Steven Nitah is a former of Chief of the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation and CEO of the Denesoline Corporation before transitioning to the position of the LKDFN Negotiator in the Akaitcho Land Claims Process. Under his watch as Chief the Ni Hatni Dene Guardians program began. As lead negotiator, Nitah and his team successfully negotiated establishment agreements with the Federal Government and the Government of the Northwest Territories creating the Thaidene Nëne Indigenous Protected Area that host a National Park Reserve, Territorial Protected and Conserved Areas. Steven is also currently the Indigenous Advisor to Nature For Justice.
In our interview Steven shares how important it is to achieve balance in our natural world in order to have it reflected in our social and human dimensions which would have direct positive impacts on the climate. Through his ancestral and historical way of living and working closely with the land he leads us to ask if as individuals, and as communities, can be doing more for our natural world.
Lisa Coete (LC): Steve, I’d like to start by taking one of your recent quotes: “Caring for the land is an important part of respecting our cultural responsibilities” Can you provide an example(s) of the tangible way in which you see climate change affecting First Nation lands?
Steven Nitah (SN): There are around 4 – 5 million recognized Indigenous people around the world occupying about 25% of the healthiest and most biodiverse territories. The reason why we have healthy landscapes here is because we have a personal relationship with the land, and that relationship goes back eons and lots of it is based on our spirituality and our spiritual beliefs. For instance, my people call earth ‘Nu’ which means island and we recognize that the earth is an island within the sea of the universe, and our Creator we call ‘NuTsine’ created this island. So just in the spiritual beliefs we know that we live in a finite resourced area; an island, and if we don’t take care of the island, we will run out of place to live.
Climate Change is impacting the very land that all people on earth is dependent on and this is especially impacting indigenous people because of our relationship to the lands which impact our physical, spiritual and mental health. We depend on the food that these lands bring and the wildlife. In my peoples’ case we are hunter-gatherers living in Northern Canada, so the North being the first to be impacted we are seeing the impacts already.
LC: How can we achieve social justice with regards to climate change? How important is this to FN’s and people across the world?
SN: Depends how you look at I suppose and the time frame with which you look at it. If the the structure of mother earth breaks down, there is not going to be any social justice for anyone. In the time that we have now and the ability we have as man in human societies, social justice for Indigenous peoples should be viewed as a life-line for all peoples of the world. Indigenous peoples have demonstrated that we know how to live with Mother Earth, we know the type of relationship we need to have to maintain balance for life to continue as we know it. And if there is no social justice for people who are on the front lines of climate change and biodiversity loss then everyone else is going to be in danger.
LC: Nature For Justice’s focus is bringing social justice to those most impacted by climate change – how can Nature For Justice help you?
SN: It’s a novel concept isn’t it, to use nature for the justice of the Black, Indigenous, and people of color of the world. Nature being a commodity and that globally people are finally recognizing the value that it holds, so its about sharing that knowledge and also supporting those of us that are at the front lines and I think that N4J is trying to build that bridge for justice for all people at the end of the day.
LC: Much of the Boreal represents irrecoverable carbon – i.e. if we lose it, it will take longer than 20 – 30 years, our current horizon, to recover it. What role do you see FN’s playing in protecting this rich carbon bank?
SN: There are hundreds of indigenous communities throughout the Boreal, that’s our homelands, I live in the Northern parts of the Boreal. We have a sense of responsibility to our homelands and as such my community has through a process protected 26 000 square kilometers of the heart of our homelands. This type of proposal is happening across the Boreal right now and it is important to recognize that every 4th breath we take, that breath is because of the Boreal. So, it is a globally impactful region of the world, and it is one of the largest carbon sinks as well. The management of the Boreal and the management of lands in the Arctic region of the world is going to be intensive and require on the ground management as we are experiencing permafrost thaw, which if it happens unmanaged could have a terrible impact on the earth with all the gases like methane that is stored within the frost. So, creating large protected areas and managing them for climate change is essential.
The challenge is how do we pay for it? The Boreal is a globally significant area that provides the world with clean air and knowing how to support the Indigenous nations who are in the process of protecting these large areas of land that have such a significant global impact is a big challenge and so we need to create financing tools for large biodiversity rich areas to be protected and managed if to have a positive effect on the changing Climate.
LC: Finally, is there anything else you wish to add about the necessity of Indigenous led conservation in the race against the climate crisis.
SN: Indigenous people have proven over time that we are the best stewards of the lands. We do have the right temperament and ideology at this time and are fighting for our lives ultimately. So, lets depend on Indigenous people globally to help the world reemerge from this time in a balanced way as that is what is needed – the world is out of balance and we need to restore this balance in order to heal the environment and its rich biodiversity to protect our own lives and livelihoods. Indigenous people are the ones willing and able to protect and restore these natural spaces, yet all the money is being sent to scientists and NGO’s of the world that are not being as impactful as we have needed them to be. In my mind recognizing and supporting indigenous leadership is essential.
LC: Its clear that the rest of the world can learn so much from the relationships and ways of working with nature from Indigenous people who hold so much wisdom that we seem to have lost touch within our efforts to advance technologically to a more ‘civilized’ human race.
SN: Ultimately, I agree with everything you are saying except one thing and that is the concept of a civilized world. What’s so civilized about a political and spiritual ideology whose impact is destroying the world, which was done on the backs of indigenous peoples that have been colonized globally. If we look at the colonization of the people, the same kind of colonization is happening to the land. We now have to restore the imbalance that has been created by these circumstances both within human society and in nature if we are to see any positive shift in our earth’s trajectory.
LC: Thank you Steven for your time and insight and your ongoing efforts to restore this balance.