Many Indigenous languages lack a word for ‘conservation.’ Here’s why.
In her new book, Indigenous scholar and scientist Jessica Hernandez explains why caring for a landscape is different than conserving it.
From Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Jessica Hernandez. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.
There is no word for conservation in many of our Native and Indigenous languages. While there are some phrases close to what conservation means in Zapotec, most of these words relate more to “taking care of” or “looking after,” which is not truly embodying what conservation means. When healing landscapes, the word that is used to do this is coined as restoration. Restoration teaches us that in order to heal a landscape, we must get rid of all the invasive species that are known as weeds . However, this fails to truly heal the entire landscape as it only focuses on one component, invasive species, and not on other factors that might be impacting the entire ecosystem or landscape. I have sat in many presentations about invasive species where they have been called the devil, evil, or nightmares. However, the irony that lies within these descriptors is that for many who practice restoration or are in the environmental sciences, most of these invasive species are their plant relatives as these were introduced during colonial times by settlers and colonizers. What this means is that many white people have lost their ancestral roots due to the assimilation the Americas have undergone and, as a result, they have lost their relationships with the same plants they now deem as terrible beings. Yes, invasive species harm an entire ecosystem, sometimes outcompeting all native plants in this same landscape; however, we are taught as Indigenous peoples that regardless of whether this plant belongs there or not, we must ask its spirit for permission. As I shared before, we acknowledge them as displaced relatives rather than invasive species, since at the end of the day, they are also someone’s plant relatives. What Western conservation, environmental sciences, and restoration continue to teach us is that anything that is not native is not welcomed to the flora or fauna landscapes. However, this rhetoric is never applied to humans as we seem to be the exception for our own laws, rules, and regulations that we only apply to our environments. This alienation is only applied to vulnerable communities such as our Central American climate and war refugees because they are ostracized thanks to current immigration laws.
Removing invasive species without good intent or connecting with them causes scars. When I was taught restoration practices in my academic courses, I was taught to work hard and fast to complete the task. In my courses, relationship building and asking for permission were never mentioned when we were instructed to remove the invasive plant species or weeds. Being the only Indigenous person in many spaces, we sometimes opt not to speak up or mention anything as sometimes we are questioned, ridiculed, and labeled as ignorant. Yes, most of our practices do not make sense under the Western science lens, but we should not have to alter or adapt our knowledge systems to fit the Western science lens. Our Indigenous knowledge and practices should be acknowledged. I recall the many times I was ridiculed by white teachers and professors, and this instilled in me some form of shame that took years to heal from. This happens a lot in academic spaces as we are deemed to be ignorant, naïve, and inferior, and many continue to hold to these unconscious biases that end up harming not only their Indigenous students but also their Indigenous colleagues and people outside of the academic realm.
My experiences as an Indigenous student in the environmental sciences have shaped how I teach and navigate my own courses. That young Indigenous woman who was sometimes ashamed to share her teachings or knowledge is now leading and teaching such courses, so I ensure I center my own teachings. This makes a difference to Indigenous students as many of them have come up to me and told me that my class was a space where they did not just feel welcomed but also acknowledged. While
they may be quiet and timid in other courses, they are eager to share their knowledge and cultures out loud in my courses. I wish they felt this sense of belonging in all their courses, but given the few Indigenous faculty members across universities, especially in the sciences, there is a long way we have to go as a nation that continues to have educational disparities.
I recall when I taught my first restoration class, one of my students pointed out the language I used and how this was different to him because professors tend to use academic jargon and terminology that is not accessible to those not in academia. He deeply appreciated my use of nontypical language because he did not have a Western science background and felt more at ease with the language I was using. Yes, I would use words and phrases like, friends, they do not like each other, or displaced relatives when I referred to the plants (flora) of the landscape we were restoring, then go on to explain to students what the equivalent of these relationships was in Western science. For example, the phrases they do not like each other or friends refer to the competitive or mutual relationships plants can exhibit with each other. These relationships are identified through plant guilds. Plant guilds allow us to find out which plants can coexist and thrive in the same community as some might outcompete other plants for nourishment or even sunlight.
For me, healing Indigenous landscapes means centering non-Western ways of thinking, learning, and teaching. I can give a long presentation on plant relationships using scientific terminology, but it is best to frame it through a discourse that everyone can understand, and that includes my parents, who do not have an extensive Western education. My mother comes from a family of nine siblings, so she was only able to make it to the sixth grade, and my father did not have the opportunity to get any education as at a young age he lost his father, had to work, and then survive the war. I always tell myself that if my parents cannot understand what I am doing in my scientific work, I am not just failing them but also my entire communities, as educational opportunities continue to be granted to them.
By integrating not only nonacademic terminology but also hands-on projects in my restoration course, I was able to offer students a metaphor that explains colonization and the impacts it has on Indigenous peoples. After completing their restoration service hours, my students would complain about the cuts the invasive species would sometimes leave on their arms and legs. I would tell them that after one or two cuts, they would get used to it. However, we were removing Himalayan blackberry (Rubus
armeniacus), and these are known for their long thorns that can penetrate about anything, even the protective gear we had on. Yes, they were hard to remove, and the cuts they would leave would hurt. Since I was doing the restoration work almost every day, the cuts would make it hard for me to wash my hands as it stung with soap or even just water. Therefore, I did understand what they were referring to; however, the cuts the Himalayan blackberry would leave reminded me of using this as a metaphor to
teach my non-Indigenous students about the pain colonization has left on Indigenous peoples and communities.
The metaphor related to the pain these cuts would leave and how they symbolized components of the pain we Indigenous peoples continue to endure because of settler colonialism. This was also a percentage of that pain we carry as Indigenous peoples, because colonization has hurt us, fractured our communities, and continues to impact our Indigenous landscapes. Many of my students were non- Indigenous so using this metaphor allowed them to metaphorically grasp the pain. We were working in an urban space that was reclaimed by Indigenous peoples in Seattle and this allowed them to understand metaphorically the sacrifices that were made for this space to be reclaimed within an urban park. They witnessed how the twenty acres of land that was leased to the urban Indigenous organization that oversees Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center had not been restored like other parts of the park. This is a 534-acre urban park and the walkways for tourists and pedestrians were cleared and maintained. However, once you walked into the jurisdiction of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, there was no restoration work that was taking place or had been done there by Seattle Parks and Recreation. This meant that we were removing wild blackberries that towered over my five-foot stature—invasive wild blackberries whose roots were very thick and deeply embedded on the ground. Yes, my arm experienced a lot of pain and soreness as I led overall ten different groups of students in this restoration project. But that pain still does not resemble the pain that I carry as an Indigenous woman who is trying her best to continue uplifting her communities within the environmental discourse.
Restoration work is physically exhausting. However, it allows me to connect to the landscapes that are foreign to me as a displaced Indigenous woman. I strongly believe that we must build relationships with the Indigenous peoples whose land we occupy as well as the lands themselves. This means that we must provide our services and build these relationships through actions that support them both. I navigate new foreign landscapes knowing that they carry someone’s animal and plant relatives, and these places are where someone’s ancestors and spiritual guides continue to navigate. I reflect on the impacts the Indigenous peoples from these lands are facing. In my new environment in Seattle, I think of how the Duwamish people, whose lands this city was built on and who continue to reside here, have not even received federal recognition and are not consulted on city planning initiatives, policies, and management practices. Settlers must learn their own history and the role their ancestors played in this history, and also the Indigenous history that brings to light the atrocities, genocide, and violence that were enacted on the Indigenous peoples of these lands.
As an Indigenous woman of the Americas, I carry the history of the pain my ancestors had to endure, and in order to heal our landscapes we must heal ourselves as well. Everything that impacts us ends up impacting our environments as we are not separate from nature. We are a part of nature, and what impacts us impacts our nature and vice versa. Our Indigeneities are attached to this relationship with nature. Healing our landscapes ultimately means that land should be returned to Indigenous peoples and that we need to start calling out the colonial legacies that sometimes tourism advocates for. Tourism continues to further displace Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands while also leading to environmental impacts and degradation.