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Mainstream Settler Society Needs a Land- and Place-Based Ethic

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Dina Gilio-Whitaker_As Long As Grass Grows
Author photo: Banana Bugz Photography

This essay appeared originally on

For many years now I have been studying, writing, and thinking about what environmental justice means for Indigenous peoples. In my most recent book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice From Colonization to Standing Rock, I take on the topic in very broad but specific ways. I see United States settler colonialism as a history of environmental injustice; in other words, colonization and environmental injustice go hand in hand for Native people.

In general, the field of environmental justice (EJ) refers to injustice as the ways people of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic development and other processes that place them at higher risk of illness and other attendant harms (such as lower property values and gentrification). EJ is based on the concept of environmental racism. That’s a pretty narrow way of understanding environmental injustice, I argue, and as the scholarship and activism becomes more sophisticated, it is becoming more nuanced in the ways environmental injustice is understood. This is where my book fits in.

In the book, I contend that for Indigenous people, environmental injustice is an entirely different animal, because it involves far more than toxic development. For Native people, it begins as processes of invasion that historically have often removed them from their ancestral lands and resulted in the subsequent disruption of communities to maintain themselves according to their own “original instructions.” This kind of social death is part of the genocidal structure of settler colonialism.

The original instructions are based on worldviews and philosophical paradigms far different than those of the dominant (Eurocentric) society. Eurocentric ways of living on the land stem from a domination framework. The domination framework descends from religious imperatives that separate humans from the environment and justify the violent intrusion into other people’s lands—what we today call colonization. Think of the story where Adam and Eve are commanded by God to go out and dominate the world, and the Cain and Abel story in which murder and the taking of land are justified. At the same time, it has laid the foundation for a relationship to land and place that only sees land for how it can be put to human use. This is always already an exploitative, extractive relationship. 

Indigenous worldviews, on the other hand, are based on concepts we sometimes refer to as the four R’s: relationality, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility. In a world based on relationships, all life is seen in terms of kinship (we often refer to this paradigm as “kincentrism”). This is a non-hierarchical orientation to the world in which other life-forms are relations who have agency. 

In a world of relationships, all beings are bound by reciprocity and responsibility based on respect. Since time immemorial, these principles ensured viable, diverse communities of humans and their nonhuman relations, and are what made Indigenous North American societies inherently sustainable.

Relationships to the natural world based on domination and exploitation are what construct today’s world of fetishized hypercapitalism in a logic of never-ending growth. Like cancer, endless growth on a finite planet can only lead to death—death of other people and societies, other species, and eventually the self. 

This is why efforts to reverse the death spiral the human race is currently on must begin with a reorientation to the natural world and other human beings. It cannot generate solely from a different orientation to economics, as the Green New Deal implies. “Green capitalism,” as is it sometimes called, falls far short of guarding human and biological diversity from further destruction. Reimagining societies based on sustainability demands that we think relationally and spatially. 

I am talking about two different but intertwined concepts here. First, environmental justice for Indigenous peoples must proceed not from a framework of environmental racism, but from a history of colonialism which is maintained in an ongoing structural relationship of domination and paternalism between the US and tribal nations, to which the nations have never consented. This includes but is ultimately beyond racism because colonization begins with ideas of cultural and religious superiority (i.e. the doctrine of Christian discovery), not racial superiority. 

Furthermore, environmental justice policy and law must be capable of acknowledging Native people’s very different religious paradigms and relationships to land. It currently does not, and that results in gross and ongoing violations and lack of protection of sacred sites, especially on lands outside reservation boundaries or those of tribes not recognized by the federal government. 

The most obvious examples of these kinds of violations are the desecration of Standing Rock Sioux burials that occurred during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the inability of Southwest peoples to stop the desecration of sacred sites through snowmaking with treated sewage wastewater at the Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks mountain in Arizona. Countless others can be named.

Secondly, unless there is major paradigm shift in mainstream settler society and its governing institutions, the future is questionable at best and catastrophic at worst. Learning to think relationally opens space to imagine different kinds of answers to the most difficult existential issues, instead of different versions of the same unworkable solutions we keep returning to over and over again.

An orientation to land and place based on the four R’s must also take into consideration society’s relationship to Indigenous peoples and its domination-based paradigm. Settler society can then finally be accountable for its genocidal and whitewashed historical narratives.

In these ways, settler society can construct a land- and place-based ethic that affirms life in all its forms and help ensure the futurity and diversity of all human and nonhuman communities.  Indigenous cultures have always had important things to teach settlers. It’s not too late.  


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.