by Michael Painter
Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have celebrated storytelling as a way to connect the present to past lessons and future dreaming. Narrative sovereignty is a form of land guardianship, and Nia Tero supports this work through its storytelling initiatives, including the Seedcast podcast, as well as in this monthly column for media partner the South Seattle Emerald.
Content Warning: This piece includes references to the experience of attending Indigenous boarding schools in the United States and the aftermath of catastrophic weather events.
When I introduce myself, I start with the most important: I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I grew up in Indian Territory, often referred to as Oklahoma. I currently live on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish peoples, now known as West Seattle. Then, if there’s time, I share a little about my job and life experience. I’m a lawyer, a family physician, a father and grandfather, and I’m managing director, Programs at Nia Tero based in Coast Salish Territory.
I first came to Seattle for medical school after practicing law in California in the 1980s and early 1990s. I practiced family medicine for many years in Seattle with and for American Indians and Alaska Natives at the Seattle Indian Health Board. Later I moved to the East Coast to work with former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow, then stayed with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a senior program officer for another 16 years. I recently returned to Seattle to join Nia Tero, an organization that works in solidarity with Indigenous peoples around the world to help secure vital ecosystems. Our mission is to enable Indigenous guardianship everywhere possible. On the move back West, I not only brought boxes and furniture: I also brought my knowledge, wisdom, curiosity, wide network, and my heritage. No matter how often you move or shift course, you don’t leave anything behind. Honoring our past and our ancestors is an Indigenous thing to do. Connecting all that past to the future is as well.
The Cherokee side of my family grew up in the Oklahoma towns of Claremore, Kellyville, and Sapulpa. When he was a boy, my mother’s father, my grandfather, was sent to the Chilocco Boarding School near the border between Oklahoma and Kansas. Luckily, his time there was brief, as he was able to run away and warn the rest of his family about the conditions at the school. Prior to that, his father, my great-grandfather, when he was a baby, was removed with his parents by the U.S. federal government from their lands in North Carolina to Indian Territory. At the point at which they were forcibly relocated, they all had Cherokee names and spoke the Cherokee language. When my great-grandfather became an adult, his response to what he had seen and experienced was to assimilate. That decision was his to make, of course, but it also isn’t the end of my Cherokee family’s story.
One item that has traveled with me from home to home and job to job is a small Medicine Wheel. It sits on my desk right now. Many Indigenous symbols worldwide are circular, reminding us of the circular and cyclical nature of life, the always-changing seasons, and our never-ending movement around the sun. In the middle of the Medicine Wheel is a space representing the time we must take to pause and gather together to talk, in good times and in bad, in order to keep our hearts and minds open, working together.
Nia Tero’s mission is to enable Indigenous guardianship everywhere possible on the planet. As encouraged by the Medicine Wheel teachings, our goal is to create that space to talk, share, learn, agree, disagree, and plan together. I get to work with brilliant colleagues from around the world, including our Global Policy lead Jennifer Corpuz, who is Igorot and lives in the Philippines, and Erjen Khamaganova, who is Buryat, hails from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and currently lives inside Russia. On any given day, I’ll talk with people across time zones, meeting some colleagues just as they’re waking up and others just before they go to bed.
The work we do at Nia Tero is challenging and daunting but worth it as we attempt collectively to address the environmental impacts of our human actions. One of the only bright spots in current efforts to address climate change is the work Indigenous peoples are doing — and have always done — to preserve biodiversity. However, the very knowledge that animates that success, held by Indigenous peoples, is at risk because they and their lands are at risk. As the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states, “… oral traditions about local and regional weather and climate from Indigenous peoples represent valuable sources of information … but are in danger of being lost as Indigenous knowledge-holders pass away.”
It’s one thing to recognize that Indigenous peoples have always been deeply connected caretakers of their lands since time immemorial. It’s another to acknowledge that our ancestors have fulfilled this obligation despite being subjected to unspeakable injustices for hundreds and thousands of years. We do this work even though we have been forced from our lands. Even though we have had our language, names, customs, and culture taken from us. Even though we are not represented accurately in history or school books. We do this work even today when the COVID-19 pandemic, social disparities, and economic injustice affect our kin disproportionately.
Despite all of this, Indigenous peoples continue to honor their commitments to Earth. This is why helping our Indigenous partners protect Indigenous rights and lives is inextricable from climate work today. When Indigenous peoples are at risk, Mother Earth is at risk. Thus, Nia Tero’s work related to climate change isn’t simply environmental justice or social justice work — it’s deeply spiritual work. It’s about honoring the reciprocal nature of our human experience with that of all other beings.
What I do with Nia Tero isn’t just a job. Instead, we have the honor to work in solidarity with Indigenous partners to help heal the damage happening to our planet, like the catastrophic weather events increasing in frequency and intensity, from which none of us can be safe. Over the winter holiday, I was in Colorado visiting my daughter and her family. The weather was lovely and warm there on Christmas Day, so, after family time, I got out on my road bike. The ride took me through a beautiful spot I love near Boulder. I’m a passionate cyclist and value the physicality of it but also the alone time outside. It’s a meditation of sorts. That spot I rode through was stunning and gorgeous. I stopped to snap a photo and share it on social media, then returned to my family.
A couple of days later, as I was preparing to return to Seattle, we learned about the Marshall Fire just as it started raging its way through Superior, Colorado, and on to Louisville, Colorado. The fire started right near where I’d taken those beautiful images on Christmas Day. On the morning of the fire and in the span of a few hours, that entire area went from a windy, sunny, warm day to a catastrophic, apocalyptic scene. Over 6,000 acres of land were destroyed along with 1,000 structures. Two people are thought to have perished in the fire not to mention the countless beings killed. The impact on wildlife in the region is immeasurable.
No one who woke up that day in Louisville last December imagined that a few hours later they would be fleeing for their lives, leaving most of their belongings behind. I think the most important thing for all of us to understand is that, due to the effect of our collective behaviors and ignorance, devastation like this exurban wildfire can now happen anywhere at any time. No one is safe from the effects of the climate we are damaging. The danger might take the form of fire, drought, or rising sea levels. When the danger comes so close to your home, it is, or should be, impossible to ignore the underlying reason these catastrophes are occurring more and more often.
Mother Earth does get a say, and what she’s saying now is that what we’re doing isn’t sustainable for humans. Having grown up in tornado country, I have long respected the power of nature, but I am legitimately frightened about what’s happening and what is coming for all of us. These threats and the imperative to learn about surviving and thriving as the climate degrades are what drives my work. This is why my colleagues and I work so hard with our Indigenous partners to create healthy partnerships and to be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. We know that Indigenous peoples must be able to employ knowledge passed from generation to generation to help take us all into a thriving future — and hopefully, in the process, restore the balance we all so desperately need.
Editors’ Note: This article previously misstated that Michael Painter is a “managing director of Programs” at Nia Tero and has been corrected on 3/2/2022 to correctly state that he is “managing director, Programs.”
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Michael Painter is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He is the managing director, Programs at Nia Tero. He serves on the boards of Native Americans in Philanthropy, the Seattle Indian Health Board, We Are Healers, and the Princeton Buddhist Meditation Group. Michael understands that a healthy future is one where humans thrive in harmony with all living things.
📸 Featured Image: Michael Painter, citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is the managing director, Programs at Nia Tero. One item that’s accompanied Painter for years is a Medicine Wheel. “Many Indigenous symbols worldwide are circular, reminding us of the circular and cyclical nature of life,” he said. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
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