Interwoven Entanglements: Reflections on Indigenous Language and Community-Engagement at COP25

It’s day 3 of COP25 and I’m serving as a volunteer, note taking for the UN Secretariat at the Joint Event on Integrating Local and Indigenous knowledge into Adaptation Action.

As the facilitator, Musonda Mumba, Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit at the UNEP staged a guiding question, “How do we integrate the diverse knowledge systems from indigenous communities and local people?”. Enthralled by this question, I began to listen more closely to the ways different local and indigenous communities engage with the world. The parallels reminded me of the community-based research, learning, and teaching that I advocate for and am engaged with at UofM. Effective community-engaged work requires the development of sustainable and authentic partnerships and must center the co-production of knowledge. Prominently discussed during this meeting, these are some of the principles that local and indigenous communities have and continue to advocate for.

At COP 24 in Katowice, Poland (December 2018), the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP) Facilitative Working Group was established for the exchange of experiences and sharing of best practices on mitigation and adaptation in a holistic and integrated manner that respects, promotes, and considers the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. During the event, experiences were exchanged amongst local/indigenous folks and several organizations that engage with indigenous communities in support of the LCIPP objectives. A presenter from The Resilience Institute of whom works with a number of indigenous groups in Canada staunchly pushed back on the use of the word ‘integrate’. In that moment, she elevated indigenous knowledge by emphasizing what indigenous folks taught her: semantics (words) matter. It’s not about integrating their knowledge into a dominant knowledge system (i.e. UNFCCC), it’s about respecting equal and different types of knowledge and expertise. Instead, ‘weaving’ and ‘braiding’ capture the strength and diversity of the knowledge and experiences amongst indigenous and local communities. Collectively, each individual fiber is woven into a braid that is more cohesive and nuanced. Interwoven, these braids honor the interdependence amongst all involved parties.

In my own work as a community-engaged scholar and instructor, I believe and value engagement as a central principle in learning and teaching. Learning and teaching is like energy transfer itself. These transfers of information are manifested through their everyday exchanges with community members, campus colleagues, and citizens across the globe. As globally engaged citizens, I want students my students to be well versed on relevant theory that underpins policy, problem, and solution formulation. Students can then directly apply their knowledge by working with communities. Teaching environmental and energy justice through community engagement inherently provides students with new language and lenses to understand the most critical climate, energy, and environmental issues of our time whilst developing stewards who promulgate energy justice and democracy as decision making, organizing, and engaging tools.

A change in language begets a change in understanding. And a change in understanding begets a change in actions. With this change in language, co-design can then be central to the development of more nuanced climate adaptation solutions rather than one-off instances of ‘integration’ that mirror colonial extraction and exploitation of indigenous knowledge and experiences. The importance of language at COP is often reflected within the negotiation rooms where particular language is discussed at length prior to a party choosing to enter an agreement. Though important at the international scale, the language used has implications locally on community understanding and wellbeing.

To this end, how we interweave our collective bodied intelligence matters in creating more transformative approaches to navigating anticipated disruptions due to climate breakdown. Perspectives from all community, local/indigenous members, scientists, and policy members are integral in this endeavor. Our solutions to the climate crisis must employ community-engagement methods that intentionally interweave diverse knowledge systems. In doing so, asset-based frameworks help guide and honor sustained community-engagement and knowledge co-production. Only then can the world braid our unique strengths and become a more just and resilient society.

Author: Dominic J. Bednar, University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability, Ph.D. Candidate and 2019 Delegate to COP 25

Cover Image: Braided Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) – an aromatic herb native to North America, Northern Europe and Asia is considered sacred to indigenous peoples. Known for its sweet smell, it is often used in smudging and healing.

Cover Image Source: https://www.essentialoil.com/products/sweetgrass-braid

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