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By Aanahita Ervin MPP ‘24

woman looking at the camera
Aanahita Ervin MPP ‘24

Indigenous communities take time to be in relation with the natural world. As longtime stewards of the environment, they know that humans are not separate from nature. Humans in fact contribute to the health – or destruction – of the very resources needed for survival.

As part of Earth Month at Duke, I attended the recent talk “Climate Justice and Indigenous Knowledge” featuring storyteller/climate organizer Beth Roach, photojournalist Roderico Yol Diaz, and Donna Chavis, who is part of Friends of the Earth U.S. The panel was facilitated by Dr. Lydia Jennings, a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University and the Nicholas School of the Environment. The talk detailed the struggles faced by many indigenous communities and emphasized that environmental justice conversations globally must ensure all indigenous communities are heard and served.

A Call to Healing

Land acknowledgements by institutions have come to be used as a “means of performative activism.” It serves as a veil to avoid honest conversation about the egregious past these institutions are responsible for and the current harms to Indigenous communities that continue to persist. Land acknowledgements are synonymous to corporations green washing their websites to wash their hands of all the atrocities and harm carried out in the past and into the present.  

Quinn Smith – a citizen of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nation and current president of the Duke Native American/Indigenous Student Alliance – decided to change the narrative. He initiated this event with a “Call to Healing” statement, which recognized the harm that some institutions have perpetuated on Native Nations and peoples. The statement called on Duke University to change this reality to “promote healing and equitable academic success among its students.” This opening statement grounded the audience in the local context of Native history and current experiences and set the stage for a more global discussion.

Language, Oral History, and Indigenous Knowledge

Roderico Yol Diaz has 15 years of experience as a photojournalist. He documents the struggles and violence indigenous people and others have faced in the aftermath of war and genocide in Guatemala and at the hands of current extractive development projects. A fluent Spanish speaker, he often paused so the interpreter could translate his experiences to the audience. While listening to the translator, I wondered how much nuance and language specific information I was losing. I wondered how Native and Indigenous communities have passed down knowledge generationally through oral history. I wondered how that knowledge is being lost – and how much is already lost – as the languages used to transmit it die with the elders of the communities; knowledge we need and yet don’t recognize as knowledge because it is a cultural practice and therefore not “scientific” enough. Even though, as Jennings puts it, “Indigenous knowledge is the most peer-reviewed knowledge available,” having passed the test of time.

Law of the Land: From Colonialism to Capitalism

Land is sacred to Native and Indigenous communities and a source of nutrition and survival for millions of people globally. But historically, Native land in America has been “legally” stolen by white European colonists who “discovered” this land.

The panel was held in Duke’s Law School, which was fitting given the recent news regarding the Doctrine of Discovery. Chavis discussed the repeal of the Doctrine of Discovery by the Vatican a day earlier. This Doctrine was used by the Catholic Church as a green light to violently seize lands not practicing the Christian faith – often Indigenous lands and peoples. This doctrine has been used as the legal basis in several court rulings concerning Native and Indigenous peoples and their rights in U.S. and has impacted laws in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America and Africa.

She explained that the formal repudiation of the doctrine by the Vatican sends a global message that Indigenous communities have the rights to their ancestral lands. Many Indigenous people, however, would add it is not the rights that matter to them, it is their relationship with the land that does. Even so, the repeal of the Doctrine of Discovery is a major step toward beginning the process of healing.

The discussion then turned to issues of land theft and limited land access. Corporations and government view land as a commodity without any thought of its use and significance to a community. Climate activist and storyteller Beth Roach described how wood chipping companies were chopping down trees in the swamps of Virginia. This enterprise released trash like glass bottles into the nearby river that her tribal council had previously spent months cleaning up. Yol Diaz narrated the traumas of people in Guatemala whose ancestral lands were taken away by the government and sold to corporations – devastating the lives and threatening the survival of millions of people. The conflict between capitalist growth and Indigenous lives and lands, between a “healthy” economy and healthy communities, poses the question: Whose health do we value more?

As a policy student at this event, there was a takeaway for me. If we are truly interested in the environment and justice, then we need one thing: time. There are no quick and easy solutions to climate change. If we want to address climate change using the lens of environmental justice, we must stop having extractive and transactional relationships with Indigenous people and their land. Instead, we must take the time – months, even years – to engage Indigenous communities in this work. We have to learn from them and work with them to advocate for their rights – their rights to land and their rights to manage it freely. As policy students, it is imperative that we ground environmental justice work in its global context. As global citizens, it is necessary that we recognize that Indigenous communities, lands and knowledge are a crucial part of that context.

Aanahita Ervin is a first-year Master of Public Policy student. She received her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma. At Sanford, she realized that issues like climate change, poverty and criminal justice are inextricably linked. She is exploring how these systemic issues impact the outcomes of marginalized communities. Set to graduate in 2024, she hopes to work in local government and use her skills to serve underserved and minoritized populations.  


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