UMass Opens Feinberg Series, With a Focus on Indigenous Knowledge Systems

On Sept. 30, Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author and founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, kicked off the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst 2020-21 Feinberg Series. The free virtual seminar, which was promoted by the Amherst Environmental Studies Program, was the first of nine planned public events. This event was jointly hosted by the Creative Women Leading Climate Action Symposium, and was financially backed by the AES Entrepreneurship Initiative, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the UMass Sustainability Innovation and Engagement Fund and Women for UMass Amherst.

The series focuses on the world’s past, present and future environmental emergencies, intended to  expose viewers to the world’s environmental struggles and provide them with tools to address the problems. In each seminar, a different keynote speaker is set to bring their own perspective to the central theme “Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.” 

An official press release from the UMass Amherst History Department stated that “events [will] address the historical origins of ecological destruction and mass extinction; the implications of these phenomena for human and nonhuman survival and ways of life; the role of human politics; the connections between the environmental emergency and histories of capitalism, colonialism, genocide and white supremacy; human entanglements with the nonhuman world; and the past, present and future of resistance movements.”

Before Kimmerer began, Christina DeLucia, assistant professor of history at Williams College framed the presentation. “Weaving together core concepts about reciprocity, gift exchange, kinship and the rights of nature, Dr. Kimmerer invites each of us to reflect on our webs of relations, our obligations and our possibilities for bringing about more just and sustainable ways of living,” DeLucia said. 

Immediately following her introduction, Kimmerer jumped into the talk, which called on a range of historical, anecdotal and natural information. Kimmerer drew on Indigenous knowledge systems, to address environmental problems and advocated for human beings to use their “gifts” while also taking responsibility for their detrimental actions. 

What’s more, Kimmerer argued, is that the ideas that have dominated the Western world for the past 500 years are in profound error. Instead of viewing themselves as “young brothers of creation,” humans have established themselves at the top of the animal kingdom’s pyramid. Though she pointed out the mistakes that people have made up to this point, she discouraged her viewers from turning to despairful thoughts which “leads us to paralysis.” Rather, she encouraged her viewers to open their eyes to the “the resilience of the earth.”

The event lasted for just over an 90 minutes and consisted of an hour long presentation and an extended Q&A segment. Immediately following the Q&A, the partners of the event facilitated discussion groups.

In an interview after the event, Amherst Professor of American Studies Kiara Vigil explained that “telling stories, whether in writing, pictures, books or orally is often how Native people communicate their understandings of the world and how to operate in it.” She also pointed out that “The way you listen to these stories and what you do with their teachings is often equally as important as the story itself.” 

When asked about the role of Native American knowledge as a tool in addressing the current climate crisis, Vigil stated that “she wouldn’t want to suggest that Native American knowledge, and therefore people are a monolith.” However, Vigil does agree with Kimmerer in that she “think[s] that there are Native epistemologies that are helpful for addressing the challenges we are all facing in terms of climate change.” Vigil cited the wildfires in California as a powerful example of land mismanagement. “The destruction [of the fires] is immense,” she said. “At the same time, there are lots of Native communities in California and non-Native ones as well that are looking to the past, how Indigenous peoples in California have historically had controlled burns on a regular basis in order to manage the land, climate, etc., there.” 

Just as Kimmerer pointed out in her lecture, Vigil believes that “there’s no reason we can’t all navigate this world in accordance with [Native American] sort[s] of belief[s], which [are] very, very old — but still very, very relevant.” Likewise, Professor Kimmerer emphasized that the cultural mores of indigenous peoples are more applicable than ever before. 

Nicole Vandal ’21, co-president of the Indigenous Native Citizens Association and a Wampanoag student, was one of the first to ask Kimmerer a question at the end of the presentation. She asked, “Many criticize indigenous communities’ hunts of our animal kin but fail to recognize that when one being gives their life, our communities give back with care and gratitude. How can we begin to shift the popular belief that not eating any meat, regardless of if the being was hunted with care, is the only sustainable way of living?” 

To this, Kimmerer responded, “One of the gifts and responsibilities from some [animal and plant] beings is to feed the others. We almost view not eating meat, not accepting that gift that that deer or that fish might give to us, as disrespectful. That that being is offering us something sacred, and for us to turn our backs on that, is disrespectful as well.”

According to Kevin Young, associate professor of history at UMass Amherst and co-chair of the 2020-21 Feinberg Series, “the opening event went very well. Nearly 2,000 people tuned in via Zoom, Facebook or YouTube, and many of them stuck around for the discussion breakout groups afterward. Judging by the dozens of thoughtful questions and comments that people submitted during the lecture, and the reports we received from the discussion groups, there was a high level of audience engagement with the material that Dr. Kimmerer was presenting.” 

Attendees identified with Kimmerer’s message and found her advice to be incredibly useful. Steven Du, a graduate of the University of California Berkeley and graduate student at Northwestern University, relayed that “a lot of things stood out [about the presentation], I think that the message of learning from plants and that even in cities and urban environments there still are teachers was pretty resonant. I live near Chicago in a pretty urban area, so while often it feels like I’m stuck in a city, there still are a lot of plants and teachers around me if I just take a second to reflect. Also, not seeing nature as an other or as natural resources or something to be used is something that I’ve always thought about but I feel Kimmerer’s words put it very powerfully.”

Another attendee, Nicole Lorusso, agreed with Kimmerer’s message as well. “Her worldview aligns with my own,” she said. “Like her, I feel it’s important to address our pressing global issues with a systems thinking lens that recognizes and is guided by indigenous knowledge and the fundamental idea of reciprocity.”