The following is a summary of a recent publication in Pacific Conservation Biology by a group of David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellows: Stephanie Borrrelle, Jonathan Koch, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, Kurt Ingeman, Bonnie McGill, Max Lambert, Anat Belasen, Joan Dudney, Charlotte Change, Amy Teffer, and Grace Wu. You can read the full article here.
When asked “Is protecting biological diversity and the ecosystems that support all life important to you?” most people would say “yes.” This is the work that conservation scientists like me and my friends do. We do things like figure out how to protect endangered bee species in Hawaiʻi (Koch), inform agencies how to manage the endangered whitebark pine in the Sierra Nevada (Dudney), and study how plants that grow on mountaintops in Maine are impacted by climate change (McDonough MacKenzie). However, many of us are not from the Places* we’re working to protect. In fact, many conservation scientists are descendants of colonizers and settlers (settler-colonizers) who removed, or benefited from the removal of Indigenous Peoples from these Places, which are their ancestral lands. Indigenous Peoples practicing diverse cultures lived for millennia in North America stewarding the land.
The Indigenous Peoples displaced by colonialism have distinct knowledges and cultural identities directly rooted in their lands. For example, Mauna Kea is more than a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaiʻi to the kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians). The mountain is their biophysical and genealogical ancestor, a sacred site for cultural and spiritual activities. Another example is how Aboriginal Peoples in Australia practice cultural fire “for biodiversity, to protect the landscape, and for cultural reasons, all in one” (Steffensen 2019, p233).
Indigenous Peoples’ distinct genealogical and cultural relationship to the land and all the other beings they share the land with is far different than the relationship of settler colonizers to Place and nature. Industrial society is traditionally and intentionally very disconnected from nature, beginning with European states removing peasants from forests and the commodification of nature (Tsing 2005). For example, many of us don’t know where our food comes from; don’t have religious or cultural traditions connecting us to Place, the land, or nature; and don’t know the natural history of the creatures we encounter everyday.
So you can imagine it is more than awkward for settler-colonizer conservation scientists to be the only or dominant source of knowledge about how to conserve a colonized Place, yet for decades this has been a common occurrence. In some cases, conservationists have attempted to act as “white saviors” to local Peoples by centering the work around themselves and excluding local experts (see this piece about conservation in Africa by Mordecai Ogada). In other cases, settler-colonizer conservation has furthered the oppression of local Indigenous People by removing them from their homelands and calling them poachers when they hunt there (see this piece on US National Parks by Isaac Kantor). All with few long term conservation achievements to show for it—for evidence, look no further than the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Turns out, preserving biodiversity is hard, as is adapting to climate change. At the local level, both of these issues require some global settler-colonial science as well as intimate knowledge of and human interaction with individual Places. I wonder who has that? …
Some settler-colonizer/non-Indigenous conservation scientists are now beginning to listen to Indigenous knowledge keepers, collaborate on research with Indigenous groups, and, in some cases, supporting and following the lead of Indigenous managers of their ancestral lands and waters. Conservation scientists are beginning to understand that the only way to long term conservation successes is to develop conservation strategies that also support the social and physical wellbeing and self-determination of the people who live there. But these settler-Indigenous partnerships are built on a troubled history of colonial violence and oppression. So, how do settler-colonizer conservationists proceed in a way that does not perpetuate harms to Indigenous Peoples? In other words, what does it mean to be for a Place when you’re not from that Place?
Several of my scientist friends and I wrestled with this issue after visiting kia’i (protectors) of Mauna Kea (Mauna a Wākea). It was October 2019 and we were hosted by Moana “Ulu” Ching and Noelani Puniwai, both of whom are kānaka maoli, conservation scientists, and friends with one of us (Koch).
We met at the bottom of the access road to the summit of Mauna Kea. Here was a tent community of kiaʻi protesting the construction of a new telescope called the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of their ancestral Mauna Kea. They were occupying the entry road to prevent construction vehicles from accessing the summit; 33 kupuna (Elders, grandparents, ancestors) were arrested several months earlier marking the escalating tensions between the kiaʻi and the governmental and private institutions involved in developing the Thirty Meter Telescope. The telescope is the continuation of colonialism on Mauna Kea sponsored by 11 nations and universities against the wishes of and providing little economic benefit to kānaka maoli. Not only does construction of a 14th research structure threaten the fragile ecosystems and endangered species at the summit of Mauna Kea, construction also perpetuates a long history of colonization in Hawaiʻi that threatens the cultural, economic, and ecological well being of kānaka maoli.
We listened as Ulu and Noelani described their experiences and perspectives on Mauna Kea and the telescope. Afterward they invited us to participate in midday protocol, and we were humbled by the experience. Protocol is a sacred community building activity that happens every day and consists of oli (chants), pule (prayer), and hula (dance). Non-kānaka maoli were allowed to observe the protocol and were invited to participate in a certain part. We showed our respect to Mauna Kea by standing in our bare feet on the road to her summit for the protocol. In one hula we were sending our energy and strength to Mauna Kea.
As conservation scientists we wanted to show our solidarity with the kiaʻi. We wanted to voice our objections to the Thirty Meter Telescope in terms of conserving the fragile summit ecosystem, and equally important, call for an end to continued colonialist practices in the name of settler-colonizer science. We channelled this energy into a policy statement opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, which was later adopted by the Society for Conservation Biology. We further reflected on the experience and wondered what first-hand learning we could share with other conservation scientists embarking on anticolonial conservation work. We came up with a series of recommendations for scientists. You can read all of them here. Here are three major ones:
- Recognize the ways conservation theory and practice perpetuate the myth that North America was “empty” and “new” upon European “discovery.” For example, the mistaken belief that US National Parks never had human inhabitants despite the fact that Indigenous People have been living in and managing the lands and waters of North America for millennia.
- Build authentic relationships with the Indigenous Peoples whose lands we are working on. Realize that settler-colonizer science is not the “correct” or only way of knowing.
- Educate ourselves by learning about the history of the Places where we work and live and the Indigenous people affected by colonization. Read books and articles written by Indigenous scholars. Teach ourselves. After you have done the work to learn about the history and people(s), then reach out to Indigenous scholars, land stewards and managers.
We believe that being “for a Place” when you’re not from a Place means respect for Indigenous knowledge, continuous reflection on the consequences of our actions, and a willingness to act with humility, embrace complexity, and maintain hope. We are excited to grow and learn and contribute to the transformation of conservation science into a more inclusive, equitable, and just discipline.
*I capitalized Place throughout to emphasize its importance, akin to a person’s name being capitalized.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is on Seneca land and waterways, the homeland of the people we call the Monongahela, and lands and rivers used by and culturally connected to the Lenape, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Osage. I honor these ancestors, am grateful for their stewardship of these lands and waters, and acknowledge and respect their descendants alive today.
Bonnie McGill is a science communication fellow in the Section of Anthropocene Studies. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
Steffensen, V. 2019. Putting the people back into the country. In: Decolonizing Research: Indigenous Storywork as Methodology. J. Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem, J. B. J. Lee-Morgan, and J. De Santolo, eds. Zed Books (London).
Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press (Princeton and Oxford).