CUES lecture connects Indigenous tradition to environmentalism

Professor Keri Iyall-Smith, an associate professor of sociology, and a part of the department of sociology and criminal justice and education, spoke about intersectional environmentalism at the first fall semester CUES Lecture series on Oct. 18.

She began the lecture by introducing the novel “Intersectional Environmentalist” by Leah Thomas. The novel challenges its reader to “consider [their] identities and how they connect with [the] work of environmentalism,” said Iyall-Smith. 

Taking intersectionality that has divided our nation so much and connecting it with environmentalism is a relatively new concept that Iyall-Smith connects to her story and understands as a new way to approach our connection with each other and nature.  

Iyall-Smith is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, which has roots in western Washington, where she grew up. She was raised in a culture that valued community connection, as well as a strong relationship with nature and land. The Cowlitz tribe rejects capitalism, reclaims community value, encourages diversity and inclusivity as well as true democratic decision making. 

She used the environmental event of the eruption of Mount St. Helen as an example of the ever-changing environment.

“I was six when Mt. St. Helen erupted and I remember it…it is important when you think about the lessons of the environment, all of us there’s a real sense of fear, anxiety and stress about the changes we are experiencing in our environment but our environment has been changing since the beginning,” said Iyall-Smith. 

Environmentalism is not a new concept, but people are focusing their attention on it now more than ever. However, Indigenous tribes have always had environmentalism ingrained in their tradition, according to Iyall-Smith.

Ancestry is a piece of tradition that is very important to Indigenous tribes, according to Iyall-Smith. The connection between Earth and ancestry is very prevalent within belief systems of Indigenous tribes.

The Cowlitz tribe “rejects colonial approaches to nature and instead embraces Indigenous approaches to creation,” said Iyall-Smith.  

This cultural mindset includes the holistic approach that outlines the concept that humans and nature are part of the same natural world. They focus on where humans come from, as the relatives of animals.

 “In the class that I teach about law, animals teach people how to behave a lot of times. They teach us laws and norms,” Iyall-Smith said. 

While focusing on the roots of humanity, she also mentions the seventh generational principle that originated from the Haudenosaunee tribe in which this tribe thinks seven generations ahead when making any decisions in order to preserve the environment by thinking about how it will ripple and affect the generations after them.