March 2016

Indigenous Climate Justice at the Institute of American Indian Arts


Bineshi Albert and Jaida Grey Eagle


Indigenous peoples are often overlooked when policy decisions are made and enacted regarding climate change. Yet these communities, which often still live subsistence lifestyles, are the ones facing the frontline impacts of climate change. They are having to deal with real changes to their food sources, as well as losing their homes. They are not facing a possibility of future climate change; they are being displaced today.


Just over a year ago, a ruling from New Zealand’s government created the country’s first climate-change refugees. A family left the island of Kiribati due to massive coastal erosion. Alaskan villages have had to plan for relocation because the ocean is starting to swallow up homes and coastlines. One tribal community, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, in southern Louisiana, is losing its ancestral land to climate change faster than any other place in the world due to rising sea levels. Climate change is also impacting land-based peoples with changes in growing seasons, animal migration patterns, timing for gathering medicinal plants, extreme weather, drought and other changes. Indigenous peoples’ voices need to be included in today’s policy making when it comes to climate change in order for such policies to truly be responsible and effective.


At the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, students are engaged in hands-on climate-solutions work with projects in our campus climate-action plan. In the past two years, with the leadership of sustainability coordinator and faculty member Anne Haven McDonnell, IAIA has been awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Eco Ambassador grant, which has helped fund our work. Last year, we installed a water-catchment system with a solar pump and a passive overflow system of berms and zuni bowls, with native plants and fruit trees. We also worked on restoring eroded areas of our 140-acre campus using berms, check-dams and native grasses. This year, we are installing a solar thermal system in our greenhouse as a demonstration project and to take a bite out of our campus carbon footprint. We hope to learn from this project and scale up renewable energy on campus.


As a Native arts college, IAIA has a unique voice to use to address climate change. Our students come from diverse communities, many of which are experiencing climate-change impacts. Native artists can draw on collective memory and creatively envision the future. To find real solutions to climate change and its impacts, we need memory of what worked in the past and vision of what is possible in the future. Artists from Indigenous communities are uniquely positioned to communicate in this powerful way.


This spring, IAIA will host an art show on campus, opening on April 21, 5-7 pm (public opening) called The Art of Change: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Justice. Students and others on campus are creating work in diverse mediums to speak to issues of climate change and climate justice. We are also gathering interviews with Indigenous elders, activists and community members. We are creating the Indigenous Narratives on Climate Change website on our campus library page, to archive all of these interviews and serve as a resource for learning about Indigenous experiences and perspectives on this topic. It is a unique opportunity for us, as students, to record these interviews. There is a deep knowledge about the Earth and the climate within each of our communities, and to share that knowledge within our IAIA community is very meaningful. Our oral histories are rich with knowledge that cannot be found in textbooks. Our stories are our ancestors, breathing their lives and wisdom into us. Ancestral knowledge is a gift we do not often get to share in such a unifying way, and it is powerful to see these interviews being resourced as a learning tool.


During the recent COP 21 international climate conference meetings in Paris, many Indigenous people attended to have their concerns and rights heard by the world leaders in attendance. It was an opportunity to share real-life stories of Native people being impacted by climate change. Native nations continue to struggle with making their concerns known to world leaders.


Bineshi Albert, an IAIA student with many years of organizing and environmental-justice experience, is working to create a portfolio of short one-act plays, adapted by Native playwrights, based on interviews from COP 21, featuring Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere who are on the front lines. Presenting these stories on stage will allow Indigenous communities, policy makers and other audiences to experience these voices in a direct way. The ultimate goal is to create a portfolio of plays that can be shared with grassroots communities, so that they can produce and share their own stories.



Bineshi Albert and Jaida Grey Eagle are students at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Albert is Yuchi and Annishinaabe. She is an Indigenous Liberal Studies student. Grey Eagle is an Oglala Lakota tribal member who is studying photography.




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