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Celebrating Native American Heritage Month: A conversation with Dr. Kyle Whyte

November is Native American Heritage Month! As an organization that focuses on the human right to clean, safe, and affordable water, We the People of Detroit holds a great deal of respect for the countless Indigenous advocates who have made it their goal to advance environmental rights and water justice.

To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we had a conversation with Dr. Kyle Whyte. Dr. Whyte is an environmental justice advocate with a passion for uplifting Indigenous-based solutions to climate change and sustainability. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. According to Dr. Whyte, “Potawatomi people have a strong connection to water, having many stories, ceremonies, and other traditions that uplift the importance of water.” In the interview below, he details his experience as an environmental justice advocate. He also shares ways in which we may uplift Indigenous voices and support the Native American Community.

Q1: What are the main projects you are currently working on? A1: I believe strongly in Indigenous-based solutions to climate change and sustainability. I continue to advocate for and develop research and education that supports Indigenous peoples' leadership in environmental justice, whether through Tribal nations, Tribal Colleges and Universities, or Indigenous-led organizations. My projects focus on topics such as landbank, water protection, and the restoration of fire as a conservation practice.

During the last few years, I have turned my attention to U.S. federal policy on environmental justice and Indigenous rights. I am currently the lead chapter author of the Tribes and Indigenous Peoples chapter of the U.S. National Climate Assessment and serve on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. I have been focused on getting federal agencies and elected officials more aware of the fact that promises of increased resources for environmental justice are not enough. They have to understand how injustices and inequalities are generations in the making. Increases in resources is not the only instrument at the policy level that is needed to really produce change. Later in December, I will be announcing a new federal advisory position that I will be taking (I can't share any details yet), in which I hope to work more internationally to advance respect for Indigenous peoples' environmental knowledge and for Indigenous-led research institutions. I am deeply devoted to my current duties as board president of both the Pesticide Action Network North America and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

In my job as a professor at the University of Michigan, I have been devoted to three important initiatives. The first is our environmental justice graduate specialization. The specialization currently has made a lot of progress in featuring a greater curriculum on power-building strategies, community organizing, and grassroots movement building, and emphasizing the knowledge of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Global South communities. The next two initiatives are the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment and the Energy Equity Project, both of which have fantastic leadership and wonderful communities. Both initiatives are seeking to redefine how universities support the visions and goals of communities affected by environmental injustice and are seeking new ways for students to learn the skills for environmental justice work. Q2: Would you say that Indigenous people view environmental and water rights issues with a different lens than non-native people? A2: It's important to note that the term Indigenous peoples often means societies that have long histories of exercising self-governance prior to being colonized by nations like the U.S. Today, Indigenous peoples everywhere are seeking to restore their self-governance, which includes recovering the knowledge, science, practices, and traditions many of our communities have long had for taking care of land and water. While no society is perfect, I would argue that Indigenous land and water stewardship in various parts of the world - had it been unencumbered by colonialism - would likely not have gotten us into all the trouble that we are in today regarding water pollution, water affordability, climate injustice, and the destruction of biodiversity.

I am an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a federally-recognized Tribal nation in Oklahoma, but with roots in the Great Lakes region, and connected to the larger Anishinaabe culture. Potawatomi people have a strong connection to water, having many stories, ceremonies, and other traditions that uplift the importance of water. I have been inspired by many Potawatomi and Anishinaabe women, two-spirit, and non-binary persons who have exercised tremendous leadership in protecting water from exploitation, pollution, and other forms of environmental abuse. In my own learning and experience, I have come to see more and more just how integral water is to everything - literally everything. The fluidity and transformability of water serve as both a guide to how we ought to live, but also a threat to be respected that pushes us away from any pretensions to control over the environment.

While each Indigenous peoples is unique, and there are differences within communities too, there is a broad Indigenous dialogue globally happening where we are sharing our perspectives on water. While we are certainly establishing a common language, it is important that we hold absolute respect for differences and respect boundaries of what knowledge should and shouldn't be shared openly. A number of people are talking about Indigenous traditions of kinship with water, and really going deep into understanding what it means to be responsible for water. And by going deep, I mean really thinking about what it means to respect things like the consent of water or the unique personalities of particular bodies of water. A powerful part of this dialogue is when individuals share about their experiences and connections with water, telling stories, describing encounters with water, and unpacking lessons from movements to protect water. I really look forward to opening up some of these dialogues to groups and societies who don't identify as Indigenous but who have also experienced racism, colonialism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. There is so much to share about water!

Q3: Do you see any intersection between water affordability and the Indigenous community?

A3: There are literally many hundreds of Indigenous communities in North America, each of which is unique in various ways, including how they exercise self-governance. Many Indigenous families experience water affordability issues in addition to environmental injustices tied to water quality, water access, and climate change impacts pertaining to water (such as drought or flooding). I think the key intersection is the idea that Indigenous peoples are seeking solutions to water injustice that come from and are determined and managed by their own peoples, including their own experts, institutions, governments, and organizations. Indigenous peoples did not willingly choose to have the current situation they have in terms of how private industry, non-Indigenous U.S. citizens, and federal and local governments have engaged in actions and set things up so that many Indigenous families and communities experience an array of water insecurities. Indigenous peoples are pursuing self-determined solutions that involve the governmental powers that some Tribal nations have as recognized sovereigns by the U.S. and that involve Indigenous-led organizations, community groups, and movement building. I think there's a dialogue to be had about how Indigenous peoples have sought to exercise their own self-determination as a strategy for dealing with water issues like affordability - a dialogue with diverse Black and Brown people in America who are fighting for water too. Q4: For the average person, what are the most effective ways to uplift Indigenous voices and support the Native American Community? A4: I think it's important to start with the fact that Indigenous leaders, scholars, journalists, elders, and others in our communities have produced a range of media, from short essays, stories, histories, videos, music, and so on. Many can be found on the typically publicly accessible websites and social media as well as on the websites of Indigenous nations and organizations. It is important to really spend time with what's already been gifted and created for the purpose of awareness building. For example, the Anishinaabek Caucus recently teamed up with students at the University of Michigan and a filmmaker to create this video on "Water is Life":

Organizations like the Anishinaabek Caucus ( articulating Indigenous issues that should appeal to all Michiganders. I would encourage people to follow and learn from such organizations that are providing pathways for collective advocacy. Indigenous Michiganders are fighting for a vision of the future that highlights clean water and renewable energy, and that centers ethics, culture, and justice.

In our daily behaviors, it's important to be direct with others who are intentionally or accidentally erasing Indigenous history, culture, and self-determination and sovereignty in the Great Lakes region and across North America. Whether it's someone referring to the false phrase that the "U.S. gave reservations to Native people," or the problematic use of the word "stakeholder" to Indigenous sovereigns, to the unbalanced histories we learn where all the historical information focuses on the last two to the hundred years (even though there were centuries of history before that), we need to call out these assumptions. People need to know it's not okay to continue on in this fashion. Q5: How can we support your work, specifically? A5: We can further build together in our collective fight to end the Line 5 pipeline. The pipeline is not just a threat to water quality, but it's a project and a piece of infrastructure that seeks to solidify an economic system that is responsible for water affordability, quality and access and climate change issues that affect Black, Brown, and Indigenous Americans disproportionately. Let's deepen the coalition, continuing to build movements, campaigns, events, and other transformative actions that emphasize diverse leaders, students, knowledge-keepers, and experts.


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