Climate Change: An Unprecedentedly Old Catastrophe (Guest Post)

This article is a slightly adapted version of an article published online in Grafting Issue 1 (June 2018) by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and Blackwood Gallery* (Toronto, Ontario).

Guest Post


Kyle Whyte

Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have already passed through human-caused ecological catastrophe at least once in their history. Speaking of the U.S. here, an integral part of its settler colonial domination is the infliction of harmful environmental changes on Indigenous peoples. For example, in the nineteenth century, the U.S. forced some Potawatomi peoples to relocate from the Great Lakes region to the Great Plains region, some 1,000 miles south. This relocation required our ancestors to adjust rapidly to a completely different ecosystem and climate in what are currently called Kansas and Oklahoma.

Over time, U.S. settlers worked to privatize the land, dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, and subsequently steal property held by Indigenous persons. They established extractive industries, including coal and other mining, oil drilling, agriculture, and livestock. Land privatization and dispossession stressed Indigenous kinship and gender systems, while residential/boarding schools stripped Indigenous children of generations of their history, memories, and knowledge.

Extractive industries also generated pollution and contributed to the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Unwise farming practices rendered the landscape vulnerable to drought, culminating in the dust bowl period of the 1930s. Today, many Indigenous Oklahomans are seriously concerned about climate change impacts, such as drought effects on their water, agriculture, health, and energy supply. They are doubly concerned that the state and the U.S. still havenot improved their respect for Indigenous self-determination sufficiently for Oklahoma Tribes to prepare for climate change (Riley et al. 2012). (1)

For Indigenous peoples, it’s by no means a new notion that human societies can inflict ecological catastrophe on one another. Way beyond the experience of U.S. colonialism, Indigenous intellectual traditions are rooted in philosophies that work to understand how the actions of human societies are entwined with environmental change. One aspect of these traditions concerns political philosophies of diplomacy for peoples who share ecosystems. The ancient Dish with One Spoon treaty between Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples is one such example in Great Lakes region. The treaty establishes reciprocal responsibilities for caretaking of the environment (Simpson 2008; Lytwyn 1997). (2)

Today, it is not entirely incorrect to fear that we are hurtling toward ecological catastrophe due to human-caused climate change. I have witnessed many hundreds of Indigenous persons testify about the climate change threats their peoples are facing across the globe. My experiences include participating in or planning events such as the First Stewards Symposium and the Shifting Seasons Summit, authoring and advising for scientific synthesis reports on climate change vulnerability, such as the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and creating educational programs for dozens of Tribes who are preparing for climate change. Indigenous peoples are reporting climate-related threats to their economies and cultures related to rapidly shifting seasonal patterns, sea-level rises, ocean acidification, thinning sea-ice, and the increased severity of extreme weather events.    

Yet, in all my experiences, what is noticeable is that Indigenous peoples are bracing for climate change impacts that—in a certain sense—would not have been as risky for their ancestors. Many Indigenous peoples facing relocation due to sea-level rises in the Arctic or Gulf of Mexico are only in such a position because they were forced give up their more mobile governance practices and instead live permanently on small islands to make way for U.S. settlement (Maldonado et al. 2013). Climatic threats to fish populations on the West Coast of North America are further stressors, adding to a longer list environmental stressors occurring because the U.S. has not respected Indigenous treaty rights to protect fish habitats (Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington 2011).

I already mentioned how some Indigenous people in Oklahoma are concerned about whether the state will respect their self-determination. On the climate-mitigation side, some Indigenous peoples in the Southwest and Mountain regions have been slow to transition to renewable energy because the U.S. re-engineered their governments in the twentieth century to promote a dependence on fossil fuels (Turkewitz 2017). These realities are why Indigenous leaders globally say that climate change and colonialism are interrelated. Sheila Watt-Cloutier claims that “Climate change is yet another rapid assault on our way of life. It cannot be separated from the first waves of changes and assaults at the very core of the human spirit that have come our way.” (Robb 2015) I would encourage readers to read her recent book, The Right to Be Cold.

[Description of photo below: Kyle, who is wearing glasses and looking directly into the lens and smiling, sits in a well-lit office. A bookshelf with books can be seen in the background of the shot.]

While warranted, fears of ecological catastrophe must be put in context. Dale Jamieson, who recently published a book, Reason in a Dark Time, emphasizes how human-caused climate change is an “unprecedented problem.” The problem is driven by “greed, mendacity, ignorance, short-sightedness… manifest in the extreme power of corporations, the weakness of government, and the indifference of citizens.” (Jamieson 2016) (4) For Indigenous peoples, the current climate change ordeal is bad, but not unprecedented. Jamieson’s list of drivers, starting with greed, sounds a lot like U.S. settler colonialism. It sounds a lot like Canadian settler colonialism too, which explains why many of my interlocutors in this article are Indigenous persons working north of the border. Candis Callison, speaking of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic in her book, How Climate Change Comes To Matter, writes that we need to recognize what “climate change portends for those who have endured a century of immense cultural, political and environmental changes.” (Callison 2014) (5)

Heather Davis and Zoe Todd argue convincingly that non-Indigenous persons are sometimes rather unreflective when they fear future ecological catastrophe or deem climate change as unprecedented. (Davis and Todd 2017) Their concern is really that their children may be harmed by loop-back effects of the same capitalist-colonialist-industrialist systems that have hitherto benefited them and secured their aspirations for future well-being. So, when settler Americans or Canadians express concerns about a coming catastrophe, it’s imagined to be a catastrophe disruptive of today’s ecological status quo for them. Today’s status quo, of course, is already an Indigenous ecological dystopia.

Ironically, I have not yet seen any settler American or Canadian offer an imagined projection of a climate future that is more ecologically dire than what Indigenous peoples have already endured due to colonialism. Like our peoples who relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma in the nineteenth century, many Indigenous peoples have already experienced the irreversible collapse of their ecosystems. They have forever lost relationships with hundreds of species. They were forced to ration the commodity foods available to them, separated from their kinship and family relationships and faced threats to their linguistic and knowledge systems. They had to have their labour exploited by settlers. Of course, all the while, it was the settlers who believed that they—the settlers!—were morally superior while oppressing Indigenous peoples. This is a scenario worthy of the most horrific science fiction.  

Settler narratives of preventing tomorrow’s ecological catastrophe can be dangerous, for they involve future imaginations clouded by crisis-mode thinking. They ignore why Indigenous peoples—and other groups too—are threatened by climate change in the first place. The U.S. and Canada have not yet reconciled their laws, education systems, scientific institutions, and cultural norms sufficiently. They have failed to support Indigenous cultural and political self-determination in climate adaptation, honour treaty rights, or promote Indigenous leadership in local and global climate-change mitigation. Today’s failures stem directly from the lack of reconciliation of the original settler colonial legal, educational, scientific, and cultural strategies for dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their lands to make way for the drivers of human-caused climate change. 

Indigenous peoples, of course, are not waiting for the U.S. or Canada to change—even though it would be beneficial if they did change. Many are making their work on climate change public, which is inspiring kindred efforts across diverse Indigenous peoples. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has created its climate change plan, organized entirely around relationships of reciprocal responsibility with plants, animals, spiritual beings, and ecosystems, with the plan’s sections divided into chapters with titles such as “Mother Earth” and “Three Sisters.” (St. Regis Mohawk Environmental Division 2013) As well, the Lummi Nation has taken action to block the establishment of a coal shipment and train railway near its treaty-protected sacred area of Xwe’chi’eXen, citing the U.S. failure to honour treaty rights as enabling the continuation of dangerous fossil fuel industries that commit harms locally (e.g. pollution) and globally (e.g. climate change). (Schilling 2015)

In these and many other efforts, Indigenous peoples are drawing on their own intellectual traditions in preparing for climate change. They are calling on settler nations like the U.S. to finally live up to moral and just expectations for diplomacy and reciprocal responsibility by taking care of shared environments, including the climate system. But non-Indigenous leaders in the U.S. and Canada will never be in the position to do right by Indigenous peoples until they acknowledge climate change as the unprecedentedly old ecological crisis that it is.  


Callison, Candis. 2014. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA: Duke University Press.

Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. 2017. On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 16 (4):761-780.

Jamieson, Dale. 2016. Reason in Our Dark Time. In Interviews, edited by R. Marshall. 3am Magazine.

Lytwyn, Victor P. 1997. A Dish with One Spoon: The Shared Hunting Grounds Agreement in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley Region. Algonquian Papers-Archive 28.

Maldonado, Julie Koppel, Christine Shearer, Robin Bronen, Kristina Peterson, and Heather Lazrus. 2013. The Impact of Climate Change on Tribal Communities in the Us: Displacement, Relocation, and Human Rights. Climatic Change 120 (3):601-614.

Riley, Rachel, Paulette Blanchard, Randy Peppler, Bull Bennett, and Daniel Wildcat. 2012. Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Meeting on Climate Variability and Change. National Weather Center, Norman, OK, USA.

Robb, Peter. 2015. Q and A: Sheila Watt-Cloutier Seeks Some Cold Comfort. Ottawa Citizen.

Schilling, Vincent. 2015. Lummi Tribal Leaders Rally in D.C. Against Nation’s Largest Coal Terminal. Indian Country Today, November 12.

Simpson, Leanne. 2008. Looking after Gdoo-Naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships. Wicazo Sa Review 23 (2):29-42.

St. Regis Mohawk Environmental Division. 2013. Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Akwesasne Akwasasne, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington. 2011. Treaty Rights at Risk: Ongoing Habitat Loss, the Decline of the Salmon Resource, and Recommendations for Change.

Turkewitz, Julie. 2017. Tribes That Live Off Coal Hold Tight to Trump’s Promises New York Times, April 1.

Kyle Whyte is the Timnick Chair in the Humanities and a professor in the departments of Philosophy and Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. His research addresses moral and political issues concerning climate policy and Indigenous peoples, the ethics of cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and science organizations, and problems of Indigenous justice in public and academic discussions of food sovereignty, environmental justice, and the anthropocene. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kyle is involved in a number of projects and organizations that advance Indigenous research methodologies, including the Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup, Sustainable Development Institute of the College of Menominee Nation, Tribal Climate Camp, and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence. He has served as an author on the U.S. National Climate Assessment and is a former member of the U.S. Federal Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science and the Michigan Environmental Justice Work Group. He is a recipient of the Bunyan Bryant Award for Academic Excellence from Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.  

*The Blackwood Gallery’s publications are available here:

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