Indigenous Perspectives for a Sustainable Environment

By Billie Warren, Guest Blogger

In November 2020, TERC’s iSWOOP project (Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks) co-sponsored Indigenous Perspectives for a Sustainable Environment. This webinar series introduced an Indigenous Science perspective on conservation to educators, land managers, and environmentalists and explored how Indigenous Science can improve our sustainability efforts.

BillieWarren_webThe series was organized by Billie Warren, an educational and environmental consultant and Pokagon Potawatomi citizen, whose work includes sharing her unique Indigenous perspective on history and environmental sustainability. Her project brought together three sponsoring organizations, six tribal members from the Great Lakes region, and 150 community members, park staff and youth leaders. More than a celebration of Native American culture, the five sessions were a way for those of us rooted in dominant western science to start reckoning with the unexamined attitudes that shape approaches to land management and conservation.

In iSWOOP, we work diligently and enthusiastically with park rangers and park-based scientific researchers to highlight science happening behind the scenes at several national parks. There is lots of exciting science to share, yet it has been easy for us to gloss over questions like, “Whose questions are driving the science and whose are left out?” or “Whose science has guided and should guide conservation efforts?”. We were grateful to have the opportunity to support the Indigenous Science series Warren designed to shake up standard western  perspectives in which educators and conservationists are so entrenched.

As this month’s guest blogger for TERC, Warren shares her motivation and perspectives on composing the series, and highlights key points conveyed by presenters. To explore these ideas further, you can obtain the presentation series recordings on the Dunes Learning Center website.

It was an honor to have worked with sponsors to share the cultural richness and vast knowledge of the Great Lakes Indigenous Peoples and our Indigenous Sciences (IS). As a Pokagon Potawatomi woman and environmental educator, I have a deep respect for our ancestral knowledge steeped in local ecology. As I work to regenerate and preserve life in our homelands, the harsh reality is that our current land management practices often contradict my traditional beliefs.


Modern restoration wetland projects often rely on systematically flattening, spraying, and killing the narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angust ifolia). The science calls for toxic chemicals that also impact numerous insects, fungi, animals, plants, and even humans. Potawatomi ancestors traditionally respected the humble zheshko, muskrat, for his ability to teach us hundreds of ways to work with the abekwesh, cattail. Living in harmony with the land, Potawatomi build wigwams using abekwesh. The wigwams strongly resemble the zheshko lodges. Both structures connect us with our Flood Story (https://www.potawatomi.org/the-flood-story/). With each spray, it is cultural genocide as the zheshko and I, can no longer access our abekwesh.

Indigenous perspectives on management, conservation, restoration, and sustainability have been long ignored. Indeed, from the 1870’s until 1978, it was illegal for Indigenous people to speak their traditional languages, practice their culture, and follow their spiritual pathways. In spite of the cultural genocide, Indigenous communities still possess the knowledge, the science, that will enable us to live sustainably for a minimum of seven generations. https://www.potawatomi.org/the-seven-grandfathers/

At this pivotal moment when communities and scientists are grappling with the reality of climate change, I feel compelled to emphasize how Indigenous Science offers long term sustainable solutions.

“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass:
Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific

The Indigenous Perspectives webinar series focused on bridging Indigenous Science with Western Science, to diversify and promote conservation projects to move forward in a more sustainable fashion. I presented with a different speaker each week, to weave together the topics of Indigenous science, language, relationships, cooking, and gardening practices.

Screen Shot 2021-10-27 at 11.49.39 AMThe first speaker, Kaya DeerInWater, Citizen Band Potawatomi citizen and ecologist, laid a foundation for the series by highlighting commonalities and differences between Western Science and Indigenous Science. The relatively young, dominant modern science tends to compartmentalize the natural world, in order to identify mechanisms or to prove or disprove a working hypothesis. For example, continuing the story of cattails and muskrats, the western scientific approach is to identify and kill aggressive, non-native cattails to make way for the native species, whereas Indigenous Science leans towards a holistic approach such as re-introducing the muskrat, which primarily eats cattails and builds his lodge out of them. Eventually the cattails are reabsorbed, sustainably, into the wetland. Potawatomi teachings tell us to use what Mother Earth gives you in abundance because all life is a gift. 

In another session, participants were invited to consider how language plays a vital role in understanding the natural world. Frank Barker, a Gun Lake Potawatomi Nation citizen, explained that English uses 90% noun-based words, while 90% of the Potawatomi language is descriptive verb-based words. Nouns generally prioritize people, places, and things, whereas verbs prioritize relationships and imply life. For example, leaves may change from yellow to brown. The Potawatomi word azawmget can mean yellow or brown, capturing both action and relationship. The Potawatomi language divides its verbs into those used for things that are alive or animate and those for things that are not-alive. Much of nature is considered animate, including rocks which thus require the same verb as people. Using verbs, such as kill, eradicate, and exterminate to refer to the natural world, implies a violent unhealthy relationship with the land. Historically, words like kill, eradicate, and exterminate were used by colonists to describe their intentions toward Native Americans. Conservation mandates to kill and eradicate plants echoes the language the US government used not so long ago: “Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone”.

Bradford Kasberg, Wetland Restoration Manager for Audubon Lakes and citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, has noted, we have to begin questioning our models, because current conservation efforts negatively impact Native people by limiting access to traditional territories for cultural practices. Well-funded conservation groups acquire and manage land, imposing rules that limit access to natural resources, without recognizing the needs and cultural practices of native community members. Conservation can make it harder for Indigenous community members to continue sustainable practices in fishing, hunting, gardening, foraging, making baskets, and canoes.  

Screen Shot 2021-10-27 at 12.09.53 PMThe know-how for harvesting and cooking local and sustainable foods such as cattails, wild rice, wild plums, cedar, and even milkweed is almost unknown to many. Americans have little exposure to Indigenous foods and flavors. We were joined by Executive Chef Elena Terry, Ho Chunk Citizen who founded Wild Bearies, an educational nonprofit that focuses on building stronger tribal communities through food sovereignty. Terry emphasized how having a healthy traditional diet incorporates indigenous science and utilizes traditional language and art forms, while promoting healing relationships between people and nature. Elena crafts her own traditional chef's tools such as butchering knives from deer antlers and handwoven baskets from material she forages. Elena is a seed keeper and honored with the responsibility of caring for and preserving rare seeds for her community. Elena beamed as she told the story of one special squash. The Ho Chunk squash seeds had been sitting dormant in a museum and were returned to their tribal nations in a recent repatriation act. A seed keeper has special teachings and holds the responsibility for making sure the seeds are propagated for her tribal communities.

Seeds__webThe last speaker, Gina Roxas, underscored previous speakers' points on biodiversity, traditional language, customs, and nutrition as she spoke to her Indigenous Gardening practices. Roxas draws on five generations of ancestral Potawatomi knowledge as the caregiver of the community garden at Trickster Art Gallery in Skokie, Illinois. Lunar cycles and first thunders traditionally cue planting, but Gina has found weather patterns are becoming less predictable, and so she continues to experiment, blending her observations with advice from the Farmers’ Almanac and the Potawatomi systems that offer empirical evidence tested over thousands of years. We ended with a breakout session where participants were asked what they would do if they could no longer go to a grocery store. Participants started to think about where they would plant, harvest, and even how they would process and store their produce. We talked about how to find a seed library and start swapping seeds and to grow food locally. 

Having a healthy connection with the land means reciprocity. Indigenous people speak with plant and animal life forms. We offer nen sema (tobacco). When we plant a seed, it is nurtured in a way that most Western Farmers would find unnecessary. Yet these traditional practices express having reciprocal regenerative relationships with our land, which in turn offers environmental sustainability for all.

It is impossible to learn Indigenous Science and perspectives for a sustainable environment in five short webinars, but one can hope that the seed of knowledge is planted within the nearly 150 participants that joined us. I am grateful and honored to have shared just a bit of my culture’s science, language, culture, and my relationship with the land with participants in the hope of helping educators and conservationists understand how we are all related and that we are honored guests of our Mother Earth. We must work together to treat her better.

About the author

Billie Warren, Educational and Environmental Consultant and Pokagon Potawatomi citizen, works on sharing her unique Indigenous perspective on History and Environmental Sustainability. Billie's work spans over a twenty-year period working with universities, municipalities, public schools, National Parks, Non-Profit organizations, Conservation Groups, Conservation Projects, Historical Societies and museums. In June 2019 she founded Jibek Mbwakawen Inc. to improve the community’s environment by connecting people back to the land from an indigenous perspective. Billie earned a BA degree from Indiana University Northwest (IUN) and is pursuing a Graduate Degree in Public and Environmental Affairs at IUN. Billie identifies as Bear Clan, is a water protector, seed keeper, and steward of the land.

About the Indigenous Perspectives for a Sustainable Environment webinar series

Access all five webinars at https://dlc.simpletix.com/e/63973

What participants wrote

“This program has planted many seeds for me to water. I am enjoying digging into many subjects that are just mentioned in the short time we are together. I am very excited about the next couple programs. I have been waiting for ten years to learn about this information.”

“Thanks to the wonderful speakers and organizers for such an important webinar! Thank you to the speakers for putting some of the history of systematic oppression and erasure of indigenous language and culture in context, including the personal ways it has affected them. Thumbs way up!”

 “The honesty and personal stories shared by the presenters. Coming from a European science perspective it can be difficult to completely shift your mindset / open up to another way of seeing / experiencing things. The personal “whys” add the necessary seriousness and authenticity to the message. Without it, I think it would feel like changing the semantics, using the politically correct verbiage.”


An Additional Resource

For another perspective on parks and Indigenous science, see:

Acadia National Park Science Symposium
The Acadia National Park Science Symposium provides a forum to learn about science taking place in the region and to interact and build collaborations with scientists, educators, students, park staff, and others working in a range of fields. A recording of the 2021 session, "Wabanaki knowledge, perspectives, and science in Acadia, Session 5 " is available.  

Indigenous Perspectives for a Sustainable Environment
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