Dupris: The first weapon against Indigenous people and the best way to steal their land was to kill all the animals they depended on. It was such a level of disrespect, unfathomable, and I don’t know if anyone can understand how devastating it was not only to the people themselves, but to our animal people, to the spirits that provide us sustenance and the harmony of our landscape that was disrupted in the name of progress. When you see a scene like that, if you know the back history, it can bring you to tears. The buffalo and the people are the same, their spirits are the same, and the way that we walk on this earth is to share life with every creature. Those messages got lost over time.
Boutsikaris: This brings up the issue of disruption. We’re starting to hear the buzzword phrase ‘Native solutions to climate change.’ The New York Times and other big publications are publishing articles about such Native solutions. While that is true, that they are Native solutions, it’s critical to remember that these are also ancient practices going back millennia that were, in themselves, disrupted. There was a systematic killing off of the buffalo in the 19th century by the U.S. government. Their population was reduced from about 30 million down to a few hundred. Prescribed fire was made illegal, leading to the arrests and killing of Native people. This pattern repeated itself across the continent as settler colonialism moved west. As non-Native people, we have learned that it’s really important to expand this concept of Native solutions into the history of cultural disruption, restoration, and healing.
That’s a great point. And it’s ironic that today in regenerative agriculture circles experts talk about livestock improving soil health while forgetting that in the past we had the buffalo performing that exact function—except, we killed them off. We’re now reinventing the wheel, after destroying the solutions we already had.
Boutsikaris: All of this research [on regenerative agriculture] is going to lead to the realization of, “Oh, if we hadn’t colonized North America and hadn’t disrupted the lives of Native people and the ecosystems they inhabited, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.’ People ask us, how should we understand this film? How does it relate to climate change?’ If you actually look at how the Indigenous lifeways were disrupted, those disruptions literally contribute to carbon in the atmosphere. When the buffalo were killed off in North America and white settlers plowed up the Great Plains, we completely shut down the most powerful carbon sequestration processes on the continent. Hawaii, where large corporations clear-cut much of the native forest and replaced it with monocrops, is seeing increased damage from storms. The story is not just about how do we deal with climate change, but also about how we created it. I think that history is really hard for all of us to deal with.
Given all this, how do we not fall into despair? How can we use the historical wisdom of Indigenous communities to move forward?
Palmer: A lot of the barriers that Native people face today are bureaucratic. To change that, we need policy changes. Another level of possibility is personal and cultural changes by non-Native people. For example, when it comes to forest management practices, if more American foresters sought to incorporate practices similar to those on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, the ripple effect could be massive. There are all these different ways that we can go about expanding these types of climate friendly Indigenous practices.
Boutsikaris: The Menominee are renowned for their sustainable forestry system. Their forest has more and better quality trees today than it did 150 years ago, despite years of logging to sustain the community. When you talk about how to change the world, most of the time it comes down to how can people make money. And because the climate is forcing more resilient systems to remain and less resilient systems—like mono-cropping and clear-cutting—to fall off, I think we’re going to see more acceptance of systems such as the Menominee forestry practices because they are working [economically] in the face of climate change. And that’s an important moment to create opportunities for guidance from Native communities.
Dupris: People are beginning to listen to Indigenous communities—not because they have had a change of heart, but because we have been able to vote and develop politicians, infrastructure, and financial wealth. From helping to secure Biden’s win in Arizona, to Deb Holland being appointed to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, to Janie Simms Hipp’s nomination to General Counsel of the USDA, we have worked very hard as the tribal community to find strong representation that brings our issues to the forefront. And though we’re a small community—Native people comprise about 5 million people in the U.S.—we hold some of the last [undeveloped] land resources, and we don’t want them developed. We don’t want to dig up the sacred hills for gold. We’re building relationships and managing our forests and animals with the state fisheries and state game departments. There’s a lot of interactivity, cooperation, and building within our tribal nations.
Palmer: Jeff Grignon [with Cultural Resource Protection] at Menominee Tribal Enterprises told us about the concept of “cultural climate change,” wherein the North American tribes had to adapt as their culture was disrupted by colonization. When our society in 2021 is thinking about how it’s too hard to change, we should remember what happened to Native American communities over 400 years ago and how every single Indigenous tribe had to adapt. The cultural climate change that they had to overcome, and the fact that they’re still here, resilient and strong, should be an inspiring point for us. Our culture has to change to survive. And we have a lot to learn from Native American communities about how to do this.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Inhabitants kicks off its free screening series this week as part of its Impact Campaign in partnership with The Institute For Tribal Environmental Professionals. To find out about future screenings of Inhabitants at festivals and other events, follow the film on Facebook or Instagram. The film will be publicly available in mid-November. Watch the trailer below: