While attending Solve Challenge Finals 2023, there was another event unfolding simultaneously: the UN General Assembly Week and Climate Week.
This was my first visit to New York City in over 20 years. I couldn’t help but think about all of the incredible Indigenous people who have made the trip to the United Nations to demand justice and how their leadership has impacted me. However, there is still much work needed to address climate change and to integrate Indigenous knowledge in the corresponding movements.
Indigenous sovereignty must be top of mind in environmental movements
Climate activism is becoming more intersectional because of the foundation people like Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild of Ermineskin Cree Nation built. He traveled to New York countless times over 40 years as one of the first advocates for formal recognition of Indigenous sovereignty rights in the form of a UN declaration.
In 2007, when the United Nations General Assembly finally passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) - Canada voted against it, signaling a difficult path ahead. Grand Chief Littlechild’s advocacy was unwavering and key in shifting Canada's position, leading to its endorsement of UNDRIP in 2016 and UNDRIP’s central role in the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) where he played a pivotal role as a Commissioner.
The declaration seeks to ensure Indigenous Peoples can pursue self-determined development, in keeping with our own needs and aspirations and recognizes the intrinsic connection between Indigenous Peoples and the environment. This is critical because Indigenous sovereignty is vital for addressing the root causes of climate change, offering unique approaches through traditional ecological knowledge, sustainable land management, and biodiversity conservation. This understanding contributes to a more holistic and effective approach to environmental stewardship.
Littlechild wasn’t the first Indigenous person from what is now known as Canada to take up the cause internationally.
Deskaheh (also known as Levi General), Gayogohó:no' chief and spokesperson for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, traveled to Geneva in 1923 to address the predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations. They refused to hear him speak, however his petition and speech in Geneva City Hall has been spoken about in the halls of the UN ever since.
Sandra Lovelace Nicholas petitioned the UN on behalf of women and children in 1979. Arthur Manuel visited the UN many times and made incredible speeches and representations reminding the world of Canada’s broken promises. And, recently, Chief Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier, from the Anishinabek Nation addressed the Global Landscapes Forum at the UN.
Each of them, working with countless other global Indigenous people to create a new path for all of us resulted in UNDRIP. Each of these people — and countless others in their homelands — with a clear demand: Respect for Indigenous Sovereignty.
Our homelands are where declared rights truly come to fruition. This sentiment was palpable at the MIT Solve event where climate change and social justice were paramount topics.
Discussions centered around the ethical application of technology to confront these immediate dilemmas, aligning with the essence of Solve's mission to champion genuine technological solutions. As an Indigenous Communities Fellowship Judge for 2023 Global Challenges, I was immersed in these pivotal conversations and a recurrent inquiry emerged: How do Indigenous data and climate justice intertwine?
Integrating Indigenous knowledge systems into climate solutions and policy development
Indigenous knowledge systems play a pivotal role in climate crisis solutions, contributing to policy development and climate change adaptation. Article 29 of the UNDRIP declaration reinforces these communities' environmental rights. To operationalize these rights, some Indigenous communities may need help in gathering data for specific climate plans, like flood or drought response.
Take cultural burning in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as an example. This practice uses local expertise to monitor biodiversity and land-use, directly informing climate policies on multiple levels. By valuing Indigenous wisdom in areas such as these, rights can be respected and enrich global approaches to climate change.
However, when externally led, or when data are held by colonial institutions instead of the Peoples themselves (and their institutions), these projects can relegate Indigenous people to mere data collectors to be exploited for our knowledges and resources.
Indigenous Peoples’ data is sacred, especially in the fight against climate change
As Indigenous Peoples, we've always understood the vital role of data (recorded information). It’s woven into our storytelling, oral history, and ways of knowing and being unique to our communities. Much of what the Western world considers as inert “data” - we consider to be sacred, just as the earth is.
Indigenous data — our very systems of knowledge — serve as a powerful tool for sustainability by allowing Indigenous communities to control, manage, and benefit from their environmental data.
Significant progress is being made in integrating respect for Indigenous data sovereignty into new technologies, research initiatives, and in ensuring alignment with emerging standards. One notable contribution has been from the Global Indigenous Data Alliance which developed the CARE Principles.
The CARE Principles elevate Indigenous communities from mere data providers to active stakeholders in climate policy, safeguarding their rights to traditional knowledge. They comprise four pillars: Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, and Ethics.
Collective Benefit mandates that any data about us should also benefit our communities. Authority to Control is rooted in our ancestral governance, confirming our ultimate say over our own data. Responsibility outlines that everyone involved in data management must respect community roles. Ethics reminds us to apply core values like respect and integrity when handling our data.
By adopting these principles, we ensure that our data is managed ethically and brings tangible benefits to our communities, all while playing a proactive role in climate policy.
Indigenous tech is climate tech
Key principles from frameworks like UNDRIP and the CARE Principles provide the ethical groundwork for integrating Indigenous tech into climate solutions. In international policy discussions, we must advocate for Indigenous technologies as they will be key to ensuring both effective and accountable climate action — just as so many Indigenous Peoples have done at the UN and other international bodies.
Global recognition of Indigenous rights is a start, but we need actionable strategies for climate change mitigation and accountability. Indigenous technology plays a pivotal role in this transition.
By combining Traditional Knowledge with Indigenous technology, we begin to set new and higher standards for sustainability and climate justice.
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