One of the most known aspects of Native American culture is the connection with the land and nature. However, Native Americans across Iowa, and the rest of the nation, are having to deal with the destruction of their land and the environment.
“We consider nature to be a part of us. We’re a part of nature. We’re not two different things, we’re the same thing. We need each other and nature needs us as much as we need nature. We have that relationship,” Dawson Davenport, an artist and writer who is part of the Meskwaki Nation, said. “We have a kind of two-way relationship where people refer to nature as our relative, and vice versa.”
Davenport has been using his voice to advocate for indigenous issues, one of those issues specifically being climate change. In October of 2019, Davenport shared the stage with climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Greta Thunberg, and gave a speech about climate justice for indigenous peoples.
“It was a really cool experience to be included in that and to be with such a worldwide figure talking about the same things,” Davenport said. “The reason why I really wanted to be a part of it was because of her stance and position on indigenous communities and how we have been talking about these things for a long time. To be there and to share the moment with her, it was really cool to be included, to be up there representing Native people here in Iowa.”
One of the main issues facing Native Americans are water shortages. Demetrious Littlemoon ‘20, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, a tribe based in South Dakota, explains that climate change only worsens lack of access to water.
“Water supply is a huge issue in South Dakota because the reservation is in the Badlands, so it’s just a desert, full of mountains and gravel, which is not a great place to be affected by climate change [because] droughts are going to be very severe, the winters there get very cold, and that has not changed because that’s not how climate change works,” Littlemoon said. “[The] brutal summers affect people [who] don’t have air conditioning and they die of heatstroke, and it’s just getting progressively worse.”
In Davenport’s community near Tama, Iowa, flooding, caused by climate change, has been an issue.
“We’re dealing with things that are happening around us, for example, flooding. We get a lot more flooding here in our community,” Davenport said. “It’s getting a little bit worse every time it floods, it gets higher and higher up to people’s homes. Whereas before, really, it never really got that bad.”
Davenport has also noticed other effects such as later planting and harvesting for his community.
“[Climate change] definitely has an effect on Native communities in several different ways,” Davenport said. “I think for indigenous communities we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to adapt to these changes that we’re seeing. A lot of what we do, we operate on nature’s time.”
Native voices have been increasingly amplified in the conversations surrounding climate change with protests such as Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“In my work, I’ve been included in a lot of conversations which never happened before,” Davenport said. “You start hearing that for example, the presidential candidates, like Bernie Sanders, came to my community and that Native indigenous people will be at the forefront of the conversation now, that we will be considered when the government is going to make decisions about climate change and how to deal with it. It’s really cool that people who could potentially become the president are saying these things.”
However, many Native climate activists weren’t always being heard.
“We never [were included in the conversation of climate change] before. We have our indigenous Native activists who have been raising awareness for a long time, John Trudell, Winona Laduke who’ve been pretty much talking about climate change their whole career, their whole lives,” Davenport said. “They’ve never really been taken seriously until recently, because of things like Standing Rock and the pipeline issues.”
Even though there have been Native voices included in the conversation, it often comes from necessity due to the fact that many indigenous communities are disproportionately feeling the effects of climate change.
“Inherently Native Americans are more tied to the land they live on because it’s the only thing that we have connecting our groups together, the one thing we all have in common is that we have reservations. I think climate change is distilled down to its most basic form, a degradation of the land, which is not something Native Americans are [okay] with,” Littlemoon said. “The corporatism is really bad, and a lot of natives live in very poor conditions where they can’t use technology to minimize the impacts of climate change. I think Native Americans are going to face a lot of the same troubles everyone else will be they’re going to get hit by it, a lot more like people you know Sub Saharan Africa where the systems really aren’t there to protect them from what’s going to happen as compared to somewhere like Iowa City where we’re just going to have, you know, worse farming years and whatnot.”
Many Native Americans rely heavily on their land. Therefore, the degradation of such land is harmful to their communities.
“One of the biggest factors into how poor our tribe ends up being is how much land the government gave them originally, and what kind of land it is and the Oglala were given a lot of very worthless land, and they weren’t given terribly much of it,” Littlemoon said. “It was at the very beginning, not even all of South Dakota. It’s only shrunk since then. The primary source of income for the tribe is just selling land parcels over time. So it’s an ever-shrinking amount of land, which means the income potential they have is only getting lower.”
However, Davenport still believes that it is important to remain hopeful and optimistic.
“Young people are starting to wake up and that’s where I believe the strength comes from. There [are] so many young people in this country now that have that power to take over and to create these changes so that we do live on a healthy and liveable planet,” Davenport said. “It’s time to start thinking about future generations. We need to take care of this planet, our Earth, the natural world. Because we need to leave this world better than we got it.
Our children deserve a chance at life and there’s only one way to do that and that’s to restore that balance and restore what we’ve already taken.”