Our Collective Homelands: She’s Your Mother Too

Lulani Arquette

Recently, five emerging Native filmmakers from tribal nations of the Pacific Northwest recorded Native elders, scientists, educators, and cultural leaders addressing climate change and how it was affecting their specific tribes. Ken Wilbur, elder with the Wasco Tribe, explained that climate is changing all over this great earth; the “Salmon People” are not coming back to the rivers. When he was a boy, it was common to catch a hundred salmon a day before 8:00 a.m.; now he fishes all day and is lucky to get five or six.1

Don Sampson of the Umatilla Tribe explained that salmon represent a very important part of the tribe’s ceremonial and spiritual sustenance. Salmon are important to people’s daily subsistence, as well as to their commercial and economic well-being. The idea of losing salmon because of climate change is unthinkable to Native people. Some of the impacts they speak about that are a result of climate change are drought conditions and a decline in snowpack in the high mountains. They are seeing huge catastrophic wildfires because of these dry conditions.2

Warm Springs Indian Reservation, photo from author.

Other culture bearers, from the Nez Perce and Warm Springs Tribes, speak of the beauty of their homelands and the importance of water from their rivers, streams, and snowpacks. They explain that the climate is warming up, and they are watching as streams dry up and rivers become too shallow. They speak about the traditional foods, such as the camas root, which was once 50 percent of their diet and is now disappearing. In their ceremonial songs, which come from the creator and tribal wisdom, they pay tribute to the water and all of the animals and plants as a brother and sister.3

Tiyana Casey is from the Warm Springs Tribe and is a young urban dweller who has been away from home for years. She speaks of returning home in time to pick huckleberries, which is one of the sacred foods used in many of their ceremonies. She discovered that the weather has become much hotter than she remembered since she has been gone. Casey said that huckleberry season used to happen later in the year, but it has been so warm that the huckleberries come earlier and are gone faster than they can pick them. She worries that all of their first foods are being threatened by changes in the climate and they will not have these foods anymore. But it is not only the huckleberries as a food source she worries about, but the other activities that are part of the cultural ecology of gathering huckleberries. A core part of that culture involves weaving baskets for gathering the berries and creating regalia for dance and song celebrating the berries. Also, gathering food brings families together to commune with one another and with the natural mountain environment where berries are found. It is a meditative and joyous activity.4

Approximately 5.2 million people in the continental United States and Alaska identify as American Indian and Alaska Native.5 There are approximately 527,077 people in the continental United States and Hawai‘i who identify as Native Hawaiian.6 There are 573 federal recognized tribes (nations) in the continental United States and Alaska that have their own governments and land base after forced removal from their original homelands during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries.7 Through treaties and negotiations, a very small percentage of original homelands were set aside (returned) and now make up the reservations and land base of the 573 federal recognized tribal nations. Native Hawaiians are state recognized and have a total of 200,000 acres of Hawaiian Home Lands that were provisioned in the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act across six islands.8

It has been a long road toward reparations and self-determination for Native peoples in America,9 and the journey is ongoing. The path is littered with bullets, broken lives, and settler-colonial damage from European countries and the first American colonists in earlier centuries. What has prevailed through all of this is an enduring respect for our natural world, regardless of where our home is and who lives there. The following is a perspective on “homelands” and their significance related to Native peoples. This is not a diatribe about stolen homelands. This is also not an essay on our natural environment. It is a deeper dive into the Native psyche and worldview related to “homelands” and how we all have a responsibility to take care of this precious place called Turtle Island, Hawai‘i, and Alaska, or what is now known as the United States of America.

Forest fires threatening the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, photo from author.

Our Collective Homelands

A relatively small percentage, about 2 percent of the overall US population, identify as Native or Indigenous to this country. Our numbers have diminished over the past centuries due to colonization, genocide, forced removal from land, and disease. Tribal lands and Hawaiian Home Lands; the land base for the rest of this country, which is now the home for over 350,000,000 citizens; and the natural world are significant in the consciousness of first peoples. Rural America encompasses nearly 75 percent of the land area of the United States and is home to more than 46 million people. Some of the most misunderstood areas of our country are rural areas, including American Indian reservations, Alaska Native villages, pueblos, rancherias, and Hawaiian Home Lands. Fifty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native people reside in small towns and rural areas.10 Approximately 85 percent of Hawaiian Home Lands are in rural areas.

The relationships and cultural knowledge that are tied to homelands are critical. “Home” is the place in which the ancestors reside, the place one feels most connected to and the root of one’s existence. “Lands” include the collective natural world of one’s “home” made up of the earth and sky and the myriad creatures that reside in these habitats. Lands include the waterways, the oceans, and the air we breathe. The lands are thought of as an everlasting part of the ecology of life where “traditional agriculturalists hunted, gathered, and fished; and where spiritual bonds between humans and most life forms existed.”11

In Hawaiian culture, generations of families had such an intimate relationship with the natural world that they gave names to winds and rains that pertained to specific places they interacted with. For example, where my grandmother comes from in a place called Waimea on the largest island in Hawai‘i, there is a wind and rain called Kipu‘upu‘u, which is a strong, cold wind or rain that pelts the skin. Waimea is often shrouded in misty clouds and colder than most other parts of the islands, particularly in the mornings and evenings. But its rolling hills and fields are green due to the abundance of the life-giving rain. In Hawai‘i, there are over one hundred names for different kinds of rain, and seventy-five names for various winds across the islands.

Humans are not considered superior to other creatures and natural phenomena, in spite of our developed brains and capacity to think. We coexist with other life forms. There is great difference between the belief of “co-existing with the natural world and its creatures” and the opposite psychology of “dominating the natural world and non-human life forms.”

Many Indigenous creation stories and numerous legends speak to the transformation of humans into natural phenomena or animal beings. A reciprocal exchange of form occurs where “life force” is physically mutable and changing. A grandmother becomes the moon, thwarted lovers become two sacred mountains in proximity, a beloved baby who dies young and is buried in the ground sprouts into a sacred plant, and so forth. The Native world is alive and filled with the spirit of the creator and our cherished ancestors. It is all around us. Native peoples’ “homelands” are actually an extension of oneself and part of the greater family.

This deep sense of place continues to inform Native thinking generation after generation. Some do not recognize it until later in life. It could be said that it lies dormant in one’s DNA, a consciousness of primal longing and familiarity waiting to be recovered. This connection to homelands defines most Native people’s fierce commitment to protection of what homelands we have left under our jurisdiction, or that are supposed to be protected under federal or state jurisdiction. It also underlies many Native views on how environmental policies are implemented and enforced across the United States on tribal lands, in urban communities, and in the broader natural world, especially relating to clean water, air, food, and land.

Certainly, peoples whose original ancestors are not indigenous to the United States may also feel a deep connection to this place based on their history of struggles and their unique experiences. Our original homelands are now places all call home. We understand this. We recognize that many people derive unexplained joy when they are in the woodlands of the Northeast, the plains of the Midwest, and the wilderness of Alaska. We understand the spiritual connection people have to the deserts of the Southwest, the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and the beaches of Hawai‘i. These are our glorious nests of comfort and our sacred medicine. They are our sources of inspiration and quiet contemplation. They are places where we have vision quests and commune with the creator and all of our relatives. We source our food and challenge physical and mental endurance in these diverse terrains. Trauma is transformed, and hope is restored. Faith in the wonder of our natural world overshadows everything else.

Marie Rexford (Iñupiaq from Kaktovik, AK) getting the muktuk ready to serve during Thanksgiving, 2017, photo courtesy of Brian Adams (Iñupiaq).

The Native Truth Narrative

In 2017, research was undertaken to help determine what the broader population of our country knows and doesn’t know about Indigenous peoples of the continental United States. It was the first time that research and information of this nature were together in one study. Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT) was released in June of 2018.12 Key findings are not surprising and reveal bias and stereotypes that keep Native Americans invisible and limit Indigenous peoples’ ability to celebrate contemporary cultural identity and attain racial equity. One of the most difficult aspects of Native equity is our relative invisibility and gaining traction in what is a very crowded, special interest–driven public.

What is most important is that in the RNT study, a national poll revealed that 72 percent of the people want more accurate history and education about contemporary Native Americans. This is encouraging. The RNT Guide for Allies provides tools and strategies for changing the narrative and eliminating these misperceptions and stereotypes about Native Americans.13 I encourage readers to examine the part of the guide titled “Four Themes That Make the Narrative Strong” (page 12) to help understand how to craft new narrative and contribute to dialogue that is more helpful and accurate.

Recovering truth and reclaiming Native knowledge are an intentional effort to be achieved through education and cooperation. There will be many short-term wins to celebrate along the way. It takes working with allies from across the spectrum of practice, building trust, and engaging people where they are. Its intent is to move from the deficit-based approach that is often promoted in philanthropy to justify the need for support, to one that focuses on the strengths and positive contributions of contemporary Native peoples.

The narrative used in the environmental field about global warming and climate change is primarily derived from Western science, but it is not successfully mobilizing action against these phenomena that threaten our human existence. Native people’s experience of our homelands and the natural world can contribute greatly to the narrative. This knowledge is often informed by spiritual beliefs and a path to experience the divine as well as the experience of surviving in an often harsh environment. And it is not exclusive to Indigenous peoples:

There are others whose views of the natural world are informed by their religion or spiritual beliefs. For instance, in Islam, a faith that evolved under conditions of severe water scarcity, the holy text offers many prescriptions of water usage and conservation. Water is viewed both as a physical purifier and a moral one. Similarly in Hinduism, cremation ceremonies specify what type and how much wood is to be used depending on properties of one’s life. Judeo-Christian religion is a multi-faceted mosaic of experiences ranging from the “mastery over nature” orientation from the book of Genesis with lower levels of environmental concern, to believing that nature is intrinsically sacred and God-given with human-as-caretaker models of nature that promote environmental concern.14

Standing Strong with my Feet Rooted to Mother Earth (2014), sculpture, K. Whitman-Elk Woman.

Many Native artists, organizations, and institutions are working deeply across every area to bring more understanding about Native peoples to the general American public. In particular, Native artists are out front on a lot of issues, including their experience of the environment and natural world. For Allison Warden, the climate fight is personal. She traces her roots to Kaktovik, a mostly Inupiaq village in Alaska that battles oil companies drilling off its Arctic coastline. She has been called a multidisciplinary badass, who uses a combination of theater, visual art, and hip-hop to address climate change and her cultural identity. Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, says, “One of Allison’s most valuable talents is her ability to engage and involve many different audiences across generations and cultures, whether they’re school kids, gallery-goers, or activists in kayaks.” In 2015, Warden won the State of Alaska Governor’s Award in the Arts and Humanities — despite the governor’s avowed pro-drilling stance.15

Maika`i Tubbs is a Native Hawaiian visual artist currently living in New York, who says his artistic development was influenced by his two grandmas. He creates work comprised out of 80 percent discarded materials and is interested in recycling, repurposing, consumerism, and the evolvement of “plastiglomerate,” a new term used to describe the fusion of microplastics, rock, sand, basalt, coral, and wood discovered a few years ago on Hawai‘i Island. Originally, people said the plastiglomerate rocks had been formed by the active lava flow on Hawai‘i Island but then found the source to be human. Kamilo Beach has had plastic washing up on its shores for decades from the gyres in the North Pacific, which are giant circular oceanic currents that collect the plastic and trash that has been dumped in the oceans and wash them up on beaches.16

One of the movements we have observed over the past five years, in addition to racial equity and cultural justice, is the intentional partnering of arts practice and community engagement to achieve social change. This often happens organically in Native communities, and in other groups, and these partners find ways to use community arts practice to perpetuate culture, promote healthier lifestyles, and contribute to economic livelihood. There has been an increase in arts-based community engagement combined with mental health, prison reform, and aging. What we have not seen is enough use of the arts to focus attention on environmental issues and climate change. Note that I don’t like the terminology of climate change, which has been used throughout this piece; it does not convey urgency nor invoke personal responsibility, but it will have to do for now until new terminology becomes more widely used across communities and fields of practice.

Focus on Strengths and Values

Our passion is that our fellow citizens come to care as much as we do about these homelands we all inhabit now. Clearly, many who are not Native have similar beliefs, which is evident in the many advocacy organizations who champion the environment. What we need is to use our collective ability to effect significant changes in policies and social values regarding our natural environment in new and unique ways. We cannot turn back or rewrite history, but we can support and mobilize the arts to do what they always have: tell our stories, educate people, and build pathways of empathy. Through that process, people are transformed, and new possibilities arise. Philanthropic organizations are in a position to drive this social change and community-engaged arts practice in Native country and other ALAANA communities. What it takes is finding the right partners and supporting the arts field to be a greater force in getting out in front of critical issues in this country, especially the environment and climate change.

In 2014, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation launched the Community Inspiration Program in order to question dominant worldviews (narratives) and inspire social change. The program’s strategy was to identify and support unique projects that were led by Native artists, spoke to socially important issues, and engaged communities. Native Hawaiian spoken-word poet and performance artist Kealoha worked with teachers and schools in Hawai‘i, other artists, and young poets to develop The Story of Everything (TSOE). In this ninety-minute piece, Kealoha uses music, dance, and visual art melded with indigenous knowledge to weave the story of the Big Bang. The production culminates in a call to action on climate change. The effort has been so successful that school curriculum is being developed and another foundation is working with Kealoha to make TSOE into a film.

Still from Roots of Tradition, 2017 Wisdom of the Elders Community Inspiration Program project, photo courtesy of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

Native peoples have long recognized the importance of raising up our strengths and focusing on positive values. At the root of our self-determination is a sense of pride and the desire to live our lives with cultural freedom and true equality. We do not have all the answers, but we know our contemporary contributions and knowledge bring value to society, not just for us but for all of America. What is rewarding is how in the past few decades Native peoples have transformed so much pain and trauma into new avenues of leadership and social good. I have also witnessed this with other ethnic groups across America. While we have all come from vastly different experiences, some inherent part of us quests for connection and belonging among one another.

In Native Hawaiian thought, we say, “E homai ka ike Hawai‘i,” translated as “grant us the deep Hawaiian wisdom.” That wisdom is vast and centered in values of both courage and humility. Just as important is an abiding sense of care and responsibility for our place in the community, and for our connection to all other peoples and life. We recognize the need for more aloha (love) and benevolence in this fractionalized country.

These are human values that we all recognize and many of us share. Some may think that espousing these human values is idealistic and contributes to softness or signals weakness. On the contrary, we believe that the conscious practice and embodiment of these values take great strength and discipline in the times we are living in.

When I think of our shared wondrous homelands and the natural world, what is extraordinary is how she continues to give back. After all the extraction, disruption, and abuse, she manages to radiate her magnificence and continue caring for us. We are the beneficiaries of all of her infinite splendor, and she hasn’t given up on us yet. If we think of her as a beloved family member and ask ourselves, Would I treat my mother or sister as the natural world has been treated by humanity? and then answer “no” and at least agree on that, then we can stand in awe together and commit to the survival of our shared homelands and this planet.


  1. Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, CIPS Interim Report, 11 2016, https://vimeo.com/183055784.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. US Census Bureau, American Indian and Native Alaskan: 2010 Census Briefs, issued January 2012.
  6. US Census Bureau, Newsroom Archive, Tuesday May 8, 2010. The 2010 census shows that more than half of Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders report multiple races.
  7. National Congress of American Indians, About Tribes, “Tribal Na-tions and the United States: An Introduction,” http://www.ncai.org/about-tribes.
  8. Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, http://dhhl.hawaii.gov/kuhio/.
  9. For the purposes of this article, the word Native is interchangeable with Indigenous and goes beyond the Merriam-Webster definition of being born or from a specific place. In addition to that definition, both Native and Indigenous refer to first peoples whose ancestors originated from and inhabited the lands for thousands of years that make up the current US geography and that are documented by Native knowledge and story, history, archaeological findings, and treaties.
  10. Sarah Dewees and Benjamin Marks, “Twice Invisible: Understanding Rural Native America,” First Nations Development Institute, Research Note, April 2017.
  11. Walter Echo-Hawk, In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2013).
  12. Reclaiming Native Truth, Research Findings: Compilation of All Research from the Reclaiming Native Truth Project, https://www.firstnations.org/publications/compilation-of-all-research-from-the-reclaiming-native-truth-project/.
  13. Reclaiming Native Truth, Changing the Narrative about Native Americans: A Guide for Allies, https://www.firstnations.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/%E2%80%A2MessageGuide-Allies-screen-spreads_1.pdf.
  14. Sonya Sachdeva, “Religious Identity, Beliefs, and Views about Climate Change,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Climate Science, September 2016.
  15. Allison Warden is a 2018 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellow.
  16. Maika`i Tubbs is a 2015 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Native Hawaiian Regional Artist Fellow.