Can Indigenous knowledge rooted in the deep past help address climate change?

VCU history professor Gregory Smithers will explore that question as part of a prestigious four-year Global Professorship in England.
a dried-out piece of land as a result of climate change

Gregory Smithers, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of 10 scholars from around the world selected for a prestigious four-year professorship in England.

As part of his professorship, Smithers will undertake a research project exploring how threats to our well-being posed by climate change can be addressed by drawing on Indigenous knowledge rooted in the deep past.

The British Academy awarded Smithers one of its 2019 Global Professorships, a program that aims to demonstrate and enhance the U.K.’s commitment to international research partnerships and collaboration, as well as strengthen its research capacity and capability in the humanities and the social sciences.

“I was shocked! This was only the second year of the British Academy’s Global Professorship program,” Smithers said. “When I was preparing my application, I looked over the winners in 2018 and was in awe of the breadth of accomplishments of the first cohort of scholars to win one of these four-year awards. To now be in that company still feels surreal.”

Gregory Smithers
Gregory Smithers, Ph.D.

Beginning in 2020, Smithers will be hosted at the University of Hull, a public research university in Kingston upon Hull, a city in East Yorkshire, England. Smithers also will work closely with colleagues from around the world who are associated with the Treatied Spaces research cluster at Hull.

Smithers’ research and writing focus on the histories of Indigenous people and African Americans from the 18th century to the present. He is the author of a number of books, including most recently “Native Southerners: Indigenous History from Origins to Removal” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

During the professorship, Smithers is planning to spend time in archives and speaking with Indigenous people in the United States and Australia for his research project on climate change and Indigenous knowledge.

“Indigenous people throughout North America and the southwest Pacific have a long history of observing climate change and renewing their social and cultural structures to successfully respond to changes in climate,” Smithers said. “This reality runs through the archival sources I’ve consulted throughout my career.”

The topic of climate change has continued to be present in conversations Smithers has had with Indigenous people in recent years, he said. He felt drawn to the project given the current climate crisis, and because scientists, until very recently, have ignored Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as irrelevant to 21st-century concerns, he said.

“That struck me as intellectually arrogant and just plain foolish. The 21st-century climate crisis is multidimensional and it’s going to involve diverse and innovative responses,” he said. “Given [that] Indigenous people in North America and Australia have been paying very close attention to climate and local ecosystems — and, I should add, doing science — for many thousands of years, it seemed to me the time had come for us to listen to tribal elders and draw the threads of Indigenous ecological knowledge systems into the global discussions about climate change. I’m hoping that my research will make a small contribution to these larger conversations.”

book cover for the book
Smithers' 2019 book, "Native Southerners: Indigenous History from Origins to Removal.” (University of Oklahoma Press).

Smithers’ research for the project focuses on mountain ecosystems and the rivers in those critically important, but fragile, locations. He is developing cases studies on the Cherokee in the U.S. Appalachians, and the Ngarigo and Walgal people of the Great Dividing Range in Australia.

“The goal in focusing on these particular case studies is to draw our attention to the ways in which broader fluctuations in long-term climate patterns impacted — and continue to impact — these critically important local ecologies and the people who’ve managed them for over a millennia,” he said. “By presenting deep histories of these regions, my goal is to produce research that is of value to the tribal people I’m collaborating with and contributes original solutions to the larger climate crisis we now confront.”

Using settler and indigenous sources, Smithers plans to map a “genealogy” of indigenous ecologies in order to construct the first deep history of a set of Indigenous responses to fluctuations in climate.

“By ‘genealogy’ I mean the store of knowledge that Cherokee, Ngarigo and Walgal people have nurtured over extended periods of time that both pre- and post-dates European colonial invasions after the 16th century,” he said. “Some of this knowledge is protected, and we have to respect that. The history of, for example, pharmaceutical corporations stealing and profiting from TEK is well known. So, in doing research that involves both archival and oral histories, in mapping long-range ecological knowledge that’s responsive to different types of environmental changes and challenges, you have to be willing to engage in genuine partnership with Indigenous communities.”

Smithers’ interest in studying climate change and Indigenous knowledge goes back to previous research for his book “The Cherokee Diaspora,” in which he noticed the importance of rivers, watershed and mountain ecosystems in Cherokee culture.

“The historical, cultural and spiritual importance of mountains and rivers in Cherokee culture became so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen just how integral these facets of regional history were (and are),” he said. “I then went back to my research from much earlier work in Australia and noticed the same thing. I remember thinking, ‘Why haven’t I seen this before?’”

It reminded him, he said, that historians have too often focused on questions about settler colonialism and land, too often missing what is important to Indigenous communities.

“Land matters, of course, but the land Indigenous people nurture is part of a much more holistic worldview,” he said. “In other words, historians had been only telling small pieces of the historical story, something that made our work of marginal value to Indigenous communities. That felt wrong to me. It’s an object lesson in the importance of being led by, and listening to, tribal communities.”

Smithers, who is teaching Native American history classes at VCU this semester, said he is grateful for the encouragement and support he has received at VCU. Seed funding from the College of Humanities and Sciences, as well as support from the Humanities Research Center, its former director Richard Godbeer, Ph.D., and its interim director Brooke Newman, Ph.D., made it possible for Smithers to launch his current research, he said.

“I’m grateful to VCU for encouraging and supporting ambitious research in the humanities that can have transformative impacts on scholarship and policy formation,” he said.

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