Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tribal Community Members and Academic Researchers Gather for a Weekend of Listening and Collaboration

By: Kahea Pacheco, North America Program Team Member

“How do we sustain?  How do we become as adaptable as possible?  How do we work smart?  That is what this weekend is all about.” –Tribal Community Session

The pressing need to sustain, adapt, and work smart was the impetus for a gathering on October 20-21, 2012, when tribal community members and researchers gathered at the University of California, Irvine for the Southern California Tribal Listening and Strategy Session on Environmental Issues. 

This convening, a collaboration between the United Coalition to Protect Panhe, Women’s Earth Alliance, and UC Irvine’s Environment Institute, American Indian Resource Program and Office of Civil and Community Engagement, aimed to build the capacity of Indigenous leaders, students, advocates and tribal communities, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous academic and nonprofit researchers, local planners, and land and water use professionals to engage more effectively and efficiently with one another to protect Indigenous lands, waters, and natural and cultural resources. 

During these two days, tribal community participants were trained on how to conceptualize environmental and cultural resource protection challenges as research projects, and then to design such research projects to meet community needs.  Participating researchers were also introduced to the concept and emerging methods of community-engaged sustainability scholarship.  Once these trainings were complete, participants gathered together to explore possible partnerships between the research needs of community members, and the capacities of attending researchers.

The weekend started with ceremony, with recognition and thanks given to the Acjachemen people, upon whose traditional lands we gathered, and with prayers for the learnings and meaningful conversations we hoped to share over the next two days.  These conversations began immediately as tribal members were brought together to discuss the environmental challenges and needs their communities faced.  These included the desecration of sacred and ancestral lands, the pollution of estuaries and waterways, the power imbalance between what is healthy for people and the environment and what is profitable for developers, as well as the spiritual impacts of being disconnected from the earth and the loss of traditional knowledge when it is not passed down to youth.

“We as a people are trying to protect whatever’s left of our sacred sites, trying to conserve them.  This is a commonality between us all—we see our communities reflected in one another.” –Tribal Community Session

There was also space for tribal community members to brainstorm and envision what it would mean to have healthy, sustainable communities, and share personal experiences with research conducted in their communities, much of which often led to the continued invisibilization and disempowerment of tribal peoples.  Resting on this knowledge and history as a foundation for forward movement, Miho Kim, Executive Director of the Oakland-based Data Center, supported participants as they took steps to frame their current community needs as possible research projects. 

“If Native peoples were to take control of their own learning about who they are and what their practices are, what do we think we would learn?  What would we learn if we drove the inquiry?” –Tribal Community Session

Meanwhile, educator and activist Nadinne Cruz led participants in the research track to explore concepts of research justice, and the crucial practice of recognizing and subverting traditional power dynamics between researchers and communities within academic research.  Participants also practiced listening skills, with UC Irvine Sustainability Researcher and environmental human rights attorney Abigail Reyes, who is also a member of the WEA Advocacy Network.

Finally, on the last day of the Listening Sessions, tribal community members gathered with the researchers in attendance to share their needs and lay the groundwork for equitable community-engaged sustainability research projects.  These conversations occurred within the full group, as tribal members expressed their concerns with as well as their needs for research, and on a smaller scale, during one-on-one discussions focused on true collaboration and Indigenous-led projects. 

It is our hope that the groundwork laid during this Listening and Strategy Session will lead to many long-term, strategic, regional, inter-tribal partnerships, which will secure a more just and sustainable future for Southern California tribal peoples for many, many generations to come.

WEA would like to thank our 2012 Advocacy Fellow Angela Mooney D’Arcy (Acjachemen), who initiated and developed this Listening Session to address WEA’s goal of engaging more effectively with California grassroots Indigenous people.  We would also like to thank Abigail Reyes, from UC Irvine’s Environment Institute, for her leadership in implementing this convening.