Karina Twiss / Trunk Archive

Healing the Land with Indigenous Science

words by whitney bauck

In her new book, Dr. Jessica Hernandez lays out a case for centering Indigenous voices in scientific discourse.

When I pick up the phone to call Dr. Jessica Hernandez, an environmental scientist of Maya Ch’orti’ and Zapotec descent, we chat in English. It is, after all, a language we’re both fluent in. But Dr. Hernandez is straightforward about the fact that the very language we’re talking in—the language you’re reading this story in—introduces limitations, especially when it comes to communicating Indigenous concepts around care for the Earth.

 

“It’s hard to communicate our values in colonial languages,” she says. “As Indigenous peoples, because we have a more holistic worldview, it’s hard for many of our community members to place things in boxes.”

 

As an environmental scientist with academic credentials and Indigenous heritage, Dr. Hernandez is acutely aware of the ways that colonial frameworks continue to shape academia and undergird prominent frameworks for addressing environmental degradation. In her new book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, she critiques the ways that settler colonialism is still influencing the environmental movement, and lays out a compelling case for centering the voices of the Indigenous people who are so often living on the front lines of the climate crisis.

 

“Indigenous peoples continue to experience climatic conditions that are drastically impacting our communities,” she says. “A lot of our communities do not call their work activism—oftentimes our elders tell us that it’s a life or death situation where they’re forced to take action, because they want to protect their lands, cultures, kids, and the seven generations to come.”

 

Shortly after the release of Fresh Banana Leaves, Dr. Hernandez and I connected to talk about ecological debt, Indigenous knowledge, and changing the way we do scientific research.

Whitney Bauck

You write in the book that “any land loss is a cultural loss.” Can you unpack that?

Dr. Jessica Hernandez

Our lands hold our memories, our histories, our identities. When we visit our lands, our elders walk us through them, and they share oral stories that have been passed down to them. So when we’re experiencing land loss, we’re also experiencing the loss of stories, connections, and historical accounts.

Bauck

How does that tie back to this idea of healing the land?

Dr. Hernandez

Our lands hold our trauma and our healing. Oftentimes, when we have a memory, whether it’s good or bad, it’s connected to a place. So, in order for us to heal ourselves, we have to heal our lands, because our land is the reflection of what we, as Indigenous peoples, have experienced, especially now with climate change. Because Western structures teach us to separate ourselves from the land, we often don’t see how the land is a parallel of how we are treating Indigenous peoples.

Bauck

You note in the book that more than 70% of Indigenous people in the U.S. live in urban settings. Why is this important to understand when discussing Indigenous peoples’ relationships with their environments?

Dr. Hernandez

Oftentimes in cities, we forget to acknowledge that these are also Indigenous lands we’re occupying. And we forget to acknowledge how Indigenous knowledge has adapted to new places and new ways of life. That shows the power that we bring as Indigenous peoples, because we had to adapt our knowledge systems, especially when we’ve faced displacement. And I think it shows the nuances of how Indigenous knowledge is a science, because it can change with time.

“We forget to acknowledge how Indigenous knowledge has adapted to new places and new ways of life. That shows the power that we bring as Indigenous peoples.”

Dr. Jessica Hernandez

Bauck

Could you explain the concept of ecological debt?

Dr. Hernandez

Ecological debt refers to the fact that as Indigenous peoples, we’re not responsible for the contributions that have accelerated climate change impacts. But when it comes to experiencing those impacts, we have the heaviest burden. When we talk about Indigenous peoples protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity, many people forget that Latin America hosts something like 50% of that biodiversity. And ecological debt is putting our lives at risk—because Latin America is the deadliest place for Indigenous environmental leaders.

Bauck

Debt implies something that needs to be paid back. What would it look like to pay back ecological debt?

Dr. Hernandez

The way we can pay off that debt is to give land back to Indigenous peoples—not necessarily in the sense of ownership, because privatized land ownership was introduced through capitalism—but in the sense of people being able to take care of their lands.

Bauck

How do your community’s clothing and embroidery traditions connect to your vision of ecofeminism?

Dr. Hernandez

It gives me a different understanding of how we integrate our identities with our environments, because we embroider native plants, flowers, and landscapes, and we weave textiles that use materials that come from Earth. That allows us to make nature a part of ourselves. That’s the whole premise: we believe nature is a part of us, and we’re part of nature.

Bauck

What would it look like for the scientific community to do a better job of working with and learning from Indigenous peoples?

Dr. Hernandez

We’re trained as scientists to come up with a hypothesis so that we can conduct research, without consulting Indigenous peoples first. In order for us to do research more effectively and more rooted in justice, we have to incorporate Indigenous communities from the planning stage so that they can direct the research, and they can become leaders and experts as opposed to being considered as afterthoughts.

“It’s important to understand that we don’t have a right to Indigenous sciences, especially sacred knowledge. We should put Indigenous people front and center.”

Dr. Jessica Hernandez

Bauck

How has the environmental movement perpetuated harm by not centering Indigenous voices?

Dr. Hernandez

People may give a land acknowledgement, but when it comes to asking what kind of actions they took to incorporate Indigenous communities whose lands they’re mobilizing on, they often can’t account for that. We’re still giving the microphone mostly to people who have western credentials. That includes myself, because I have a PhD in environmental sciences. In the book, I wanted to uplift voices of community members who didn’t have the privilege of higher education or access to a phone or social media. We have to ask ourselves: who’s not represented?

Bauck

One of the other things you talked about is how much of the literature about Indigenous people is not written by Indigenous people. Are there other Indigenous authors you’d recommend?

Dr. Hernandez

Yes: Kyle T. Mays, Max Liboiron, Sandy Grande, Nick Estes, Linda T. Smith, Kyle Whyte, Karletta Chief, Enrique Salmon, Kim Tallbear, and Emil’ Keme.

Bauck

What do you hope people take away from the book?

Dr. Hernandez

Oftentimes when we pick up a book with this title, we think that it’s going to be a solutions menu. But it is important to understand that Indigenous knowledge or science is not for consumption. A lot of our knowledge has been co-opted—take permaculture for example, which is knowledge from Indigenous people in Australia that was co-opted by Bill Mollison, who became the “founder of permaculture.” It’s important to understand that we don’t have a right to Indigenous sciences, especially sacred knowledge. We should put Indigenous people front and center.

Bauck

What would it look like for the wider environmental conversation to move towards true inclusivity?

Dr. Hernandez

When it comes to who we consider an environmentalist, we forget to include people who don’t necessarily seek to play that role, who don’t have access to social media or airfare for the COP conferences. So I think we have to start by deconstructing who an environmentalist is, and also using our resources to uplift those who continue to be in the margins and footnotes of the stories we write.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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