August 2011

“Red & Green” – The Merging of the Indigenous and Environmental Movements and the Renewal of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Melissa K. Nelson

When I hear “red and green” in New Mexico I immediately think of that delicious combination of Hatch green chilies and red hot chilies smothered on an enchilada or tamale. It is a powerful and synergistic combination of colors, tastes, textures and temperatures. Some prefer one to the other, or one type of Chile for certain dishes. But the combination of the two creates a whole other phenomenon, kind of a holy union with emergent properties.

There is another merging happening today on a macro level that mirrors this “red and green” phenomenon. This is the confluence of the indigenous and environmental movements that are combining forces to address the dire ecological issues that all humanity faces – food and water scarcity, climate disruption, droughts and flooding, species extinction, increased toxicity and health problems, to name a few. Seeing the immense, interwoven and unpredictable nature of trying to solve these problems, environmentalists and Western scientists have been shifting over the past two decades to incorporate more cultural understandings about the human-nature relationship. They have been realizing that concerns about rivers, forests or particular species cannot be adequately addressed without looking at local human livelihood, health and values. Thanks to the environmental justice movement, social and economic concerns are now being considered as integral parts of environmental and conservation problem solving. This is a positive and important trend, and yet much more needs to be done to create more holistic movements that address the systemic roots of our ecological and social crises.

As critically important as urban and economic issues are to environmental quality in the world today, I believe there is a more fundamental issue at hand that is still generally under the radar screen of everyday awareness and certainly of the media and mainstream education. And that is, to address any ecological issue anywhere, one must realize that historically, those lands, waters, and resources often have traditional caretakers going back thousands of years. These are the world’s approximately 370 indigenous peoples living in about 90 countries. Their knowledge, practices, and lifeways co-evolved with those landscapes, watersheds and places for generations. So for me, the first question to ask when thinking of restoring a creek, creating a wind farm, designating critical habitat for an endangered species, planting a new garden, or any other daily environmental action, is: “Who are the Native people of this land?” Related questions include, who are the original caretakers, and where are their descendents living today? What are their issues, and how are they related to this part of the Earth? These questions remind me that there are layers of traditional knowledge embedded in the lands and stored in the memories, songs, stories and living traditions of contemporary Native peoples. This knowledge, often called “Indigenous Knowledge,” “Traditional Knowledge” or “Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK),” is complex, multi-faceted, emergent and critical to protecting and restoring the Earth. As the old saying goes, “to know where we are going, we must know where we’ve been,” and TEK helps provide the historical ecology and stories of resilience needed today to better understand people-nature relations in local places.

Through the estimated 6,000 languages still spoken in the world (most of them indigenous), and the roughly 175 Native American languages still being spoken in the United States, you find indigenous knowledge systems and TEK as whole other ways of thinking and being in the world. Unfortunately, all of these languages are considered endangered today and must be preserved and revitalized. Within these diverse languages are distinct worlds of knowledge that have records of Earth changes and cultural adaptations over great time periods. These stories are incredibly important to understanding the Earth changes happening today. Even the word “knowledge” is misleading in talking about the traditional values, worldviews, practices and psycho-spiritual consciousness of diverse native groups. It’s not just that the languages and content of this “knowledge” are different; the very way of learning and the process of knowing are significantly different. Each indigenous nation, tribe, band, community and clan will have different processes of “coming to know” ourselves, each other, and the world. These metaphysical and epistemological processes of learning, knowing and being are not just abstract concepts but are embodied and animated in daily practices of survival and living. For example, Traditional Ecological Knowledge is enacted when a Santa Clara Pueblo potter selects clay, pigment, design and colors for a beautiful cooking pot. TEK is performed when a Crow dancer selects bird feathers and seashells for regalia and orchestrates the movements he will make in his dance. TEK is expressed when a Pomo elder walks along the edge of the Pacific Ocean gathering sea-sage and sings gratitude songs. TEK is carried out when a Mandan farmer observes the stars and decides when to plan his flint corn along a river’s edge. With TEK, there is a very thin line between what the Eurocentric world would call “arts and sciences.” The art of living includes “scientific” observations and experimentation, and the science of survival includes creative intuitions and aesthetic decisions. So the merging of the “red and the green” movements is not only a new alliance between indigenous and environmental organizations and goals, it is a merging of the arts and sciences, the head and the heart, and short- and long-term thinking to halt the destruction of Mother Earth and to create a healthy and regenerative world for the unseen generations to come.

It is time for the green movement to get on the Red Road to truly understand how nurturing the web of relationships creates sacred homelands. Restoring this cultural and spiritual relationship to place is more significant than creating new green technologies because it is the necessary shift in consciousness that will help to manifest a sustainable future for all our relations, especially future generations. Creating new green technologies is integral and key to the health of our future, but it must be done in a way that questions “business as usual” and is made accessible and affordable to those most disenfranchised – not just for those who can afford it. This merging of indigenous and environmental activism is fueling the burgeoning sustainability revolution. It is really a re-integration of old values in modern contexts. And these two movements are gingerly joining forces despite an often conflicted and difficult past.

The new Indigeneity program of the Bioneers organization is a vision that truly represents this “red and green” phenomenon. I have been honored to help give birth to this new initiative with Bioneers co-founder/co-CEO Kenny Ausubel, Tom Goldtooth (Dine/Dakota), Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga), Clayton Thomas-Muller (Cree), Cara McCoy (Chemehuevi) and others. “The Indigeneity program promotes indigenous leaders and indigenous TEK as a critical path to support all people in learning to honor bio-cultural landscapes, indigenous lifeways, and ‘reconnect to place’ so we may restore social and ecological balance to Mother Earth” (Bioneers Indigeneity Program vision statement).

Bioneers has always honored Native Americans and indigenous leaders at the annual conference as speakers and participants and in the organization as board members – the late great scholar/farmer/writer John Mohawk (Seneca) was an early board member of Bioneers. As the director of the Cultural Conservancy (TCC), a Native American indigenous rights nonprofit organization, our team and I have supported Bioneers in this inclusion and have advocated for increased inclusion of indigenous leaders and issues at Bioneers since 1997, when we started organizing Native workshops there. In the early 2000s, Tom Goldtooth and Clayton Thomas Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) also became more involved as strong advocates and allies of Bioneers. Together, in 2008, TCC and IEN became the co-founders and co-producers of the Indigenous Forum at Bioneers, now in its fourth year. The Indigenous Forum has grown to become a major gathering and important indigenous space at the annual conference. See Bioneers web site for details: and

In 2010 Kenny Ausubel asked the Cultural Conservancy if we could create a one-day pre-conference intensive workshop on TEK. Through support from the Bioneers and a modest grant from the Christensen Fund we were able to produce a stellar all-day immersive experience for 80 participants from all over North American and Hawaii. This special gathering featured eight extraordinary Native community educators, leaders and Knowledge Holders. These teachers focused on key areas of Indigenous knowledge and hands-on practices: Language with Coast Miwok elder, language advocate and basket weaver Joanne Campbell, multi-faceted artist and language advocate L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem), and Maori/Tongan researcher and educator Tania Wolfgramm; Basket weaving and Plants with Master weaver and teacher Kathy Wallace (Yurok/Karuk/Hupa/Mohawk); Reading the Land with Indigenous restoration ecologist Dennis Martinez (O’Odham/Chicano/Swedish) and Raramuri ethnoecologsit Enrique Salmon; Wood-Carving and Paddle-making with Maori Master carver and canoe-maker Wikuki Kingi; and Native Foods with Coast Miwok traditional gatherer Jacquelyn Ross. The participants loved this day of immersion that included opening and closing ceremonies, participatory songs and dances and time outside along the beautiful San Francisco Bay.

Based on the glowing evaluations and major interest in another TEK workshop for Bioneers 2011, we will hold another all-day pre-conference workshop on Thursday, Oct. 23rd at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies in Marin County just 20 minutes from the Bioneers Conference site at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, Calif. This year our theme is “Native Essentials: Traditional Foods, Sacred Waters, Songs and Stories from the Land and Seas.” It’s a full-day immersion into the TEK of the local California Indian nations and other diverse indigenous communities working to protect their traditional knowledge and restore their eco-cultural heritage. This year features the honorable work and model project, “Intertribal Conversations on the Colorado Plateau” of the Native American Program of the Grand Canyon Trust. We will also feature Native food preparation, cooking and feasting with Southwest Native chefs Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa), Walter Whitewater (Navajo) and local Coast Miwok/Pomo traditional cook Jacquelyn Ross. We hope to highlight the wild salmon of the Cooper River of Alaska and the restoration work of Dune Lankard and the Eyak Athabascan Council for our food demonstrations and feast. We are especially excited to offer the opportunity to make tule baskets, natural cordage and seashell necklaces with California Indian basket weaver Kathy Wallace, Mutsun Ohlone leader Ann Marie Sayers and her daughter, artist Kanyon Sayers-Roods. Participants will be able to deepen their understanding of the profound relationship between canoes, water and navigation from Maori and Tongan artists and educators Wikuki Kingi and Tania Wolfgramm. We will close the day with a special performance and presentation by Grammy-nominated Navajo/Ute musician R. Carlos Nakai and Navajo storyteller Sunny Dooley, who discuss the importance of stories and songs from the land and waters as key parts of Native learning, knowing and eco-cultural resilience.

The Cultural Conservancy and Bioneers plan to expand this one-day workshop into a longer five-day course and partner with other indigenous organizations and the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University where I teach, to offer credits and a certification for participants. If you are interested in this work and would like to collaborate, please be in touch with your ideas, networks, tools and resources, and good heart.

Together, honoring the Red Road of indigenous environmental leadership and the knowledge and leadership of the burgeoning green sustainability movement, we can more holistically and effectively address our ecological and social problems. There are still many obstacles and challenges on this path of “red and green” collaboration, but the benefits of this confluence far outweigh the risks. The new Indigeneity program at Bioneers, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Cultural Conservancy are all deeply committed to this important effort. We are forging ahead to bring greater health and well-being to all our relations. I know that many of you reading this are also involved in this important work and I honor your commitment to a “Red and Green” regenerative future. If you are new to these ideas, please join us on this sacred journey.

Melissa K. Nelson, Ph.D. (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) is associate professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, president of the Cultural Conservancy, and board member and Indigenous Forum co-producer at Bioneers. For more information:,

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