Dina Gilio-Whitaker

indigenous researcher, activist and journalist who lectures on American Indian studies at California State University San Marcos and is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an American academic, journalist and author, who studies Native Americans in the United States, decolonization and environmental justice. She is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.


  • Environmental racism is not broad or deep enough to understand the history of genocide or land theft in this country, which of course is the original environmental injustice for Native people.
  • we have this concept of privilege that we understand through the lens of race, which again is also highly inadequate because the settler-colonial project was not about racism. It includes it, it involves it, but land theft and genocide was for acquiring land for the sake of land itself, not for the exploitation of bodies in the same way that chattel slavery was. So, these are really two big, different animals, and the problem is that they get conflated. When we talk about subsuming Native issues of justice under this umbrella of race, it is in a way that does harm and disservice to Native people and makes illegible Indigenous struggles for decolonization and justice.
  • that is what settler colonialism does: it works really hard to hide itself, because its goal is to constantly disappear Indigenous people, and that doesn’t square with democracy and justice. That’s why we have this whole matrix of mythologies and lies about the foundation of this country that doesn’t get to the genocide and land theft, and that is the elephant in the living room in the U.S.
  • everybody takes for granted that equality under the State is what everybody wants. For Native people, that has never been their goal. Vine Deloria in 1969 said in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins, that “what we need is a national leave-us-alone policy.” He wrote his book in the middle of the Civil Rights, Black Panthers, and Black Power era, and he was very clear that what we want is not what you want. We don’t want equality, we want our treaties to be honored and our territories to be protected.
  • for us as Native people, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is not what we are working towards. It has to be anti-colonial. Any diversity and equity or anti-racist work that doesn’t include an anti-colonial commitment just perpetuates further erasure. We need to have the language for that.
  • I think if you are looking at decolonization as the framework for correcting these historical wrongs, giving land back is really the bottom line. But I also think it’s more than giving the land back: I think you have to restructure the legal system too.
  • White liberal environmentalists are who I write to. They are ultimately my audience because they need to understand historical context, and then once they do, this context can re-shape their projects and how they work.
  • I am very skeptical about Native people’s ability to find justice in the settler system because it is a system created not by us and not for us, ultimately to disappear us. I think some good can come from working within that system, but it remains to be seen what large-scale positive impact it can have.
  • This concept of “indigenizing” environmental justice acknowledges that the way we understand environmental justice is far too narrow to fit for Native Americans. Environmental justice is about the fair and equal distribution of environmental risks and harms that disproportionately expose communities of color. But that depends on understanding all communities as equal as ethnic minority communities. And this just does not fit for American Indian people and communities because American Indians are not ethnic minorities. American Indians are nations with territories, sovereignty, and jurisdiction and entirely different histories that go back millennia on the land as well as histories of colonization, which is not true for any other population on this continent.
  • Most people don’t realize that Native Americans are the only people who didn’t have religious freedom in this country. Our religions were outright banned beginning around 1883.
  • for Native people, we are people who are surviving genocide. To be Native today is to have survived a 95 percent genocide. Maybe that’s something to take heart in. I don’t know how else to think about it. I think the reason that we survived is because of our unending resistance. We just kept going. And so here we are. Now we are at the point that we are leading the resistance movement — the environmental resistance movement, the climate justice movement. Native people are the forefront of it. Maybe it’s because of the fact that we have survived this total devastation.
  • What is it going to take to build a system that affirms life for everyone that’s not built on the death of other people and the death of the environment and other species? This is what’s being asked of us and it means we all have to look at whatever privilege we have and who sacrificed for that.
  • Europeans brought with them a worldview that was built on the domination of the natural world. We find ourselves, as a result, in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event. And so how do we shift that? This is where indigenous knowledge is so important. Native people understand the world in a whole different way. We understand ourselves as related and part of this web of life. We have to change our relationship to the natural world. And this is where Native people and Indigenous knowledge have so much power to effect that change. Part of indigenizing environmental justice is infusing environmental justice with this indigenous worldview, with traditional ecological knowledge so that we can create these changes.
  • From an American Indian perspective, we're all on the reservation now. In the past few decades it has become crystal clear that, as "the people," our common enemy is the entrenched corporate power of Big Oil and other toxic industries that buy political influence to protect their own corrupt interests in collusion with government, all in the name of democracy. This has come at the expense of countless marginalized people world-wide. In the US, that has always meant Indigenous people, other people of color, and those having low incomes.
    • from Authors Note
  • One of the least known and studied aspects of US history involves the centuries-long trade in Indian slaves. Only in the last decade or two have scholars begun in earnest to piece together and analyze the trade in Indigenous bodies introduced by Christopher Columbus from his first voyage to the New World in 1492.

Chapter 8: Ways Forward for Environmental Justice in Indian Country

  • Since 2008, the rights of nature (RON) approach has helped activists in Ecuador, Bolivia, India, and New Zealand imbue nature with legal rights in much the same way American courts have given rights to corporations. These laws have been instrumental in protecting ecosystems inherent in natural landscapes like mountains and rivers. Ecuador in 2008 and Bolivia in 2009 went so far as to rewrite their national constitutions to include RON in their legal frameworks. This new language is based on Indigenous worldviews rooted in right relationship with nature and buenvivir, the good life. New Zealand (known as Aotearoa to the Maori, who are the Indigenous people of New Zealand) did not amend their constitution but instituted other legal mechanisms to grant personhood to the Whanganui River and Te Urewera National Parks in 2013. Following the In a neoliberal, market-fundamentalist world, a federal government controlled by conservatives has historically meant deregulation and the prioritization of industry over the protection of the environment.
  • Although federal law acknowledges the inherent sovereignty of Native nations through centuries of treaty relationships and often works in partnership with them through shared power, it is nonetheless a restricted form of sovereignty animated by imperialist legal foundations: the doctrine of discovery, domestic dependent nationhood, and the plenary power doctrine. These doctrines control Native peoples' lives and resources via intense regulation by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, meaning that Native people are more legally managed than all other people in the country, and arguably unconstitutionally contrary to the original treaty-based relationships. These are all constituent parts of what constructs the US domination-based legal paradigm.
  • The imperialist roots of federal Indian law present daunting obstacles to justice for American Indians. If American Indians are to experience real environmental justice-which means not only ending the poisoning of their environments but also regaining access to and protection of their sacred sites and ancient territories-it means confronting a "state built on the pillars of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy." The confrontation must occur at all levels, from the individual to the institutional, and ultimately dismantle the legal, social, and policy frameworks that uphold an ongoing system of domination. Indigenizing environmental justice in these ways goes beyond a distributive model of justice.
  • As its history with American Indians has shown, the US complies with laws it makes or agrees to only haphazardly at best, and often not at all. Indians have always had to fight to defend their lives, lands, and treaties. Resistance became a way of life a long time ago; only the tactics change. The federal government has never relinquished power over Native people without a fight, and the degree to which it has is directly attributable to work initiated by Native people themselves. In other words, more than any "granting" of rights by the United States, it is their bold assertions of self-determination, aided at times by powerful allies, that accounts for progress Native people have made in their relationships with the United States over the last century. Indigenous peoples have learned that no one is coming to save them, just as environmentalists have learned that their American legal system is a rigged game against the environment and their own communities. This is a pattern engrained by the forces of white settler colonialism and domination paradigms, but the growing sophistication in using education, law, and politics to advance tribal self-determination will continue to build a wall of defense against environmentally destructive corporate and government encroachments. There is no denying that the fossil fuel industry as we once knew it is dying. Even as its government puppets desperately grasp to hold on to power as the final drops of oil and gas are sucked from the Earth, the last chunks of coal are wrenched from the ground, and the nuclear industry continues to perpetuate the lie of its comparable cleanness, effective partnerships with allies in the environmental movement will provide the best defense for the collective well-being of the environment and future generations of all Americans, Native and non-Native alike. In the long run, environmental justice for American Indians is environmental justice for everyone... and for the Earth herself.
  • For Native nations and activists, the Green New Deal holds promise. Its commitment to principles of environmental justice is highly relevant to us, but can only work if articulated in a way that addresses our specific concerns. We might think of this as “Indigenizing” environmental justice and see the Green New Deal as decolonizing work.
  • We need to imagine new frameworks for law and policy that articulate with specificity what Native people envision as a more just system, one that accurately represents our interests. This can best be accomplished by reinforcing the inherent sovereignty of tribal governments — recognizing our nationhood and political relationship with the U.S.
  • Given the habitual whitewashing of history and dismissal of tribal nationhood, Indigenous peoples are not adequately acknowledged in environmental justice policy and the law. Maintaining a measured separateness helps avoid historical erasure and the tendency to conflate Indigenous peoples with other settler and immigrant populations. It also moves lawmakers and the public toward a better understanding of environmental justice and tribal self-determination.
  • The more we can distinguish our political existence from a race-based one, the better.
  • New frameworks of justice can be realized as we speak into existence a habitable future for life on this planet.
  • Climate change’s growing urgency demands nothing less than our seat at the table — for the sake of our children and the seven generations to come.
  • How do you restore Indigenous authority to their ancestral places? By considering all kinds of possibilities and alternative land arrangements, including shared governance.
  • We have to talk about policy and specifics as we look at the big picture of Indigenous liberation, because ultimately we have to engage with the hegemonic powers. Thereʼs no getting around that. Plus, how are you going to implement all these great ideas without tribal governments?
  • It begins with settler institutions (including science-based institutions) engaging Indigenous people in all their conversations, and the recognition of cultural and political sovereignty. Itʼs a simple matter of respect. And given that we have some tangible knowledge about how to effectively manage lands, draw on that. Just stop bypassing Native people as if we donʼt exist or as if we have nothing of value to contribute. I call it un-erasing Indigenous people. Of course the erasure is everywhere, but some places are more intense than others. California is one of the places where erasure is the most intense.
  • wherever, whatever kind of project that youʼre talking about, you must include Native voices and governments when appropriate. If we start there, then we create patterns of un-erasure and take meaningful steps in accordance with respect to Native people.
  • On the national level, the Green New Deal is a step in the right direction toward building environmental justice into climate change policy. And as Iʼve written about elsewhere, there are steps that can be taken to “Indigenize” it, thus making it more responsive to Indigenous issues. This would include explicit recognition of Indigenous nationhood and political relationships to the US (not based on race), and the affirming of TEK as a methodology for tackling climate change. The GND is modeled after FDRʼs New Deal, which is always celebrated as progressive action that lifted the US out of economic depression through infrastructure development projects like dams and extractive industries that put people to work. Whatʼs far less acknowledged, however, is how much environmental and cultural death and destruction all that development wreaked on Indian country. We see a similar pattern occurring globally in the realm of “sustainable” development, which has given rise to a modern global land rush that impacts Indigenous communities the most. Ultimately, unchecked capitalism is the problem and we need to heed the research that connects cultural diversity with biodiversity if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
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