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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Image is a representation of the grandfather, not the anonymous subject of the story.

Eight years a go, a grandfather in Michigan wrote a powerful letter to his daughter after she kicked out her son out of the house for being gay. It's so perfectly written that it crops up on social media every so often.

The letter is beautiful because it's written by a man who may not be with the times, but his heart is in the right place.

It first appeared on the Facebook page FCKH8 and a representative told Gawker that the letter was given to them by Chad, the 16-year-old boy referenced in the letter.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."