The Future is Indigenous

At conferences and in classrooms all across the country, we spend a lot of time talking about building a sustainable future. But what does a modern, sustainable Indigenous community actually look like? In May 2019, a group of Native and non-Native researchers, students and knowledge holders, gathered beside a lake in Shawano, Wisconsin, to try to find out.

The Indigenous Planning Summer Institute (IPSI) is an immersive, week-long program for those interested in uniquely Indigenous approaches to planning and design. Although it is housed at my tribal college (College of Menominee Nation), the participants hail from all over Turtle Island and beyond—some originally hailing from places as far away as Germany!

On the first full day of the institute, as we gathered around the fire, it became clear that our group had a wide variety of experiences and perspectives to bring to the table. Respect and support were the name of the game from the onset. Admittedly, since most of the institute took place in my home community, I did not expect it to be as rewarding an experience for me as others expected it would be for them. I was extremely wrong. Instead, I got to experience many of the same paths and sites that I had known my entire life through the eyes of others. I got to show them views that had defined my world as a child. I introduced them to flowers and plants along the way as if introducing them to members of my family.

Over the course of the next several days, we visited many sites around the area. We toured several parts of the Menominee forest, a source of great pride for our people. We also visited Menikanaehkem, a grassroots community center that works to revitalize our community through culturally centered initiatives, ranging from language to traditional games to environmental justice. After hearing words from the elders, we played games in the shade. The next day, the whole crew came back at the center to plant a whole field together, working without complaint right through the spring rain. On the third day, we all came back to the Wolf River for some relaxation time, hopping into the water for a swim before a big community event where participants shared their research. Lastly, we visited restoration projects on the Oneida reservation near Green Bay. Many of our meals were catered by terrific Indigenous chefs who put such love and thought into their traditional meals that it was as nourishing for the spirit as it was for the body.

Throughout my experience, one thing that I have been brought to reflect upon is how often we give thought to sustainability in the physical space while totally neglecting spiritual wellness and mental spaces. I have a lot more work to do in defining what sustainability looks like to me, but I definitely think an important starting point is respect. So much of what has been done historically has been done without proper respect for the environment, the finite nature of resources, our non-human relatives, or even each other. Over time, that leads to burnout. This is evident in the overculture now even on the individual scale, where you are expected to give as much as you possibly can and where running yourself ragged is a source of pride.

IPSI was, to me, an introduction to ways we can bring this respect back into fields like community planning. Although I think every institution tries to cultivate an environment of interpersonal respect, there is a level beyond that which eventually becomes a sense of shared safety. It is difficult to describe but it’s the feeling that emerges when you enter a space where the general understanding is that you are free to share as much as you feel comfortable sharing, free to give yourself as much space as you need, and where the primary expectation is that you will respect others’ right to do the same. Basic respect is the basis for any great professional connection. But when you cultivate an atmosphere of real trust, building these new worlds with other people becomes ceremony. There is so much work to be done, so many people to learn from, and so many stories to tell and to hear before we will have built the future we want to see. But with each new experience, I am more and more excited for us to get there.

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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