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COP21: Learning Stewardship from Indigenous Peoples

Michelle Nieviadomy is a member of the Christian Reformed Church's delegation to the COP21 climate talks in Paris. Michelle is Cree and works at the Edmonton Native Healing Centre. To read updates from the delegation, follow @CRCCOP21 on Twitter or visit this page

In one of the briefing meetings early on at COP21, a chief from a Canadian First Nations community said "Indigenous people want to speak on their own behalf". His statement captures the frustration of Indigenous peoples who have felt (been) shut out of these climate negotiations. It is frustrating having to rely on Canada to try to represent Indigenous voices when the Original Peoples are more than qualified and have more at stake.

Canada's Indigenous communities are at the front lines having to face the consequences of climate change. "Look at my community" pleaded a First Nations community member who further said "we are not a third world country but yet we live like one". Inuit communities and their traditional way of life have already been deeply impacted, as illustrated by changes of animal skins, weather, water, and ice patterns, all of which they rely on for their livelihood. One Inuit leader said "we are human barometers of climate change." A First Nations chief from a northern community expressed his community’s profound relationship with the earth: "We live on the land and we are tied to the land. Our spiritual identity is with the land." Land is sacred. Land is ceremony. Relationship to land is about more than provision.

This Indigenous story has been told over and over again throughout COP21 and Indigenous peoples from around the globe are strongly represented, proudly wearing their traditional clothing and sharing their cultures. In the Climate Generations building, otherwise known as the Green Zone, the Indigenous Pavilion has daily presentations and panels. One day North America hosted the pavilion; Elders led the day with prayer, a drum song, and ceremonies. Indigenous peoples have incredible gifts to share with the world, especially when it comes to matters of creation care. Indigenous peoples have been stewarding the land for millennia, in many cases long before Europeans arrived in their countries. We carry an ancient wisdom that helps us to live well, to preserve, protect, and respect the earth.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's speech at COP21 affirms that "Indigenous peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. The rest of us have a lot to learn and no time to waste".

So it is hard to understand why, in 2015, Indigenous peoples are marginalized yet again and not part of the negotiations at COP21. Further to that, half ay into the negotiations, Indigenous rights have been taken out of the global treaty agreement. Unquestionably, this has caused a stir among Indigenous people here at the climate summit. Indigenous peoples held side events and press releases letting the warrior's cry for justice and equality be heard.

Canada is pressing hard to keep acknowledgement Indigenous peoples’ rights in the agreement, said one of the negotiators today. An Indigenous leader acknowledges that "Canada is doing good". These simple words are words of hope and possibility with the relationship of Indigenous people and Canada.

As we continue to pursue justice and equality, may our prayers follow that of Sioux Chief Yellow Hawk:

Great Spirit Prayer

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world. Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.

Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me. Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others. Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me. I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy: myself. Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes. So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

[Image: Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

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