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Ocean Currents

Centering Native American and Indigenous Voices in Ocean Conservation

We honor the people who first cared for the land and ocean and continue to do so today

Sunset over Reef
© Brook Peterson / Ocean Image Bank

Each Thanksgiving, I like to share some of the ocean victories we’re thankful for. And we have much to celebrate this year, including record-breaking federal funding for coastal infrastructure and millions of people around the world rallying to remove 30 million pounds of trash from our ocean. There are also countless smaller, but no less important, victories from 2021 as individuals and communities worldwide took action for our ocean.

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the longstanding connection between our ocean and the American Indian and Alaska Native peoples who first cared for it and continue to do so today.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and it is a time for us to reflect on the perseverance, resilience and countless contributions of Native Peoples. For those of us who are settlers and living on Native land, it’s also a time to continue educating ourselves individually about the legacy and ongoing trauma of colonialism.

Although Thanksgiving can be a time of great joy, we must acknowledge the current and historic realities of the holiday. I found this article to be helpful with its suggestions for how to think about Thanksgiving in a way that elevates family traditions and discards harmful stereotypes of Native Peoples. One new tradition that friends have told me about includes starting the meal with an acknowledgment of the Indigenous land where we live and gifting books by Native American authors. Here are some book ideas if you’d like to add this into your tradition.

Many Native American and Indigenous communities have unbreakable ties to and invaluable knowledge of our ocean, and yet their knowledge and experiences have long not been included in conversations around ocean conservation. This is something we are committed to changing by working in authentic partnership with Native communities, as we have in the Arctic. The ocean conservation field—among others—has a long way to go in supporting and amplifying Native voices, but we did see some encouraging progress in 2021.

First, we saw more instances of ocean policies that combine Traditional Knowledge and western science. This summer, for example, multiple countries ratified a new central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement that recognizes the rights and role of Arctic Indigenous people and seeks to include Traditional and Indigenous knowledge from Arctic Indigenous people throughout the agreement. This milestone moment illuminates a better path forward for us to follow for future conservation outcomes.

Second, we celebrated the appointment of Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. Secretary Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and leads the Department of Interior—a department that has a terrible history of atrocities against Native Americans. Ocean Conservancy was proud to join 500 other groups in support of Secretary Haaland’s nomination, and we are grateful for her track record of fighting for climate action, Indigenous rights and environmental justice.

Although these examples and others signal progress, we have much further to go. For example, Indigenous activists reported they weren’t represented fairly in the recent COP26 negotiations, even though many Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. This is unacceptable. And it highlights why non-Indigenous ocean advocates like us must “listen, learn and act.”

I hope the next year brings stronger action to support and amplify Indigenous and Native American voices in conservation, and I look forward to listening, learning and advocating alongside Indigenous communities as we work towards a healthy ocean, supported by just world.

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