Colonialism at the Root of Injustice: My Conversation with Dina Gilio-Whitaker

by Tanya Kerssen

For Native people, colonization and environmental injustice go hand in hand. So argues Dina Gilio-Whitaker in her new book As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. We were pleased to feature it as our November Real Food Reads book as we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. And I was honored to have a rich and fascinating conversation with Dina on the podcast.

Food, we are reminded in the book, has been used throughout history as a tool of war and subjugation. Prior to colonization, Native people were some of the healthiest people in the world—far healthier than Europeans. Genocide, forced displacement, and industrialism led (first) to starvation in Indian country and (later) to dependence on foreign, unhealthy foods.

The loss of access to culturally-appropriate food sources went hand-in-hand with the loss of access to sacred places and traditional plant medicines. This rupture of Native peoples’ relationship with ancestral lands made way for an extractive, capitalist economy that put us on the path to the climate crisis and sixth mass extinction of the earth’s biodiversity.

It’s a powerful story indeed. One that locates colonialism—and the philosophy of domination over nature that accompanied it—at the root of today’s multiple crises.

It also challenges us to ask hard questions: Who controls—and benefits from—land and resources? How are people dispossessed from their lands and what are the health and environmental consequences of that dispossession? What do food, climate, and environmental justice look like when we identify colonialism as the root cause of injustice? And how can we decolonize our movements for the transformation we need?

“We all have to band together and build alliances because all of our futures are at risk now.” —Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Real Food Reads podcast

For Dina, Native peoples can provide hope in this dark time, not least for having survived near-total devastation. Perhaps for that very reason, Indigenous peoples lead the global movement for climate justice. But Indigenous knowledge and worldviews must also be recovered and Native political sovereignty recognized. Our movements must grapple with histories of genocide and land theft, and also seek to understand, uplift, and protect Indigenous conceptions of the sacred and sacred places. 

My biggest takeaway from our conversation? The most important work non-Native people can do is be brave enough to decolonize our ways of thinking and organizing—and understand how colonialism has shaped the political and legal structures in which we operate. This decolonizing work is urgently needed in order to forge effective alliances, and build political power, with Native peoples. 

There is room for different conceptions of the sacred to come together in these alliances. But there’s no less at stake than the survival of all human and non-human life. 

Tune in to my conversation with Dina Gilio-Whitaker, author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock on the Real Food Reads podcast

Featured image: Canoe and Minnesota wild rice. Photo by Eli Sagor/Flickr.