A viral reminder that Native people are the historical experts on sustainability
Photo by Anthony Gotter on Unsplash, Screenshot from tumbler

Environmental catastrophes like the recent Australian bushfires and ecological travesties like plastic-filled whale stomachs serve as stark reminders of our precarious relationship with our planet. While many of us call for greater sustainability in all areas of life, we don't really know what that looks like—which is why we should listen to those who do.


Unfortunately, ignorance about Native cultures and history prevents many people from looking toward indigenous wisdom when it comes to environmental issues. Many of us tend to think of sustainability as something new and innovative rather than a way of life that has already been accomplished in multiple places by multiple peoples.

A viral Facebook post from The Audacity of the Caucasity illustrates this point beautifully. A screenshot of a post on tumblr shows three people's posts about how Native people didn't just live in harmony with nature, but actively and purposefully managed the land to meet their own needs while also maintaining healthy ecosystems.

RELATED: Still don't think climate change matters? Here's how it's hitting people where it hurts.

The first, from @downhomesophisticate, reads:

"I don't think a lot of people really understand that ecosystems in North America were purposefully maintained and altered by Native people.

Like, we used to purposefully set fires in order to clear underbrush in forests, and to inhibit the growth of trees on the prairies. This land hasn't existed in some primeval state for thousands of years. What Europeans saw when they came here was the result of -work-"

Then @feministdragon explained in more detail what that work entailed:

"The east coast was all mature and maintained food forests. Decades if not centuries of nurturing and maintenance. When the British arrived, they were amazed that there were paths through the forest just 'naturally' lined with berries and edible plants, like a Garden of Eden. Then they tore that shit down to grow wheat."

Finally, @worriedaboutmyfern shared what they'd learned from their mom, who happens to be an ethnobotanist.

"My mom is an ethnobotanist and getting people to understand this is literally her life's work. A lot of native tribes just had a whole different way of looking at agriculture. Instead of planting orchards in tidy rows near their villages, they went to where the trees were already growing and tended them there. They would girdle trees by stripping the bark in order to stop the spread of disease or thin out badly placed saplings. And they would encourage the companion plants they wanted and weed out the ones they didn't, so that in the end the whole forest would be productive while remaining an ecosystem and not a monoculture. It is still agriculture, but it is a form of agriculture that is so much gentler on the landscape that, as the OP says, the European settlers could not recognize what they were seeing. To them the natives must have seemed to magically live in abundance while they starved."

(The tumblr post also includes many more details about how Native peoples managed the land.)

While it's clear that modern life makes a total return to Native land management practices impractical, that doesn't mean we can't learn from indigenous wisdom. All of us will be impacted by an unhealthy planet, and it only makes sense to consult the historical experts on sustainable living to find solutions.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that Native communities are disproportionally impacted by environmental issues. Oil pipelines are being built through Native lands. Indigenous people in the Pacific islands are having to navigate rising sea levels. Inuit communities are having to figure out how to move entire villages due to melting Arctic ice. Native environmental leaders not only have generational wisdom to offer, but an urgent need for all of us to take meaningful action.

RELATED: Laws and climate change are harming this tribe's foodways. Here's how they survive.

When prominent activists like Greta Thunberg tell the world to listen to indigenous leaders, we should share and heed that advice. We can learn about and support young indigenous activists on the front line of environmental issues. We can check out the initiatives of organizations like Indigenous Environmental Network and their allies like Climate Justice Alliance.

When we have a collective problem, we look to experts to help solve it. And when it comes to protecting the environment and maintaining a sustainable relationship with the earth, indigenous people are some of the most experienced experts we have.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less