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Indigenous knowledge can tackle climate crisis, first Native American Secretary of Interior tells Boorloo/Perth gathering

Emma Ruben -

The first Native American to serve as a United States cabinet secretary gave a keynote address in Boorloo (Perth) this week on the importance of Indigenous knowledge and leadership in tackling the climate crisis.

A member of the Pueblo of Laguna and 35th generation New Mexican, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland called for Indigenous-led conservation to combat climate change.

Secretary Haaland is currently visiting Australia to highlight the importance of Indigenous knowledge, collaborative conservation and international partnerships to inform the global effort to fight the climate crisis.

On February 14 she visited Boorloo where she gave a speech hosted by the Perth USAsia Centre.

After being introduced by US Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, Secretary Haaland spoke candidly and movingly of her own Indigenous heritage and how important it has been to her in her current role.

"At one point in time, the department I now lead was tasked with either exterminating or assimilating Indigenous like me, a painful history that our two countries intimately share," she said.

"I'm the first cabinet secretary who brings the trauma of surviving federal assimilation policies to the decision-making table.

"As secretary, I stand on the shoulder of those who came before me who survived those painful pages of our history, so that I can be here today."

Perth USAsia Centre executive officer Gordon Flake, US Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, and US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy. Photo credit: Emma Ruben.

Indigenous knowledge and management to help combat the climate crisis in the US

Secretary Haaland and the US government have invested in the restoration and conservation of public and Native lands and waters to meet their climate goals.

"Many of the challenges we face today, a warming planet, the loss of habitat and wildlife, dying coral reefs, these could have been lessened or completely avoided if early colonists had valued the stewardship practices and environmental wisdom that tribes have cultivated over 1000s of years," she said.

"As Secretary, I have the distinct honour to travel to visit Indigenous communities across the United States, who maintain their inherent connection to the land, a connection intrinsic to their cultures, languages, and ways of life.

"This is a lesson the entire world can and must benefit from if we want to save this planet for our grandchildren."

Last year the US government signed a co-management agreement between the Department of Interior and the five tribes of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Through this agreement the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the Pueblo of Zuni will be able to participate and apply their Indigenous knowledge to the long-term management of the monument.

In June 2022, fish production and staffing at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery was transferred to the Nez Perce tribe within the State of Idaho.

Ancestors of the Nez Perce people maintained fishing villages and harvesting traditions that honour the cycles of the fish and the Clearwater River.

First Nations knowledge informing climate sustainability

Secretary Haaland noted that the Queensland Indigenous Women's Ranger Network is using Indigenous knowledge to protect endangered ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2022, several Aboriginal and Torres Strait delegates, including the National Native Title Council and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander International Engagement Organisation, attended COP27 in Egypt in an attempt to elevate First Nations voices as an active part of the climate change solution.

Member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues and Noongar law academic Dr Hannah McGlade told National Indigenous Times after the meeting that Australia is yet to make the same strides in terms of including First Nations knowledge in climate legislation.

"We of course have some initiatives underway...I don't think we're at the level of the US and I think that's certainly something we can take from her visit," Dr McGlade said.

"We certainly aren't anywhere in this ballpark or in the realm of relationship building, investment and attitudinal change that we're seeing in the US.

"I hope we can get there. I know we have a strong commitment from Prime Minister Albanese and Minister Linda Burney to the Voice and that will be integral to seeing the kind of change, relationship and investment into Indigenous peoples participation and support for addressing climate change."

At the end of her address, Secretary Haaland called for both the US and Australia to heed past tragedies and learn from them and use Indigenous knowledge to guarantee a future for the planet and "our children".

Secretary Haaland will leave Boorloo and travel through the rest of Australia before returning to the US.

She is due to speak with Labor senator Pat Dodson on the Voice on Friday.

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