Jacob Morales | Indigenous Environmentalism Lessons


Through my studies of environmental science and climate advocacy, I have met people from all walks of life who are desperately concerned about climate change and the devastating effects we’ve had on our planet. 

There are many solutions and ideas tossed around on a daily basis, yet due to the political polarization that plagues our nation, agreeing on a solution to combat climate change often seems impossible. However, most Americans can agree there are two things that bring us together: our environment and future generations. No matter which end of the political spectrum one falls on, most people have an appreciation for the outdoors and a love for their family. 

A common Native American belief is that when we pass on, our land should be taken care of in such a manner that it could provide for the next seven generations. This idea lives on subconsciously in the hearts and actions of those in the environmental movement. The problem we’re facing now is the fact that we have transformed the land to suit the American dream, but have neglected the care and management the First Nations used to cultivate a harmonious lifestyle with nature, limiting that dream with drought. Our neglect in the form of land mismanagement has paired with man-made climate change to haunt California with long droughts and massive forest fires; but by listening to and learning from our local indigenous bands and tribes, we Californians can improve our future through a better understanding of how this beautiful ecosystem works.

When viewing open land, it is common in western thinking to try to figure out how the land can best suit our purposes. In California, for example, we managed to convert massive valleys of chaparral ecosystem into rich farmland, producing crops by irrigating a dry and barren landscape. In that process, we forgot the ways of the first people, who not only lived on this land, but also thrived here with settlements and culture-rich societies. Before irrigation and crop plantations, indigenous tribes and bands like the Tataviam and Kitanemuk thrived in what westerners would consider desolate environments. 

Through their knowledge of Mother Nature, the indigenous Californians saw this land not as barren, but rich and teeming with life. They took sages and tobacco for medicines as well as reeds and grasses for basket weaving and crafted tools with only what they had around them. Yet they never mistreated the land, taking only what they needed so that man and nature thrived together. Every village was equipped with technologies provided by nature for warmth, food, ceremony and art. 

 Today’s man-made climate change has left us in drought, as developments encroach on desert and chaparral ecosystems with total disregard for the natural environmental functionality of the area. Massive suburbs surrounded by lush green parks stand where there is no natural water. As these developments increase in areas like Santa Clarita, overusing already marginal water resources, dry conditions worsen, and when wildfires occur they can be devastating. 

Many tribes of Southern California used fire in their practices of agroforestry. They set controlled fires that not only got rid of harmful species, but also added to the fertility of the soil for the now historic oaks to grow, and provided food for the people and homes for the local wildlife populations.

I recently met with Alan Salazar, an elder and board member for the Tataviam, a local band of Native Americans battling for federal recognition. When discussing indigenous land management, he said, “There is total mismanagement of our natural land. My people wouldn’t worry about wildfires because we used controlled fires to heal the land. Now, you see these hills and you’re looking at almost 200 years of overgrowth. No wonder these fires are devastating so many people.” 

It has only been in recent years that firefighters have had no choice but to implement the ways of California’s first people and learn controlled burn practices. The massive fires of the last few years alone have forced Californians into a corner where we have to look back in order to move forward as a society. 

As we continually confront the effects of climate change, it is more important than ever to reach out to our indigenous communities like the Tataviam and the Tejon. We should involve them on our councils and in our activism to learn how to live in harmony with local ecosystems and deal better with climate change. Planning for the next seven generations is not a bad idea.

Jacob Morales is a College of the Canyons student. “The Greener Side” is a recurring column focusing on environmental issues.

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