Learning from Indigenous wisdom

By Dennis Tessier

As printed in The Marketplace – May/June 2018

The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change
By Gleb Raygorodetsky (Pegasus Books, 2017 336pp, $28.95 US)


This book is a compelling account of indigenous people’s experiences with climate change. The author collects and weaves together the stories of Indigenous peoples; from the Gwich’in reindeer herders and Skolt salmon fishermen of Finland, the Nenets of the Yamal region of Russia and Altai people of the sacred Altai mountainous region of Russia, to the Sapara of the Amazon, the Karen in Thailand, and the Tla-o-qui-aht of British Columbia.  

Through this work, Raygorodetsky conveys several important and interdependent narratives. He begins with trying to understand each community’s unique culture. From the elders, community leaders, and other members of the community he learns about the resilience of each group of Indigenous peoples, who have managed to survive military, industrial and political encroachment, displacement, and cultural genocide in an increasingly resource-hungry world.

The novel succeeds in exposing the reader to the historical and cultural diversity of the Indigenous groups portrayed. But this is merely a foundation for Raygorodetsky’s primary intent: to inform readers of the threat climate change poses to Indigenous people’s way of life, and to amplify their voices as we seek more environmentally sustainable paths.

The author is successful in addressing the false belief that while Indigenous culture and traditional economies have been viewed as backwards and outdated, they may in fact be our only hope of adapting to the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have been active stewards of the land for millennia, understanding “the interdependencies of the sun, water, air, forest, fire, wildlife, fish and people that have emerged and co-evolved since the glaciers retreated northward.”

An example of the lack of understanding of Indigenous practices is the Karen people of Thailand. Their traditional form-shifting agriculture called swidden, where forest is cut and burned, farmed and then left to regenerate after a few growing seasons, has been dismissed as destructive and unproductive compared to modern agricultural practices. However, evidence shows that swidden may in fact mitigate the impact of climate change and enhance the life cycle of the forest.

Archipelago of Hope is a compelling read because the stories told implore us to take seriously the knowledge and wisdom that Indigenous peoples are willing to share, so that we can be better stewards of our planet. As the author points out, while the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples make up only four per cent of the global population, they make up 60 per cent of the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity and occupy 20 per cent of the global land area, which supports approximately 80 per cent of the world’s biological diversity.

A few days after reading The Archipelago of Hope, I traveled to Northern Ontario to spend some time ice fishing with my uncles. Standing on the ice enjoying the March sunshine, I noticed a bald eagle circling 50 feet above our heads. This was the third and largest eagle we saw that day. My uncle suggested we share a fish we had caught with the bird, and I obliged. We talked about the tensions based on racism and misunderstandings between Algonquin and non-indigenous people over harvesting of fish. I mentioned to my uncle how there are talks between the Algonquins and the Ministry of Natural Resources to work together to manage and protect the lake. He simply replied, “Algonquin voices should have been part of the process from the very beginning.”  Archipelago of Hope brings attention to this very concern, giving Indigenous peoples more voice in climate change mitigation and adaption.

Dennis Tessier is Senior Program Manager, Environment and Climate Change at MEDA’s head office in Waterloo, Ontario and a member of the Algonquins of Mattawa/North Bay First Nation.

Post Author
  • MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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