By Taylor Schad
“One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
If you are to know anything about Native America know that wherever you go, you are on Indigenous land. Although a lot of the tribes that once roamed that land no longer occupy it, it is still sacred. Often it seems like we as a group forget what sacred land can feel like; we have grown so accustomed to a life that is surrounded by things that we overlook what our people once had. It is no longer the question of what we can do for the land but rather what the land can do for us. This mindset has become harmful to us as Native Americans and the only way to restore it is by returning to our traditional values of honoring, protecting, and guarding the land we have left. Actively engaging in the movement to preserve lands and water through education is one of many ways I fight climate change on a grassroots level.
In Lakota tradition, we are taught to look at the land as a relative. In our language, we call it Unci Maka, which translates to Grandmother Earth. She is living, she is breathing, and she is our family. Even now as the season transitions from winter to spring I can see the earth coming back to life; the wild flowers blooming, the leaves on the trees becoming a warm green, and yet I wonder, how much longer can she live? Will the prairie grasses continue to rise long after I leave? Will the birds return? Can the earth heal herself? Unfortunately, the world is in a phase of environmental genocide, with global warming and climate change on the rise, our return to the land as spiritual space is crucial. One may ask, what is sacred land and why does it matter? It is where our ancestors walked before us and it is where our children will walk long after us. As Indigenous people, we believe the land and ourselves are one in the same. Already, we have taken so much from a being that has only needed our guardianship. We as humans are forgetting that the land is not a tool for wealth but rather an extension ourselves.
Growing up in an area where land ownership and agriculture is such an essential part of our society I found it difficult to adjust this mindset. Natives are guardians of the lands they inherit, they are not owners. However, as I grew older I shifted my ideas and returned to the Lakota way of thinking. I was just a little girl when I first explored the hills that my people consider sacred. It was one of those short holiday breaks from school, either Memorial or President’s Day. My family took a drive to see Bear Lodge (also known as Devil’s Tower). At this time, I had no prior knowledge about the monument and what it represented or the history of the hill. While I was in school I learned little to nothing about the land. I did not see it as a space for Indigenous people, like me, to occupy or protect. But I do remember the astounding impression the hill left on me; the markings that looked like bear claws and the rolling prairies around it; it would be years before I learned the Lakota creation story of Bear Lodge. This is why the land and environment matter to me because of kids who, like myself, know so little of the story of the lands we inhabit. If we do not know the history of our earth how are we supposed to protect it?
After I graduated from college I started working with kids on the Rosebud reservation as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Part of my job required office work but my favorite part was being the Cultural Education Coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club. I knew my main focus for the club would be environmental education. I wanted these students to know about the land that surrounded them as well as the places our people consider spiritual. We taught them the value of giving their time and dedication to the land; that if you take care of her, she will provide for you in return. They learned how to keep it clean, respect its cycles throughout the year, and to treat it as a living, breathing entity. We harvested medicinal roots in the summer and fall as well as edible plants for teas, lip balm, and nutrition. During ceremony in March we took them to Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) to Welcome Back the Thunder Beings and pray for a good spring. I knew it was important to teach them about how the earth is constantly evolving and how it is our duty, as the first peoples of these hills, to protect them and support their continual regrowth. We leave the earth as we found it and only take from it what is needed. If we can teach our children to respect the earth then Unci Maka can continue to flourish and live.
I truly believe that it is important, not only for Indigenous people but for people across the globe to look at the earth through traditional lens. Can you imagine what our prairies, forests, and waters would look like if everyone treated them the way Indigenous peoples use to? I know there are thousands of different ways to approach climate change but I think one of our biggest hurdles is how people view the environment. We are not going to respect and take care of something when all we see is an opportunity for profit.
I engage with action against climate change through connecting youth to their traditional lands and teaching them the importance of preserving and respecting the lands around them. I feel most passionate about this because I care about my sacred land. The forest where my people go to ceremony might not always be there with the amount of logging and uranium mining, the river my people use for their water source might not always flow pure if pipelines are being built underneath it, and the prairies my people used for hunting might not always be standing if drought and fires keep destroying them. I was once ignorant of the importance of the land solely because I was not taught it, for people to fight against climate change they need to care about how the climate is changing and I think traditional knowledge of the environment is the perfect place to start.