stationary communities always at each other’s necks, fighting each other. These are the unexpected effects of climate change.”

Akomolafe said that Western capitalist interventions including World Bank loans and weapons, “so we can fight our wars properly,” effectively wove doubt about their own traditions into the collective unconscious of his people. He recounted how the individuality and intrigue of the West seemed appealing when he was a child; he and his friends would sing songs about coming to see America. “It was a way to say, ‘Get out of this neighborhood as fast as you can!’” he said.

The trauma of climate change, said Akomolafe, is that “it’s this subtle story that we are not good enough.”

Listen and be humble

But, he said, his people are learning to unravel that narrative. “And the invitation I feel from my people is to listen, is to humble ourselves enough to fall down to the earth, and listen differently. Listen to ancestry, listen to the world around us that we've numbed and muted.”

Maté reflected on the West and its sense of entitlement, and asked: “If we somehow learned how to drop our arrogance, and I mean the arrogance of Western/Northern culture, and opened ourselves to learning, what could we learn from you and bring us back to ourselves and stop this madness?”

For Angakkorsuaq, there is nothing more to learn. As his father used to say, “We know so much, but comprehend so little.” He’s spent years traveling to different countries talking about the ice mass in Greenland melting and the severe effect it would have on the world, “and nobody believed me.” Frankly, he said, he has little hope left.

“Trauma exists in all of us. We have put our Earth into a traumatic condition, there is no way out; there simply is no way out at the moment.”

To Deranger, the answer is humility.

“I remember growing up and the way in which we were taught things was to not center ourselves as being the best at something. But being humble enough to listen,” she said, in a nod to Akomolafe.

“I remember going out—my dad was teaching us how to track animals in the snow -- and we were out walking. And I was maybe 7 years old. And I’m asking ‘What's that? What's that?’ I was asking all these questions every five minutes, and my dad said, ‘Just listen.’ And I asked him, ‘To what?’ I didn't know what I was listening to. And he's repeating to me, ‘Just listen!’

“And by the end of that year, when I went out with my dad, I didn't talk, I just listened, and I listened to the language of the land. It became something that was akin to my understanding of how I worked in relationship to the world. And that takes humility to understand that the verbal languages that we use to speak to each other are only one way of relating and being in relationship.”

Akomolafe took it one step further. “A paradigm shift is what we need at this point in time. Solutions, no! We need failure. Cosmic failure, cosmic humility, modesty raised to the nth degree is probably what we're looking for.”

To learn more, visit The Wisdom of Trauma website.

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