Dr. Whyte Lecture Challenges Colonial Notions of Time, Centers Indigenous Narratives of Climate Change

On Tuesday, March 19th, at 4:30 in Sci 199, students gathered for a Culture and Identity Appreciation (CIA) Week lecture and question-and-answer, titled “Identity, Culture, and Indigenous Narratives of Climate Change.” The lecture was given by Michigan State University Timnick Chair in the Humanities and enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Kyle Powys-Whyte.

Prior to the lecture, students Sierra Raskie Jeska ‘22 and Tyler White ‘22, the organizers of this CIA week event, introduced Dr. Whyte. They noted that his work focuses on climate and environmental justice and Indigenous environmental studies, manifesting itself in academia and community building. Dr. Whyte, the student introducers noted, sees “protecting the environment in Indian country as [his] responsibility as a Native person.”

“Sierra and I first heard Dr. Whyte, at the International Symposium on Indigenous Communities and Climate Change at Princeton. Hearing him speak revolutionized my construction of climate change. He challenged the assertion of climate change as a ‘crisis’ or ‘urgent,’ stating that it benefitted a Western narrative that prioritized the recent unveiling of climatic changes that have been distressing marginalized communities for centuries. Moreover, his work focused on using different indigenous ethnicities relationship to the earth as a place of solution to the emerging prevalence of climatic disasters. He is one of the foremost indigenous scholars on the issue and our campus is in dire need of addressing the lack of visibility of indigenous people, culture and history,” White wrote to Voices.

Jeska and White brought Dr. Whyte to campus with help from many students, faculty, and staff. White said, “getting him to campus is thanks to the support of Student Government, the Lang Center, the IC, the incredible help of CIA Week organizers and Dr. Whyte's colleague, our hidden treasure and one the greatest professors on campus, Dr. Giovanna DiChiro. Without them, especially the connection Dr. DiChiro had, we would not have had the pleasure of hosting him. The Swarthmore Indigenous Student Association helped tremendously in participating and informing the events outside of the talk. I even had the pleasure of hosting a meeting with Director of Sustainability, Aurora Winslade who received openly the opportunities and areas of growth the Department could undergo.”

Dr. Whyte began the lecture by outlining his concerns with the way many people conceptualize “solutions” to climate change and environmental issues, emphasizing that many of these solutions do not honor and account for the indigenous people that are most impacted by them. Indigenous people, Dr. Whyte asserted, are most impacted by both climate change and the proposed solutions to it; part of what makes Indigenous people vulnerable to climate change is that they are often in locations without strong policy and governance relationships with the state and thus, the state cannot respond in coordinated fashions to climate disasters that affect them.

He then illustrated examples of solutions to climate change that have harmed indigenous communities. For example, the UN-REDD Programme, the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries, displaces indigenous communities in many countries where indigenous communities  are not “officially recognized,” or cannot receive payment from the government, like Brazil. Additionally, Dr. Whyte noted that US policy on renewable energy ensures that non-native people reap the benefits of such policy, while tribes do not. Further, Hydropower, which converts waterpower into electricity, displaces and degrades indigenous land in Canada. Programs like these, Dr. Whyte said, underscore the distrust between indigenous people and state authorities. Ultimately, Dr. Whyte illustrated that many solutions to climate change do not honor the consent of indigenous communities, are not accountable to indigenous communities, and foster relationships characterized by dishonesty and distrust between indigenous people and non-indigenous climate activists.

Dr. Whyte then went on to debunk popular myths about climate change activism, grounded in dominant notions of urgency and time. He challenged the “12-year report,” which calls for urgent climate action, for referring to indigenous people as synonymous with the natural world, saying that it portrays indigenous “vulnerability” as product of chosen isolation. Dr. Powys-Whyte also went on to say that this “urgency rhetoric” around finding solutions to climate change can often come at the cost of responsibility to indigenous people. He maintained that the danger of climate change is a threat to these relationships, which are often de-prioritized. He also debunked the assumption that climate has only recently become an issue of morality, activism, and accountability, by pointing to indigenous understandings of time, drawing on indigenous notions of  “profound time,” “seasonal time,” “kinship time,”and “dystopian time.” Employing the notion of “profound time,” Dr. Whyte said that climate change and adapting to climate change is part of some of the oldest Native stories. For example, for the Anishinaabe, climate has always been related to morality and urgency.

The notion of “seasonal time,” Dr. Whyte pointed out, is useful in conceptualizing productive, indigenous-centered solutions to climate change. According to many indigenous communities, he argued, time is experienced as ecological change, and society is organized to be as adaptive and respectful to season and inter-annual environmental changes as possible. He emphasized that society responds to nature. He said to attendees, “you are an active participant in seasonal time,” noting that we, as a society, can better adapt to climate change if we have better relationships with other people and other knowledge systems.

Dr. Whyte then discussed “kinship time,” or the experiencing of time according to the duration of levels of trust, accountability, respect, and responsibility to others. He illustrated the importance of forming solutions to climate change around ideas of kinship, and stressed that violating kinship relations, as climate change solutions (especially those formed around a sense of urgency) often do, is traumatic. Urgent action, Dr. Whyte said, can commit acts of injustice if one does not have the proper relationships around which to take action. Ultimately, he asserted, climate action is not sustainable if strong, kinship relationships aren’t involved. He outlines that colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization destroy kinship relationships to make environmental injustice possible. Thus, he said, indigenous climate justice movements call for repair of kinship relationships as solution to climate change.

Lastly, Dr. Whyte discussed “dystopian time.” He asserted that we are at a “relational tipping point,” posing the question: “are the networks of relationships we have with each other sufficient to respond to each other?” He said, in part, marginalized people may not want to save this particular world because it is dystopian. For settler colonialists, Dr. Whyte argued that this current world is a fantasy, so the possibility of disrupting the power hierarchies that are the status quo is scary. On the other hand, for indigenous communities, this current reality is a dystopian period we must get out of.

Nessa Levy ‘21 was moved by Dr. Whyte’s complications of traditional notions of time. She said to Voices, “I wasn’t aware of the different ways of understanding time before Dr. Whyte presented. He challenged the way we conceive of our relationship to being and time, and his description of profound and seasonal time is really sticking with me...One of my biggest takeaways is that I need to be skeptical of instances in which I feel like I am experiencing or discovering something for the first or last time.”

Vanessa Meng ‘19, also appreciated Dr. Whyte’s lecture. She wrote to Voices that his talk left her thinking that “there’s so much left to fight for…it revitalized my view and work towards creating an alternative to mainstream environmentalism that puts action together with decoloniz[ing] thinking.”

“I think we all need to begin to understand climate change as it’s related to colonialism and capitalism,” Levy emphasized. “In order to do so, we need to listen to and uplift the voices of those who have been most disenfranchised by these systems.”