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Review

Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis

By Alan Parker, editors

November 4, 2013

Review By Chris Arnett

For the past five centuries, Indigenous people of the Pacific Rim have been on the receiving, destructive end of European expansion and technology, witnessing their lands occupied by extractive, industrialized nation states. Now assimilated into a global economy, Indigenous peoples of these and other countries face issues shared by all regarding the social and environmental impact of world industrialization.

In Asserting Native Resilience, editors Grossman and Parker bring together twenty-one contributors from diverse backgrounds to deliver a valuable, sobering, yet hopeful collection of Indigenous cultural perspectives and native initiatives to adapt to real and potential impacts of climate change using the tools of traditional knowledge and western science. Growing out of educational studies initiated by Evergreen College of Olympia into American tribal governments in the Pacific Northwest — studies that are brilliantly summarized as a reproducible community organizing booklet at the back of the volume — this admittedly diverse collection documents community-oriented environmental research and restoration efforts alongside less successful narratives of international gatherings at the United Nations and in the United States. Unfortunately, strongly-worded declarations, as important as they are to the “international” participants, are probably not too effective in initiating meaningful political change on the ground, which is the crux of the matter noted by several contributors.

Although the sub-title, and at times the text, gives the impression of an international Indigenous perspective, the content of the book is based largely on examples from the United States, where the political relationship between the state and Indigenous polities is different than, say, in British Columbia, where First Nations have been involved in many land-use conflicts with the state, where they have been empowered by a sense of stewardship and unresolved land title, and where they have had less interest in, or need for, international alliances. The oversight is compensated by two contributions by British Columbian First Nation leaders Willie Charlie and Susan Armstrong, who remind us that cultural perspectives ultimately lie at the heart of the global crisis.

In promoting an indigenous worldview, there is a slight tendency throughout the text to essentialize Indigenous people for their unique resilience or capacity to weather change, when resilience is a characteristic of all people. The most exciting parts of the book document local initiatives by natives and non-natives to “find common ground” in their home communities. All contributors acknowledge that Indigenous people, or any people in a close relationship with place over time, have unique firsthand knowledge of place and, as this book shows, science supports such a view. As a Maori contributor states, “The word is out.” The question becomes, how will people act? In the United States, where tribes consider themselves sovereign nations with federal trust responsibilities, all attempts at indigenous recognition at home and internationally are compromised by their federal counterparts. The issue that separates method and theory from practice is power. As Grossman predicts: “Only if US policy shifts dramatically will the possibility exist of coordinated international action.” From a perspective of resilience, this policy may not happen too soon.

Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis
Zoltan Grossman and Alan Parker, editors. 
Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2012. 240 pp. $24.95 paper.