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Language and Relationships Are Key to Addressing Climate Crisis in Indigenous Communities

Reflecting on the work that must be done to combat climate change and learn from the wisdom of First and Indigenous Peoples across the globe.

By Salote Soqo on August 7, 2020

Sunday, August 9 is the 26th anniversary of the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Twenty-six years is a drop in the bucket compared to the existence and invaluable contributions that Indigenous peoples have made to the world. Through politics, science, education, health, sports, and many other facets of society, Indigenous peoples have shaped our society with their knowledge, their wisdom, their struggles, and their experiences.

Through our climate justice work, UUSC has learned invaluable lessons from the First and Indigenous peoples who guide, inform, and advise our work. To honor them, we share below two key lessons.

Language and words matter.

The current discourse of climate displacement or climate migration is riddled with tag words like climate refugees, stateless, victims, homeless, etc., and descriptions like “vulnerable” and “marginalized communities,” “oppressed peoples,” etc. These terms invoke images of helpless, defenseless and powerless people, which are met with entitled saviorism complexes that build on these notions.

First and Indigenous peoples have been around for millennia. They are not victims. They are not broken. They are not divided. They are fearless warriors, risking their lives to defend Mother Earth. They are healers, nourishing our planet and bodies with their traditional and ecological knowledge. They are explorers, scientists, inventors, voyagers.  They are united, in powerful solidarity with Mother Earth, and with one another. When we recognize these inherent values, we will humanize and empower just responses to the climate crisis, not just for First and Indigenous peoples, but for all.

Through their language, First and Indigenous peoples are also teaching us about the climate impacts that are happening on the ground. For example, the word “usteq” is a Yup’ik word that describes catastrophic land collapse triggered by the combination of thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding. Through the collaborative work of UUSC’s partner, the Alaska Institute for Justice and Alaska Native communities, “usteq” is now recognized as a hazard in Alaska’s State Hazard Mitigation Plan, which will allow communities experiencing “usteq” to apply for state resources to reduce their vulnerability. Considering that First and Indigenous peoples speak the majority of the world’s 7,000 languages, multilingual spaces must be created to inform climate data, climate policies, and climate responses.

Our relationship with each other and how we do our work is critical.

Despite the historical knowledge and lived experiences of First and Indigenous peoples, their values are mis- or under- represented in climate policies and responses. They are not invited to decision-making tables and when they are, they are still not being heard. This dehumanizing experience devalues the unique contributions of First and Indigenous peoples, it makes policy responses less valuable, and runs the risk of replicating historical harms—harms that have caused brutal violence to First and Indigenous peoples and to Mother Earth. In order to avoid this, we must honor the lessons, the wisdom, and the knowledge that First and Indigenous peoples have, and we must do this by giving them spaces to shape their own narratives. We must center their lived experiences in responses that affect them. And we must respect their rights and leadership. By doing so, we are humanizing the way we treat people affected by the climate crisis and upholding their human dignities.

At UUSC, First and Indigenous Peoples are teaching us that partnerships require more than mutual grant agreements. They are teaching us how to listen with our ears, our minds, and our hearts. They are teaching us about the value of time—that on the one hand, we need to act urgently to respond to the climate crisis, and on the other hand, we need to take the time to build right relationships with each other. On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we invite you to take the time to listen and learn from First and Indigenous peoples and to join them on the frontlines of climate change, to fight for solutions to the climate crisis, and to fight against harms to Mother Earth.


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

Photo Credit: UUSC

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