13 Amplifying Indigenous Perspectives and Knowledge Systems

James Rattling Leaf, Sr.

Personal Journey and the GEO Indigenous Alliance

My name is James Rattling Leaf Sr. I’m a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe here in South Dakota, USA. For the past 25 years, I’ve been working at the intersection of traditional knowledge and western science. Early on, I was part of the National Climate Assessment in 1998, representing the United States. This introduced me to Earth observations, which set the course for my career. I took a leadership role at Central Georgetown University, aiming to build a program that aligned with federal responsibilities to tribal colleges. This led to my continued engagement with Earth Observations. In 2019, I was invited to speak at the GEO Week Ministerial Summit in Canberra, Australia, becoming the first American Indian to address the GEO Ministerial Summit, representing the United States. There I met Diana Mastracci Sanchez and Indigenous leaders from around the world. We recognized the potential of Earth Observations for Indigenous communities and noted the lack of Indigenous representation in this global dialogue. This led to the commitment to establish the GEO Indigenous Alliance with a vision to use Earth observations to sustain Indigenous cultural heritage and address challenges like land restoration and cultural preservation. It’s crucial to actively include Indigenous voices in decisions concerning policy, planning, and strategy. Through this approach, we can build the necessary partnerships to drive our shared vision forward. I believe that a united vision between the GEO Indigenous Alliance and our Indigenous communities is the foundation of this collaborative effort. Indigenous leadership also plays a pivotal role, guiding critical decisions regarding data access and utilization and the development of applications tailored to meet the unique needs of Indigenous communities.


Inclusivity in Climate Education: Amplifying Indigenous Perspectives and Knowledge Systems

What’s crucial is establishing efforts that promote equity, inclusion, and respect. This ensures that the work benefits not just the present, but also secures a sustainable future. Our Indigenous values and principles remain pertinent even in 2023. It’s imperative that we grasp this, but this understanding is incomplete without our Indigenous partners. This calls for a collaborative approach, a co-creation of solutions. It’s time to move beyond the status quo and adopt better partnership and co-development models. We also need to scrutinize the funding aspect. The role of philanthropy in this endeavor is pivotal. We must work on refining philanthropy models that address equity concerns, community capacity-building, and the broader spectrum of decision-making and empowerment. There’s a significant amount of groundwork ahead. While we have notable examples of Indigenous communities employing diverse knowledge systems to combat climate change, we’re at a juncture where the old ways won’t suffice. Whether leading or co-leading, Indigenous voices need to be at the forefront. It’s imperative for organizations and entities to recognize this in order to effectively address critical issues like climate change.

The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) should be a foundational principle for organizations. At the GEO Indigenous Alliance, we’ve adopted and implemented UNDRIP in our partnerships to address climate change. We also recognize the crucial role of the next generation. Our GEO Indigenous Youth Ambassador Program aims to nurture Indigenous leaders in climate action. Additionally, we emphasize the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty. When collecting data within Indigenous communities, we act as trusted brokers, ensuring that principles of UNDRIP guide our work. It’s evident that Indigenous knowledge is indispensable in tackling climate change. Collaboration between Western science and Indigenous wisdom is vital. The key is to build equitable and respectful partnerships that benefit current and future generations. I believe Western science is now recognizing the vital role of Indigenous knowledge in tackling climate change. It’s evident that Western science alone cannot fully address this challenge. It requires the expertise of Indigenous communities worldwide, who possess invaluable traditional knowledge.


Empowering Indigenous Youth in Climate Action and Education: Key Strategies of the Indigenous Alliance for Intergenerational Partnerships and Knowledge Sharing

I believe there are several key steps we can take. Firstly, we need to gain a thorough understanding of the current global landscape. This understanding has been a focal point of our GEO Indigenous Summit 2020, where we’ve brought together pertinent Indigenous organizations and youth from around the world. We have to reevaluate and grasp the nuances surrounding the intersection of Indigenous youth, climate action, and employment. Secondly, it’s crucial to foster a shared vision. The GEO Indigenous Alliance  Youth Ambassador Program holds significant potential in this regard, serving as an anchor within the broader network of Indigenous youth leadership programs focused on climate action. Thirdly, we must address the financial aspect. Establishing sustainable funding mechanisms, forging partnerships, and nurturing alliances will pave the way for increasingly robust opportunities for young individuals. Leadership is pivotal in this endeavor, transcending beyond the disciplines of data and science. It’s about exploring how to work in real-time with two distinct knowledge systems and discerning the requisite form of leadership. This calls for a dedicated focus on capacity development. We also need to carefully consider who is at the forefront of this work, as there might be undertakings around the globe that are yet undiscovered. It’s about creating a culturally secure space, where dialogues on how to approach this work can unfold. It’s not a competition, but rather a collaboration. This, I believe, provides a level playing field for supporting our youth. Addressing economic models for Indigenous youth is also key.

We must identify what works, what can be adopted, and what needs to be established. This is crucial in enabling Indigenous youth to utilize their newfound skills in support of their families and communities, right where they are. Technology plays a crucial role here, offering the potential for youth to engage in meaningful work while sustaining themselves. We possess the capability to make this option accessible. Moreover, it’s imperative that we infuse these concepts with our culture and Indigenous values, which represent our distinctive qualities and diversity. We want our youth to not only comprehend but to truly absorb these values. Time is of the essence, particularly given the vulnerabilities of our knowledge holders, both young and old. We need improved methods for transmitting this knowledge, acknowledging that Indigenous knowledge is dynamic, ever-evolving, rather than static. In light of this, initiatives such as the Indigenous Guardians program in Canada hold great promise. They immerse young individuals in the land, imparting a profound understanding of what it means to be stewards of the environment. These young participants are entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding the land. Initiatives of this nature are instrumental, addressing climate change through data collection and meeting a genuine need. We need to be attuned to such endeavors at the GEO Indigenous Alliance and consider collaboration where viable. These are the reflections that guide my perspective.


Successful Indigenous-Led Climate Education and Action Initiatives: Fostering Sustainable and Resilient Communities

One initiative that I’ve been proud to be a part of is the Tribal Leaders Climate Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. This program was essentially a fellowship and leadership endeavor that brought in five Indigenous students from the Northern Great Plains region. We invited them to join us at University of Colorado Boulder, where they pursued advanced studies in Climate Science and Climate Adaptation at the Master’s level. We forged this partnership through the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (NCCAST) and ensured full financial support for the participants. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we were dedicated to their success.

A standout example from this program is a remarkable individual named Will Crawford from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota,  a science educator with a deep connection to his tribal heritage. Will joined the program with great enthusiasm, eager to contribute to our collective understanding. His research focused on identifying cultural resources within his reservation, particularly examining the impact of climate change on ṫípsiŋna (prairie turnips), a historical food source and one of our foundational staples. Recognizing that food sovereignty is integral to Indigenous adaptation strategies, Will’s work gained immense relevance.

Will’s approach is a testament  to the power of incorporating traditional knowledge with  Earth observation data. He navigated the challenges of conducting this research during the pandemic, and after two years of dedicated effort, he successfully graduated. His accomplishments were duly celebrated within the university system, positioning him as an emerging leader in his field. It was a privilege for me to work with him as part of his committee. A crucial aspect of the Tribal Climate Leaders Program, which we established, was the principle of reciprocity. Will committed to sharing the results of his study with his tribe and exploring potential avenues for further research collaborations. This embodies the spirit of giving back, recognizing the support he received from both our program and his tribe. In addition to this, through the efforts of the GEO Indigenous Alliance, including initiatives like our “Indigenous hackathons” and Indigenous Summit, we’ve demonstrated our leadership and amplified our voices on a global scale. Despite financial constraints, I firmly believe we’ve already made a meaningful impact in the world.


Strengthening Indigenous-Led Climate Initiatives through Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Strengthening Indigenous-led climate initiatives depends on forging robust partnerships between tribes or Indigenous communities and governmental bodies and data providers. We’re actively working in unison to devise a process that upholds the fundamental principles outlined in UNDRIP. Additionally, there’s commendable work being done by fellow Indigenous scholars in delineating the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty, a discourse that continues to evolve. Our task at hand is to grasp how these principles can be effectively put into practice, especially when engaging with tribal nations.

Currently, tribes have established mechanisms like Institutional Review Boards, where they meticulously scrutinize new projects, particularly those pertaining to data collection on tribal territories. This process empowers tribes to extend their support or raise concerns, a tangible expression of their sovereignty as distinct nations. It’s crucial to acknowledge and honor these efforts in our ongoing discourse, recognizing the persistent struggle to safeguard our sovereignty over land, water, communities, and knowledge.

The pursuit of Indigenous sovereignty is a significant stride towards aligning our objectives as Indigenous Peoples and fortifying our capacity to endorse or dissent from such initiatives. This momentum is palpable, though its pace varies across the United States due to differing capacities of tribal nations. There’s a wealth of knowledge-sharing potential among tribes at varying stages of progress, particularly as we move forward with the implementation of a tribal data sovereignty policy.

Moreover, agencies within the United States are progressively endeavoring to grasp the essence of tribal data sovereignty. In the context of today’s open science and open data landscape, influenced by substantial federal funding, we find ourselves in a position that seemingly contradicts this ethos. While we affirm the merits of open science and open data, there’s an intrinsic need to shield our data and interests. This marks a crucial stride forward, as tribal nations reaffirm their identity and people gain a more nuanced understanding of how to engage with us effectively.

When it comes to our data, safeguarding measures are imperative, whether they’re rooted in our tribal laws, broader natural law, or reinforcing existing policies. There’s an increasing acknowledgment of the pivotal role that tribal data sovereignty plays. As a collective, we’re dedicated to comprehending its practical implementation. In due course, we’ll reach pivotal milestones in crafting agreements that resonate with both tribal nations and entities, be they governmental, academic, or NGOs, seeking to collaborate with us in managing data. From my perspective, these strides forward do not impede science or obscure data, but rather epitomize a broader effort to reclaim our status as tribal nations, defined by our unique laws, customs, and approach to these matters.

Envisioning the Future of Indigenous-Led Climate Action and Education

Today the world is finally recognizing the profound impact of Indigenous knowledge in preserving biodiversity. It’s widely acknowledged that Indigenous communities are the primary guardians of lands teeming with diverse ecosystems and rich biodiversity. An imperative here is to launch an awareness campaign, particularly targeted at our youth. This endeavor should leverage the diverse platforms they engage with, whether through art or media. Expanding our knowledge systems to create platforms of innovation that incorporate the expressive and creative arts as alternative modes of understanding and inspiration is key. This will help engage and sustain youth engagement in addressing climate change.

An integral component of these initiatives should revolve around addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Young individuals are increasingly probing into the differences they face today due to climate change, and this necessitates a just and reconciliatory approach. The significance of these reconciliation efforts has come to the forefront, a development that I had not witnessed during my lifetime. These discussions are now happening, and young people need to comprehend their role in reconciling the past, influencing the present, and shaping the future.

The role of Elders in guiding and mentoring our youth holds immense importance. Facilitating connections between Indigenous Elders and the younger generation, who are steeped in their cultural heritage, is essential. This intergenerational exchange is a catalyst for learning, respecting, and inspiring. An often-overlooked element is spirituality, a cornerstone in the Indigenous worldview. Integrating spirituality into our work and decision-making processes underscores the unique nature of Indigenous perspectives. We have to carry those things forward with us, our traditions as well. Again, that’s a strength of ours. And I think when we incorporate those things into programs and work, I think we can inspire our young people to take on these many challenges that they have.

About the author

James Rattling Leaf, Sr., currently serves as a Cultural Intelligence Consultant. He was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He specializes in developing programmes that utilize the interface between Indigenous People’s Traditional Knowledge and Earth System Science. Rattling Leaf shares his Tribal heritage to strengthen his Tribe through education, focusing on community, economic and human development and to teach while preserving the Lakota values and heritage. He works with students to enhance their geoscience experience by developing funding, finding scholarships, and providing mentoring and internships. His higher education comes from Sinte Gleska University. James is a founding member of the GEO Indigenous Alliance that was established at GEO Week 2019 in Canberra, Australia to foster a continued, effective, respectful, and reciprocal relationship with GEO and representatives of indigenous communities from around the world.

You can read more about Rattling Leaf, Sr.’s work here.


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Amplifying Indigenous Perspectives and Knowledge Systems Copyright © 2023 by James Rattling Leaf, Sr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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