Diné Nihi Keyah Project: Indigenous-led Land Use Shifting Away From Extractive Models

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, also referred to as COP27, will take place this year in Egypt on November 6-18. This year, the focus of COP27 is to move from negotiations and planning to implementation. The three main objectives of the conference are mitigation, adaptation, and climate finance. Countries will have to show how they plan to reduce emissions, how they will adapt to climate consequences to keep people safe, and how resources and financial support will be distributed to countries suffering some of the worst climate consequences, but not receiving the resources they deserve from the global community. Black, Indigenous, and Communities of Color have been at the forefront of building solutions to face climate change and are already putting them into action. It is the government officials and leaders that need to follow their lead, not the other way around. 

There are currently 30,000 people registered to attend COP27, including members of the public. Spaces like these need to have an intersectional approach because while we are all living on the same planet, climate change is disproportionately impacting communities most marginalized by capitalism and political disenfranchisement. It’s essential that the voices of and solutions being created by Black, Indigenous, and Community Leaders of Color are center stage in the climate change conversation. 

Justice Outside spoke with Josephine Foo, Executive Director of Indian Country Grassroots Support, one of our grantee partners working at the community level, who shared what the United Nations can learn from centering Indigenous voices and taking an intersectional approach in the ongoing effort to mitigate climate change. 

Will you share a little bit about your work for people who may not be familiar? 

Indian Country Grassroots Support was established by retired Navajo Nation judges, law professors, and advocates in order to provide community support and promote knowledge of the intertwined spheres of law, tribal culture, and federal, state, and tribal government that impact communities on the Navajo Nation. We have two major projects – Navajo Family Voices which is a peer-to-peer family support project, and the Diné Nihi Keyah Project, which is a community education and empowerment project for land use.

90% of our team are Diné tribal members of the Navajo Nation who live in reservation communities. I’m not Diné but have lived and worked here for 22 years. We all have lengthy careers in tribal government, academia, and community service. 

We are impact-focused, with an experience-based understanding that Diné communities are in critical need not only of knowledge to take charge of their daily life on the reservation, but for that knowledge to be presented, translated, and explained for community members to fully access, navigate and use with clarity. The goal is for our rural communities to have ongoing transparency of information, as well as mutual connection, to reach culturally meaningful solutions of their own concerning health, wellness, and most importantly, land use.  

What part of your work gives you the most hope for the future of our planet and communities?

Over the years, Diné leaders have attempted to take the people beyond colonized thinking, by asserting the Diné value system on which to base all governmental action. However, governing as a people continues to be in the hands of lawyers who may believe their only job is to ensure compliance with the federal government, even if community practice looks nothing like what land use policies and regulations call for. Diné people and Diné leaders feel restrained by lawyers from even expressing a comprehensive vision of what tribal government, land use, and the Diné way of life will look like outside of colonized thinking. 

The goal of the Diné Nihi Keyah Project  is to have communities feel the freedom and purity of practice to express a clear vision, however impractical and illegal it may presently seem. Components of the vision in any land use plan must be based on cultural issues which reflect the community’s values, and tribal visions are no different, yet have never been expressed on the Navajo Nation. Without the community vision, the shared destination toward which we wish actions to take us, there is no coherent land planning.

Our project is now a year into mapping the history of the Navajo Nation’s land base, laws, and customs. We have begun the envisioning part, which is asking communities themselves to express, bilingually (so lawyers can also understand), what they see and feel in visions and dreams, 100 years in the future, waking up and walking outside of our homes on the Navajo Nation.

A variety of crops including corns, berries, peppers and more on a wooden plank. Next to it there's a small table with three tinctures or spice bottles on top.
A harvest offering table prepared by the Diné Nihi Keyah Project 

We know Indigenous communities have had the tools and knowledge to use and manage land sustainably since time immemorial. Tell us about some of your lessons learned on how to incorporate that knowledge into decision-making at the state and national levels. 

On May 5, 2022, we submitted a joint statement to the White House with many organizations and community members calling for the development of guidance that respects Indigenous lifeways and ensures that traditional knowledge is meaningfully included in federal policies that give voice to our Earth Mother and the knowledge holders of our communities.

To empower and reassure communities to share traditional knowledge, there need to be mechanisms to allow traditional knowledge, individual to each community, to be shared and received as they are ready. Indian Country Grassroots Support and our partner signors disagree with any emphasis on the government-to-government process being the exclusive means to obtain traditional knowledge. That is the wrong approach for traditional knowledge, especially at this time of climate urgency, because traditional knowledge holders are separate from tribal governments. Traditional knowledge holders are concerned with the relationship that we have with our Earth Mother, and not primarily concerned with our relationships with governments. Knowledge holders need the ability to directly share our knowledge with upon consensus of our communities, without undue barriers, and also need clarity that the shared knowledge will be used as it should be. Native organizations can help get out the knowledge that knowledge holders wish to share on a rolling basis, as each community is ready. The proper gathering of this information requires community consensus and needs to follow community timing. 

What can international bodies like the United Nations learn from your work on centering Indigenous community voices and leadership for facing climate change?

Tribal land stewardship places responsibility on each creature to take care of the earth. For human beings, this means localized proper practices rather than oversight from a far away body with limited resources. Emphasis on far away governing bodies, while creating numerous internal boundaries, also prevents working together to steward properly. 

Understand that those from outside a community have often felt they have the answers but have instead made things worse. Also, what the world may feel they know about Indigenous practices is not complete and may have distortions due to perception and translation. The act of translating practices into another language is itself a distortion. Finally, knowledge holders have historically resisted putting knowledge into a system that will not implement knowledge but will instead take pieces that they want, so the knowledge that the system was given may have been extremely incomplete or filled with errors due to the limited numbers of knowledge holders willing to convey the whole knowledge. There has always been an understanding that the dilution, compromise, and distortion of knowledge creates dysfunction. 

Understand that knowledge is itself a living being. Even myself, who has lived and worked in communities for more than 20 years, feel I know less and less with each year as the awareness of the extent of knowledge and how knowledge is applied grows and grows. As I work within our organizational structure, I have several commitments I myself have made. First, is that my function is to make sure information reaches communities in such a way that communities are empowered to question static solutions. Second, the function of any organization is to ensure that tribal culture flows like water and is free from manipulation. When you manipulate a practice, you may break apart essential pieces. 

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