The ways we tell big stories of social change are born of the perspectives gained by hindsight, and this story exemplifies such hindsight. The Paradigm Shift that occurred during the twenty-first century emerged from relentless struggles for justice conjoined with broad changes in social consciousness. Looking back, on Turtle Island it began with the transformation of educational systems. History classrooms at all grade levels became more accurate in telling the truth about the actual founding of the United States. Mandates to include the teaching of tribal histories and tribal sovereignty in all fifty states became known as red natural history. Red natural history connected American Indian histories with Indigenous ecological knowledge systems. These knowledge systems gradually became incorporated into science programs as they came to be seen as complementary and indispensable to mainstream environmental science.
Gradually red natural history crystallized into new value systems not previously seen in American social and governing institutions and resulted in the Red Natural History Alliance. The Alliance became a very broad-based conglomeration of educational and environmental institutions, but also large sectors of the business world, which had begun to accept that relentless extraction of natural resources was leading quickly to environmental catastrophe. The Alliance was committed to social transformation, what they called “The Paradigm Shift” or “The Shift” for short. In order to create The Shift, they accepted that a new social system based on traditional values rooted in reciprocity, kinship, respect, responsibility, and reverence was necessary, and that such a shift could only begin through first .
Looking back from this vantage point in the twenty-second century, and looking at the ways that historians are writing about The Shift these days, the Donald Trump presidency was a particular marking point where serious change began to occur, but not in the ways people had feared at the time. It is generally remembered in the same way the Civil War was remembered: as a time of crisis, a turning point. Called “Trumpism” at the time, the neo-fascist populist movement was the last gasp of a dying white supremacy, the ideology that gripped the country from its colonial inception. Trumpism was so widespread that for a time it appeared as if it would win and continue to reverse progress in social and environmental policy so hard won after the civil rights era. When Trump’s presidency ended with him inciting a violent insurrection by thousands of people in the Capitol on the day the electoral votes were to be counted, it acted as a kind of mass wake-up call that US democracy was far more fragile than had previously been assumed.
What was so dangerous about Trumpism was not just the lingering white supremacy of earlier eras, but the ways disinformation had taken hold of people’s imaginations and social institutions. Conspiracy theories gripped the nation, fueled by a political party that lied incessantly. It became very difficult for people to discern truth from fiction. Yet people also failed to see that disinformation had in fact been the foundation of American life from the beginning: for centuries the US had vigorously denied its origins in genocide and land theft. In the post-Trump years, when red natural history curricula became widespread, American origin narratives finally began to systematically change. Students grew into better informed citizens, and in time this led to more equitable policies and greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples into high-level decision-making positions. By the time the Red Natural History Alliance had formed in 2029, an ethic of accountability for the country’s colonial history and structure had begun to seep into its political veins, and decolonization became a real political objective.
By the time the Biden administration assumed power, climate change was already battering the country. Massive wildfires in the west were commonplace and entire towns and parts of cities burnt down, causing catastrophic economic loss and loss of life. Human populations were already being relocated due to sea level rise, and, not surprisingly, it was Indigenous populations that were hit the first and hardest. But for the first time, the wealthy were also impacted by incalculable and irretrievable loss of valuable beachfront and other environmentally vulnerableproperty.
In Southern California, a nuclear catastrophe was narrowly averted after a storage site where radioactive waste was temporarily buried on the beach was damaged during an extreme weather event. Species extinctions cascaded, leading to more extinctions. And increasing global pandemic events linked human over-development with the exposure to previously unknown viruses, an inevitability that scientists had warned about for years. Other environmentally devastating events too numerous to mention plagued American life and were daily occurrences. It became clear to all the nations of the world that like so many other species, humans were on the brink of extinction.
American Indian and other global Indigenous populations had been warning of these impending disasters for decades. They had said over and over again in films, academic panels, classrooms, radio shows, podcasts, speeches to governments including the United Nations that their of these times, and they had warned that humans had hard choices to make about how they would continue to live on the earth. They pointed out that their societies had lived on the earth sustainably for millennia because they learned how to live harmoniously with nature, which meant within the constraints of particular ecosystems. They argued that they still had knowledge embedded in their cultures and languages that would be required to change course and avoid complete ecosystem collapse before it was too late.
For too long Indigenous knowledge was viewed by science as invalid or useless knowledge, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. Western knowledge systems had imagined themselves superior due to their technology-intensive orientation, which of course turned out to be extremely harmful to the earth, especially since technology was linked to a highly inegalitarian and exploitative economic system. But that sense of superiority had roots in religious paradigms that had also been used to violently dominate Indigenous peoples.
It finally came to be seen that the problems of environmental collapse and climate change would not be solved by simply inventing better technology or incentivizing markets in things like cap and trade schemes to lower carbon emissions. Societal transformation could not happen without first changing the value systems that drove societies and the things that they prioritized. It was a problem of philosophy and worldview, and it came to be recognized that Indigenous cultures contained important keys for social and ecological transformation. Those keys were human interactions with the natural world based on right relationship, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility.
As Red Natural History became the norm, Indigenous knowledges found their way into mainstream structures, especially in the realm of environmental management. Scientists increasingly incorporated Indigenous land practices in ecosystem restoration and conservation programs, led by Native peoples themselves. The earliest examples were in fire management through cultural burning regimes. Indigenous knowledge keepers convinced forest management agencies that the problem of extreme wildfires was not just due to climate change, but to over a century of forest mismanagement when the colonial government banned Indigenous controlled burning practices. Indigenous knowledge proved indispensable in other realms like fisheries and wildlife management, food systems restoration, and water protection.
American Indian people were appointed to high-ranking government positions and given power to prioritize Indigenous worldviews in their decision making, and this led to more equitable power sharing arrangements where public land management was concerned. Co-management agreements became commonplace as the Indigenous-led Landback movement demonstrated that lands were healthier when Native people had more control over them. More lands were restored to tribal control during and after the Biden years because of the commitments that administration had made to prioritizing environmental justice principles in governing. It turned out that just like Native and other environmental justice communities had argued, all of society would benefit from environmental justice-informed governing.
Yet for many years what still lingered was a legal structure that maintained an unequal and unjust relationship of the US to tribal nations. Legal frameworks like the doctrine of discovery, domestic dependent nationhood, the trust doctrine, and the plenary power doctrine were archaic holdouts from the nineteenth century, and seen by many as intractable. Native intellectuals argued that the legal system as it was could not simply be reformed or tweaked to become just and restore a relationship of true mutual sovereignty. What was needed was an entirely new kind of structure that could better support Native nations’ political relationship to the state and transcend the hegemonic quasi-sovereignty that was constructed by those archaic nineteenth-century ideals.
Resistance to dismantling the colonial legal structure was fierce in the settler political realm, in part because there were still those who believed in US dominance. But those ideas were becoming more and more outdated as the world changed in order to cooperatively address the climate crisis. There was also resistance from some tribal governments, which had grown so accustomed to their dependence on the colonial relationship that even if they disliked the relationship as it was, they feared change. There was no going back to the kind of independence of precolonial life, so new kinds of political relationships had to be imagined.
Political models were found in the example of autonomy arrangements in other countries. Spain had provided a good example, with numerous autonomy agreements that created equitable power-sharing between autonomous regions and the central government. It was not conflict free, as exemplified by the Catalan secessionist movement, but after many years of sometimes violent conflict, differences were resolved and Catalonians were able to rebalance their relationship with the Spanish government. Many other examples could be found throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, and even Australia.
There were instances when secession from states was inevitable as colonial empires continued to lose their primacy. But solving the problems of environmental devastation depended on regional solutions, which necessitated new kinds of political relationships and power arrangements, especially between Indigenous and other land-based traditional communities. In the US, autonomy agreements with the federal government were a workable solution that allowed tribes to be released from the paternalistic and colonial relationship but also to hold the US to its treaty-based responsibility to tribes.
The United States is a very different country than it was in the early twenty-first century before it became the truly multi-national place it is recognized as today, and the modern state system as we have known it since 1648 continues to evolve and change. Environmental collapse demanded radical changes, and the changes did not come without serious conflict at times. Decentralization of power was necessary, as were rational, coordinated responses, making the balancing of power delicate and difficult. The global political landscape is continually evolving and changing as it has since the fall of colonial empires and the decolonization movements of the 1950s and ’60s. It will take centuries for the earth to heal herself, but we seem to have at least stabilized the crisis, and there are signs everywhere of ecological regeneration. Capitalism has still not been entirely abolished, but certain transformations have been made in most countries that privilege ecological health over profits. Most importantly, the world’s nations have found ways to work together productively for the sake of all life on the planet. And in retrospect, what’s clear is that none of it could’ve happened without the institutionalization of red natural history.
It’s hard to say when exactly The Shift occurred, but like pretty much all of history I suppose you can say it occurred as a result of different events over a span of time. One thing leads to another but not always in ways that produce a predictable outcome. And not smoothly or painlessly, either. United States history has been a drama marked by the worst kinds of grift, hypocrisy, and crimes against humanity for centuries, contrary to the sanctimonious feel-good stories it has built itself upon. But its national karma eventually caught up to it, as it did in much of the rest of the world when the global scale of human hubris led to inescapable catastrophe before things began to get better, and it’s a wonder that it didn’t get as bad as it easily could have. Humanity eventually rose to the occasion and collectively did what needed to be done to avoid the worst of a climate apocalypse, adapting to changing conditions in ways that were mostly equitable and just. That it was accomplished to an immeasurable degree through the systematic adaptation of Indigenous knowledge—knowledge systems of societies that had been nearly completely exterminated—was unpredictable but in many ways not surprising. The old saying about the arc of history bending toward justice seems to be more true than not, as humans have had to learn the hard way that in the big picture, the dehumanization of one is the dehumanization of all.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian studies at California State University San Marcos and an independent educator in American Indian environmental policy and other issues. At CSUSM she teaches courses on environmentalism and American Indians, traditional ecological knowledge, religion and philosophy, Native women’s activism, American Indians and sports, and decolonization. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of Indigeneity and the sport of surfing. Dina is the author of two books; the most recent is the award-winning As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock.
“A Possible, Decolonized Future” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).