The filmmakers behind a new documentary discuss Native land stewardship, building collaborative relationships with tribes, and the challenges of implementing Indigenous practices on a wider scale.
The filmmakers behind a new documentary discuss Native land stewardship, building collaborative relationships with tribes, and the challenges of implementing Indigenous practices on a wider scale.
May 24, 2021
As the climate crisis picks up speed, the Biden administration has responded with renewed urgency. Not only has Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, recently called it “an urgent national security threat,” but Robert Bonnie, the new climate advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to “lead the world in climate-smart agricultural practices.”
Across the country, Native American communities are also responding to the crisis and many have been adopting climate action plans to protect their lifeways. But the land management practices these communities are focused on stand to have a much wider impact. Increasingly, they’re being recognized as a key to the future of our planet.
Inhabitants, a new documentary by Costa Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer, explores Native Americans’ role in climate mitigation and adaptation by focusing on the continuation of ancestral practices in five Indigenous communities. The film explores intentional burning among the Karuk Tribe of California; sustainable agricultural practices on Hopi land in Arizona and the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin; the return of buffalo on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana; and the renaissance of Native Hawaiian food forests. Inhabitants builds on Boutsikaris’ previous film, Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective, which looked at the history of permaculture as a solution to local and global challenges.
Civil Eats recently spoke with Boutsikaris, Palmer, and producer Ben-Alex Dupris, an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, about why Native land stewardship is overlooked, how to build collaborative relationships with tribes, and the challenges of implementing Indigenous practices on a wider scale.
What motivated you to make a film specifically about Native people’s perspectives on adapting to and preventing the impacts of climate change?
Costa Boutsikaris: The first documentary I made was about permaculture, a branch of the regenerative farming movement. Permaculture was “created” by two Australian men in Tasmania, but it turns out they got a lot of their research from the Aboriginal people in Australia and from other Indigenous people. And although they write about these origins a little bit in some of the early texts on permaculture, this part of the movement is overlooked. It wasn’t until I made that film and got deeper into that world that I realized while there’s a nod to Native wisdom and Indigenous practices, there really hasn’t been much space for Native people in this movement.
I was trying to figure out a way to be helpful in bringing more Native guidance into the sustainability movement. That guidance is severely lacking across not just regenerative farming, but also land management and wildlife conservation, all the different practices that are connected to working with a changing climate. My partner Anna had met tribal project leaders who were looking for ways to document Native people’s conservation practices and wanting to get their voices heard in a more urgent way. We worked with multiple partners to create a collaborative documentary; our goal was to find a way to bring these stories together and inspire a wider audience, but also to inspire Native youth to see what’s possible.
One of the things we heard from tribal leaders was, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” They felt there’s a real need for seeing success stories in order to bring back traditional [land management] practices. So, that was really our impetus, and then it spiraled from there, as a lot of amazing Native people guided us and advised us on how to tell these stories appropriately.
Ben-Alex Dupris: As Indigenous people, we have always been engaged in a relationship with the land. This is what we do, this is our way of life. And our relationship to the history of the land has never really been told. But I don’t think that there’s a choice for Native people. Because of our unique status with the federal government, we are sovereign nations and we have land bases. We are responsible for these relationships and we want to make sure that our children and their children have a sustainable future that they can look forward to, and that corporate America doesn’t just get to have free reign over the environment, simply because it’s profitable. So, it’s deeply ingrained in me to align with filmmakers who want to spread this message. It’s the most urgent message of our time.
What is the significance of the film’s title, Inhabitants?
Boutsikaris: Inhabit was focused on how to inhabit a place and how to design that space. As I started to work with Anna and the tribal leaders, a phrase that continually came up was “original inhabitants.” And I realized that ‘inhabitants’ is such an important idea. The word builds onto the identity and the history of the people who live in that place, and asks about how they inhabit their home.
Anna, how did your work as a researcher investigating the impacts of climate change in tribal communities inform this documentary?
Anna Palmer: I have a Master of Science in Environmental Studies. Throughout my studies, the role of Native people in advancing climate-resilient conservation practices wasn’t taught. As part of my graduate research and later as a research scientist, I worked for the USDA on The Native Waters on Arid Lands project, which seeks to help tribes in the Southwest adapt to climate change. It was through that research that I got the opportunity to hear directly from tribal leaders about the conservation work they have been doing for thousands of years. And I realized their work wasn’t being recognized in the climate adaptation space.
During the USDA project, I also noticed the “experts” talked to the Native American farmers as if they didn’t know how to live in the places they had lived for millennia. For example, one of the solutions that climate researchers suggested to Hopi farmers was to irrigate their crops, saying this would help them adapt to climate change. But the Hopi farmers [who practice dryland farming] said they don’t irrigate and that’s what makes them so resilient. And then I would get to talk to them and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, come out here and see what we’re doing on our farms. We will continue to survive the way we’ve been surviving here for thousands of years.’ And I feel so lucky that I got to go out and see it, because hopefully we can help future researchers see things from Native people’s perspectives.
Films are often made about Native communities by non-Native directors. Ben-Alex, how do you feel Inhabitants fits into this legacy?
Dupris: The commodification of Indigenous narratives has existed for as long as film has. The first “documentary,” Nanook of the North, was by a white man looking at a Native person and judging how his life was similar and dissimilar [to his]—an anthropologist-type clinical observation that permeates documentaries today. What’s different now in the 21st century is that we [Native people] are empowered and educated. We have our own narrative teams. The catalyst was Standing Rock. After working for six months at Standing Rock documenting the occupation, my friends and I knew we had lost the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline for the time being. But we also knew that the most important lesson we had learned was to collaborate with allies so that we can place our narratives on the front lines of the media space.
It would be really beautiful if we could do that all internally, but the reality is we don’t have enough time and energy to . . . reach out to the nearly 580 [federally recognized] tribes. There is a lot of relationship building that we need to do to make change. And although I prefer Native films to be told from an Indigenous perspective, what the Inhabitants team has done is build a really great model of cooperation with a tribal advisory board and a Native producer like myself. This isn’t a new model, but it’s definitely new in the film space. I do welcome filmmakers to collaborate with Indigenous producers because I think that the results outweigh any of the controversies that surround these issues, especially in the case of this film, which does a great job of sharing the nuances of each one of the cultures and what they represent. Working with allies and Indigenous filmmakers alike is the future of this work—which is political by nature.
Can you talk a little more about the significance of having a tribal advisory board?
Boutsikaris: We wanted to ensure that the stories in the film were made in a way that the Indigenous communities felt was beneficial and respectful to them. This meant they were able to see their stories before the film was publicly released. For a lot of filmmakers that sounds like a nightmare, but for us it was the only way we could have done this project.
We made mistakes and it was really important that the tribal advisory board watch the film [as it was being produced]. For example, we found a piece of archival footage made by the USDA that was [downplaying the] impact Native people had on the land. We thought it might be interesting to highlight how the government had publicly talked about Native people in this way. But we got feedback that it was not appropriate and it might be confusing for Native youth to see that. There were also pieces of interviews that people realized they didn’t want out there. On the other side, the advisory board recommended that we dig deeper on some issues. As a result, we created a much more collaborative relationship that I think most documentaries don’t have.
Palmer: We had to give up a lot of creative control in that process. But we decided we’re going to give up some of that control so that [the Indigenous communities] can feel like they can trust us in holding their stories. Because not all information is meant to be shared. And being able to work together in that way was really helpful. One of the first people to join our [curriculum] advisory board was the executive director of FALCON (The First American Land-Grant College Organization Network). There’s over 37 tribal colleges and we wanted to make sure that this film was going to be distributed in the tribal college space.
Boutsikaris: People often ask me how to build trusting and collaborative relationships with Native American communities. The number one thing that you can bring to the table is time. I think Native communities have gotten used to a lot of researchers, journalists, or camera crews showing up for a few hours, leaving, and never coming back.
Palmer: And learn their history before you get out there.
Inhabitants highlights the importance that Native women play in carrying out many of these sustainable land practices, such as Karuk women conducting prescribed burns. Can you talk about their roles?
Dupris: The hidden history of America is that there were many matriarchal societies on Turtle Island (North America). A lot of that disappeared when America was “founded.” For example, the Constitution of the United States was taken directly from The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, known also as the Iroquois Confederacy. But [white settlers] misinterpreted its principles. They saw a chief and assumed he was in charge. Nobody asked about the clan mothers in the longhouse, when in fact it was the women who elected the officials. So what we’re looking at now is a return to our relationship to the earth and to the women in our society. It’s also about identifying all of those different levels of discernment, such as trans or two-spirit people . . . all the different ways that people identify and contribute.
Boutsikaris: We are continually learning that women have for millennia played a major role in land stewardship in North America. We were also surprised by the women’s role in Karuk fire burning. Fire fighting in western society fits into a very masculine world of power, domination, force, and destruction. But the reality is that prescribed burning was grandmothers’ work. The women would light fires and walk with them and clean up around the village sites [to prevent bigger fires.] They also did prescribed burns to grow better acorns, huckleberries, and mushrooms. Their work with fire stemmed from a relationship with the land that wasn’t masculine at all, it was a very feminine process.
Let’s talk about the idea of scientific validation of Indigenous land practices. In the film, Hopi farmer Michael Kotutwa Johnson talks about how Native people don’t get recognition for their time-proven land management practices. How can we break through this challenge?
Boutsikaris: Johnson went into 10-year process of getting his PhD just to be taken seriously and to find ways to help his fellow Hopi farmers get more funding. There’s this complex tension between traditional knowledge and the PhD/academia points of view.
Palmer: I don’t think academia will be the same 10 years from now. Young scientists are coming of age in a time when the climate crisis is so dire that we need to change the way we do things. It can’t be business as usual. And when you’re looking for something different to try, focusing on Indigenous practices is the best path forward. There’s a lot of power and money in academia. But as more [diverse] people become PhD’s and become eligible for these massive grants, they will be able to use them to work collaboratively with tribes. Already, there are good examples of such collaboration, including Professor Kari Marie Norgaard at the University of Oregon, who has been working with the Karuk Tribe on its climate vulnerability assessment. Her research goes through the same cultural resource advisory board process that our film went through. Because in academia, we’ve seen a similar pattern of researchers extracting data from tribes and not bringing it back to benefit these communities in a reciprocal way.
What about government bodies, what is their view on Native people’s practices?
Palmer: From what we’ve seen, state agencies such as CAL FIRE (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) are starting to take practices such as prescribed fire practices more seriously, though many challenges remain. And they’re cooperating only because they have to, since California is burning up. Federal agencies are also stepping up, in some cases. Kalani Souza, the founding director of the Olohana Foundation in Hawaii, who is featured in our film, now works with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] as a trainer/consultant on re-building food forests as a way to deal with increasing natural disasters. He has figured out a way to funnel federal money into building back native food systems.
Boutsikaris: This brings up an important challenge for implementing Native land management practices. Although CAL FIRE is now starting to work with the Karuk tribe, this tribe—like many others—has no reservation because the U.S. government never ratified its treaty. They live in the Klamath River Valley, surrounded by millions of acres of forests that they used to tend with fire for millennia. But now they have to apply for burn permits, air quality permits, and environmental reviews, which vastly limits their ability to pursue these cultural practices. Last year, a wildfire broke out and wiped out almost the entire town of Happy Camp, one of the main population bases of the Karuk. Several hundred homes went up in flames. The tribe has said that had it been able to do its cultural burns [beforehand], the fire would never have gotten to their homes. Land sovereignty is a real challenge. So, while there are new collaborations, there’s also an ongoing fight to get Native land back.
As you mention, much of the work with tribes has suffered from extractive relationships. How do you envision your film not being extractive and actually benefiting tribal communities?
Boutsikaris: Because the point of this film is to have a real tangible impact, both for Native and non-Native people, we’ve created content on our website and are distributing it with our screening campaign to help communities in various ways. This includes helping Native communities find grants for land stewardship projects, including through the First Nations Development Institute; a mapping tool to learn about your local tribes; research on Native climate resilience; and information on how to financially support the projects featured in the film and other Indigenous land projects across the country.
Dupris: When I was a young boy, I didn’t see anybody on television or in films who was representing what I knew was the real truth: that our Indigenous knowledge is an important part of maintaining the balance of the earth. And so opportunities to help promote this message to our own people and especially to our youth . . . are very close to my heart. I have three children and I believe that their life will be very difficult because of climate change. I think they’ll look back to the era that I grew up in and think that we were privileged to have clean drinking water all the time, to not have to worry about the extinction of our traditional keystone animals or about disease and sickness that we’ve not seen for thousands of years. My personal investment is in sharing these stories and increasing awareness of Indigenous sustainable practices within our tribal communities.
One of the most poignant parts in the film was watching Native youth playing with buffalo hides on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, where the buffalo—once slaughtered to near extinction—have finally returned in recent years. Another was watching Blackfeet elders seeing buffalo for the first time. The connection between people and animals was incredible.
Dupris: The first weapon against Indigenous people and the best way to steal their land was to kill all the animals they depended on. It was such a level of disrespect, unfathomable, and I don’t know if anyone can understand how devastating it was not only to the people themselves, but to our animal people, to the spirits that provide us sustenance and the harmony of our landscape that was disrupted in the name of progress. When you see a scene like that, if you know the back history, it can bring you to tears. The buffalo and the people are the same, their spirits are the same, and the way that we walk on this earth is to share life with every creature. Those messages got lost over time.
Boutsikaris: This brings up the issue of disruption. We’re starting to hear the buzzword phrase “Native solutions to climate change.” The New York Times and other big publications are publishing articles about such Native solutions. While that is true, that they are Native solutions, it’s critical to remember that these are also ancient practices going back millennia that were, in themselves, disrupted. There was a systematic killing off of the buffalo in the 19th century by the U.S. government. Their population was reduced from about 30 million down to a few hundred. Prescribed fire was made illegal, leading to the arrests and killing of Native people. This pattern repeated itself across the continent as settler colonialism moved west. As non-Native people, we have learned that it’s really important to expand this concept of Native solutions into the history of cultural disruption, restoration, and healing.
That’s a great point. And it’s ironic that today in regenerative agriculture circles experts talk about livestock improving soil health while forgetting that in the past we had the buffalo performing that exact function—except, we killed them off. We’re now reinventing the wheel, after destroying the solutions we already had.
Boutsikaris: All of this research [on regenerative agriculture] is going to lead to the realization of, “Oh, if we hadn’t colonized North America and hadn’t disrupted the lives of Native people and the ecosystems they inhabited, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.’ People ask us, how should we understand this film? How does it relate to climate change?’ If you actually look at how the Indigenous lifeways were disrupted, those disruptions literally contribute to carbon in the atmosphere. When the buffalo were killed off in North America and white settlers plowed up the Great Plains, we completely shut down the most powerful carbon sequestration processes on the continent. Hawaii, where large corporations clear-cut much of the native forest and replaced it with monocrops, is seeing increased damage from storms. The story is not just about how do we deal with climate change, but also about how we created it. I think that history is really hard for all of us to deal with.
Given all this, how do we not fall into despair? How can we use the historical wisdom of Indigenous communities to move forward?
Palmer: A lot of the barriers that Native people face today are bureaucratic. To change that, we need policy changes. Another level of possibility is personal and cultural changes by non-Native people. For example, when it comes to forest management practices, if more American foresters sought to incorporate practices similar to those on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, the ripple effect could be massive. There are all these different ways that we can go about expanding these types of climate friendly Indigenous practices.
Boutsikaris: The Menominee are renowned for their sustainable forestry system. Their forest has more and better quality trees today than it did 150 years ago, despite years of logging to sustain the community. When you talk about how to change the world, most of the time it comes down to how can people make money. And because the climate is forcing more resilient systems to remain and less resilient systems—like mono-cropping and clear-cutting—to fall off, I think we’re going to see more acceptance of systems such as the Menominee forestry practices because they are working [economically] in the face of climate change. And that’s an important moment to create opportunities for guidance from Native communities.
Dupris: People are beginning to listen to Indigenous communities—not because they have had a change of heart, but because we have been able to vote and develop politicians, infrastructure, and financial wealth. From helping to secure Biden’s win in Arizona, to Deb Holland being appointed to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, to Janie Simms Hipp’s nomination to General Counsel of the USDA, we have worked very hard as the tribal community to find strong representation that brings our issues to the forefront. And though we’re a small community—Native people comprise about 5 million people in the U.S.—we hold some of the last [undeveloped] land resources, and we don’t want them developed. We don’t want to dig up the sacred hills for gold. We’re building relationships and managing our forests and animals with the state fisheries and state game departments. There’s a lot of interactivity, cooperation, and building within our tribal nations.
Palmer: Jeff Grignon [with Cultural Resource Protection] at Menominee Tribal Enterprises told us about the concept of “cultural climate change,” wherein the North American tribes had to adapt as their culture was disrupted by colonization. When our society in 2021 is thinking about how it’s too hard to change, we should remember what happened to Native American communities over 400 years ago and how every single Indigenous tribe had to adapt. The cultural climate change that they had to overcome, and the fact that they’re still here, resilient and strong, should be an inspiring point for us. Our culture has to change to survive. And we have a lot to learn from Native American communities about how to do this.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Inhabitants kicks off its free screening series this week as part of its Impact Campaign in partnership with The Institute For Tribal Environmental Professionals. To find out about future screenings of Inhabitants at festivals and other events, follow the film on Facebook or Instagram. The film will be publicly available in mid-November. Watch the trailer below:
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