An Indigenous perspective on climate change: Shoshone Nation leader shares insights at Colorado Mountain College
Darren Parry of the Shoshone tribe shares how Indigenous values can inform sustainable land management at Walking Mountains event
Walking Mountains Science Center invited Darren Parry, the former chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, to share his thoughts and observations on climate change from an Indigenous perspective as part of its annual Climate Speaker Series.
Over the course of an hour Thursday night at Colorado Mountain College, Parry described how the increasingly catastrophic water crisis in the Western United States is the inevitable result of a value system built on ownership and extraction of the land rather than reciprocity and stewardship.
“We are caretakers, not owners, a distinction that is misunderstood in the world today,” Parry said. “How do we reconcile the past, where Western values have taught us that we have rights — we can use the land for extraction and depletion — versus Indigenous values that have always taught me that I have obligations. Obligations to the past, present and future. Obligations to my community.”
Parry explained how the Western approach to land and resource management ignores an essential truth that Indigenous communities have always known: that all living things are connected, and that the health of the people will always parallel the health of the environment.
United States law grants owners the ability to use their land or water rights in whichever way they please, with little regard for the future state of the environment that they are depleting. Landscapes can be molded to fit any desire because the short-term prosperity of the people is considered paramount, Parry said.
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In contrast, Indigenous land management practices revere existing natural processes and aim to support and preserve them. It is this attention and care, Parry said, that kept North America so lush throughout thousands of years of human habitation and contributed to the long-held myth that it was discovered by colonizers as “virgin land.”
“The land that the colonizers first put their eyes on was not untouched or wild, as some have recorded, but rather the result of a broad range of Indigenous land management techniques,” Parry said. “Our people never struggled against nature. They worked within the set bounds and out of a spirit of respect. We took no more than we could use and used all that we took.”
First in time, first in right
There is no clearer example of the dangers of boundless extraction than the West’s current water crisis. In Parry’s home state of Utah, the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest level in recorded history last year and continues to deplete. Demand for water in Salt Lake City is expected to exceed supply by 2040.
The Colorado River Compact of 1922 — with no input from Indigenous communities along the river — has drastically over-allocated water rights, giving millions permission to use greater amounts of water than the river can provide. Last month, six of the seven states that rely on the river agreed on a new model to cut water use following pressure from the federal government, but California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — remains the lone holdout.
Parry talked about how his people, who have been stewards of the waterways for centuries, have been excluded from talks about water rights and have had to watch as the predictable impacts of Western consumption play out.
“‘First in time, first in right’ became the cry, became the law of the land — unless you were Native American,” Parry said. “What if they had had a seat at the table? Would the Colorado River and many waterways be in the extreme crisis that they seem to be in today if they were comanaged by Indigenous communities?”
Bodies of water suffer more than over-consumption from human industry, as is evidenced right here in Eagle County. The Eagle River was redirected to make room for I-70 and for Camp Hale, where the campground area was once a wetland and river valley. Around a million dollars are spent every year to prevent the influx of mineral deposits from the Eagle Mine in Red Cliff into the river. Tamarisk, an invasive plant, was introduced to the American West as a way to control erosion, particularly along railroad tracks. Today it dominates parts of the river, making it uninhabitable to many other native riparian species.
Each decision was made with an immediate human interest in mind and a disregard for long-term impacts, a short-sightedness that continues to drive many leadership decisions today. In order to avoid the depletion of water sources, Parry said Western leaders must have the fortitude to govern with future generations in mind, even if the decisions may be unpopular in the present day.
“The Iroquois nation, their leadership doesn’t make any decisions without considering what effect that decision would have on seven generations ahead,” Parry said. “Think about the implications for the future if our leaders governed that way.”
Time for a paradigm shift
Despite a long history of being left out of the conversation, Parry said that the severity of the climate crisis is opening the door for Indigenous perspectives and values to once again play a guiding role in the future of land management and sustainability.
“This time, this now, is a never before known time to create, to investigate, to listen, to invent,” Parry said. “And it’s not because we have all of the answers, not because we know the way, but precisely because we don’t … now is the time to braid together Indigenous knowledge and values about stewardship with cutting-edge biophysical science to create watershed institutions that will create policies to steward our water, the environment and our climate.”
Indigenous communities like the Shoshone tribe are demonstrating sustainable land management through the treatment of their own lands. Last year, the Shoshone tribe acquired 550 acres of the Bear River in Idaho. It is the site of the 1863 Bear River Massacre, when U.S. soldiers killed from 200 to 400 members of the Shoshone Tribe, up to two-thirds of whom were women and children.
The river has been altered dramatically in the last century and a half, but Parry and his tribe plan to restore it to its former state as much as possible. To accomplish this, they are blending Indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge, a recipe that, with intention, can be applied throughout the country.
While scientific innovation can address individual problems, Parry’s talk drove home the message that addressing climate change and environmental degradation will rely on a much larger paradigm shift.
“There is not enough science in the world that will overcome our selfish behaviors,” Parry said. “To deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”
The next talk in the Climate Speaker Series is on March 9, featuring Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office. Toor will share insights on Colorado’s current roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. For more information and to register for the free talk, visit WalkingMountains.org.