This week we spoke with Si Sityaawks (Jessica Wood), My Climate Plan co-founder, for our #myclimateplan feature. She discusses the challenging climate impacts that Indigenous communities are already experiencing, why responses to the climate crisis must be rooted in Indigenous sovereignty, and what gives her hope that a climate safe future is possible.
Si Sityaawks (Woman who creates change) is from the Gitxsan and Tsimshian First Nations, with extended roots among the Tahltan and Nisga’a Nations. These territories line the mighty rivers and valleys of northwest British Columbia, Canada, and run up the coastline into Alaska.
She has seen firsthand the devastation that climate change is having on First Nations communities. She says, “I’ve watched as we’ve lost our foreshore due to climate change – quite literally losing our territory to the ocean. We’ve had wildfires burn through our communities. We’ve lost glaciers. We’ve had incredibly hot summers impact our fishing stocks, which are our livelihoods and a foundation of our cultures and economies.”
The impacts she describes are not in some far off future, they are happening now. And none of them, she says, has been unexpected. “Our communities have been predicting this for a very long time. We’ve been sounding the alarm pretty much since contact because so many of the approaches to industry and development have been unsustainable. But even though we saw this coming, it doesn’t make the very real threats to our communities any less distressing.”
Si Sityaawks emphasizes the fact that Indigenous communities are among the first and hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. She says, “We’re the frontlines and we will feel it most acutely. We have been a part of our territories since time immemorial. In our communities, displacement means you risk ceasing to exist as a people – that’s how strong the connection is. And yet being climate refugees from our own communities is a real possibility and is becoming a lived experience for many Indigenous peoples.”
She stresses that any response to the climate crisis must be rooted in two foundational elements: Indigenous sovereignty and ecological wisdom, and therefore the re-invigoration of Indigenous legal orders and governance.
Of the first she explains, “We’ve been taught how to care for our land through generations. I think there’s this assumption that Western science and traditional ecological knowledge don’t align, or that science offers the only possible solutions. Yet Western science is pretty young in comparison to what we know, and our approach to caring for the land.”
And to move forward with this approach, there must first be an understanding that we are not separate from the land, but exist in a deeply interconnected relationship with all parts of our environment. Si Sityaawks explains, “For many non-Indigenous people, nature is something out there. It’s something you take a bus to go see for a little while. But we know, as Indigenous People, that no such separation exists. The trees, the waters, the salmon, the mountains, they are all our ancestors. When we are connected, the environment thrives because we are a part of it, not in spite of that fact. This is the fundamental shift in thinking that is required for most Western cultures.”
With regards to reinvigorating Indigenous legal orders and governance she says, “In Indigenous governance, human rights and environmental health are core values handed down through generations.”
She continues, “Our governance is rooted in deep accountability and transparency, high responsibility and low authority. Our leaders make decisions in public and they answer to the community based on what they do. They face immediate repercussions if they step outside of our values. It’s a very different value system around leadership, and I don’t believe there is a path to a safer, more resilient future without it.”
When imagining what that world might look like, Si Sityaawks says, “I want my children to have the same experience that all of our ancestors had. I want them to be able to fish, to be able to harvest, to experience intergenerational wellness. I want their tables to be full at every meal – oysters, fish, crabs and all of the things we now pay top dollar for that our tables used to be full of. I want them to experience the wealth of this abundance.”
And she has hope that this future is possible. “Our planet is so resilient. It has survived so much through the millenia – a history in which humans have been just a tiny speck. And when we remember that we are a part of the environment and not separate from it, we can share in that deep resilience. I believe that given any opening of possibility and hope, our environment will fill it. Our children will fill it. And I do believe that given an opportunity to choose our values in a really conscientious, thoughtful way, we can create a better future together.”
At My Climate Plan we’re exploring the desire to confront the reality of what our lives will be like as climate impacts worsen, and to prepare ourselves to be part of collective communities that rise to that challenge and build a better world.
If Si Sityaawks’s story resonates with you, we invite you to join My Climate Plan as a founding member to take action towards a climate safe future.