Image by Anoushka Khandwala

As designers, the work we create can unknowingly perpetuate certain ideologies that have destructive consequences. One of the more obvious examples of this is the encouragement of endless consumption—through carefully cultivated messaging, desirable branding, and packaging that often does more to conceal (labor practices, ecological impact) than to inform. After all, graphic design is the art of persuasion, which makes us uniquely complicit in a system that constantly churns out new products, content, and services, all of which require more energy—whether that’s electricity to run server farms or oil to create disposable plastic packaging. 

Because of this, many designers are increasingly concerned with the impact their work has on the climate, and rightly so. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, if the actions that seeks to mitigate that impact continue to prioritize free-market values, they still have the potential to harm not just the Earth, but the millions of people, predominantly in the Global South, who will be displaced by floods, hurricanes, and droughts. For this reason, it’s essential to decolonize our understanding of climate action, and for that, we should look to the Indigenous communities who have already been doing this work for centuries.

Indigenous communities around the world have always nurtured a spiritual connection with the land. Continued colonial practices, such as extracting bitumen from tar sands to make petroleum products, destroy Indigenous lands, particularly in Canada, which makes it all the more shocking that many climate organizations don’t take heed from Indigenous perspectives. Activists like Greta Thunberg and groups such as Extinction Rebellion have garnered public attention to highlight the impact of the climate crisis on our world, but don’t always (or often) cede visibility to the Indigenous communities that have long been on the frontlines of this movement.  Whether it’s Dine matriarchs fighting for decades against Peabody Coal Company to shut down the strip mine located on Black Mesa due to the dangers of air pollution, the victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline which sought to drill into tribal lands, the innovative methods of the Bheri Wastewater Aquaculture in Kolkata, or the ancient Jingkieng Dieng Jri Living Root Bridges of the Khasi tribe in India, Indigenous communities all over the world retain generations of knowledge about how to care for the planet.

To investigate the links between design, Indigenous knowledge, and the climate crisis, we spoke to three creative practitioners who use design as a tool to highlight the relationship of Indigenous peoples and the land. This is a topic that Julia Watson tackles in her book Lo—TEK, which describes different instances of design by radical Indigenism. Klee Benally of Indigenous Action uses design to propagandize, extending his work as an agitator, while Demian DinéYazhi’, founder of Radical Indigenance Survivance and Empowerment (R.I.S.E), uses their art to platform voices of Indigenous descent. While occupying different spaces, these three voices come together to demand change through a subversion of hetero-patriarchal colonial power structures, emphasizing design as a way in which to manifest these principles.

A doctored version of the famous depiction of the "First Thanksgiving" but with Pilgrims in gas masks and the world burning behind them
Courtesy Indigenous Action

To start off, could you introduce yourselves?

Julia Watson: I am a designer, an academic, and an author. I wrote a book recently called Lo—TEK: Designed by Radical Indigenism, that looks at traditional ecological knowledge from different communities all over the world and how that might be the next generation of thinking for sustainable design. I teach Urban Design at Columbia and Harvard, [focusing on]how to design cities for climate resilient futures. I’m a landscape architect, I deal with really large landscapes like UNESCO world heritage sites, and have worked with the Subak in Indonesia and the Ma’dan people in the Southern wetlands of Iraq.

Klee Benally: I’m originally from Black Mesa on the Diné or Navajo nation. Currently, I reside here in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a so-called border town to the reservation, but it’s occupied, ancestral lands for many Indigenous nations and at the base of a holy mountain—Dookʼoʼoosłííd in our language. In English, they call it the San Francisco peaks, which is holy to 13 Indigenous nations. I’m an undisciplined anti-colonial, anti-capitalist agitator. I use a range of forms of media to propagandize anti-colonial struggle. You can call me a designer, but I’m more of an agitator and propagandist.

Demian Dinéyazhi: I’m born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá and Tódích’íí’nii of the Diné tribe. I am currently living in Portland, Oregon, but originally grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. The bulk of my practice pretty much resides on creating spaces of opportunity and support for Indigenous queer, trans, two-spirit, nonbinary or gender nonconforming, and matriarchal feminist voices. I do that through my own personal practice and that of R.I.S.E (Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment), which is an artist activist initiative I started back in 2012.

I’m also a writer and a curator, and so in some ways an organizer. I use public programs and platforms as a means to bring more awareness and voices of Indigenous descent into art institutional spaces. 

How would you describe the Indigenous environmental fight and how might the Indigenous perspective differ from that of the settler fight against climate change?

Watson: The perspective that I see climate change being approached is from this crisis of biodiversity and impact on cities. That is a really limiting, colonial perspective which needs to be unraveled. “Radical indigenism” is this concept I borrowed from a Cherokee Nation professor at Princeton, Eva Marie Garroute, who talks about Indigenous philosophies being looked at to rethink different frameworks of knowledge. There’s a very dominant perspective of how we interact with the natural world, which is about extraction and superiority and comes with a lot of industrialization and a long history of colonization. That needs to be reframed. 

What we think of as natural environments around the world have been inhabited for a very long time and managed, especially in colonized countries. The conservation movement has been fundamentally flawed in being responsible for removing Indigenous peoples from their lands in the name of conservation. Many Indigenous communities all around the world have been incredible protectors of biodiversity. That is the relationship that needs to be protected [as well as] all the learnings and understandings that communities have, that have either been erased, lost, or ignored. The climate change movement should be acknowledging [this] as the most powerful means of moving forward for climate change, environmentalism, and thinking of the future. 

Benally: Wherever there’s an environmental crisis, there’s a cultural crisis because we’re people of the earth—that’s what Indigenous means. We have to understand that global warming is a consequence of a war against Mother Earth, a systematic war that’s rooted in structures of oppression from capitalism, colonialism, hetero-patriarchy, and white supremacy. Within that, there’s no dichotomy between spirit and nature or who we are. I say ‘we,’ speaking from a broad sense, because I’m not pan-Indigenous, but there are common threads within understandings and ways of being with people of the earth [Indigenous people].

The settler-colonial environmental movement is a contrived movement that is still divorced from those deep understandings of ways of being that are connected and rooted in the land. It’s one that seeks to greenwash capitalism. It perpetuates colonial violence through its strategies, which maintain those systems of oppression, and doesn’t question its own foundations of white supremacy, eugenics, and the ongoing violence that those systems will continue to perpetuate if we don’t abolish capitalism and colonialism as root causes of systemic climate change. 

Dinéyazhi: What I can speak of in terms of my own culture coming from the Diné people is really having more of a tie and responsibility and connection. These are all Western words. I don’t know enough of my language to be able to describe it. But I think there’s a spiritual and cosmological relationship with the earth.

A lot of [these teachings are] passed on through family lineage, medicine people, our creation stories. That’s one key difference between an Indigenous philosophy and settler colonial capitalist hetero-patriarchal logic, is that there has been this completely severed relationship with the earth that has been re-instituted as consumption and profit. It’s a disease that dates back centuries and it’s a part of a traumatic history that settler-colonial descendants still haven’t acknowledged or sought any way of healing from it.

What is the biggest problem we face in terms of the climate crisis and what are the Indigenous alternatives, or solutions to those problems?

Watson: In the urban design course that I teach, we work with communities all over the world that are really impacted by climate change. So cities that are used to seeing flooding once in a hundred years [are seeing] flooding happening every two years, and they’re not having time to recover. Governments are asking us [for] strategies to help build back a better city. Our suggestions are that the cities that you want to build back are not the cities that will serve you. 

We were in Beira, Mozambique, a city where the Portuguese left the community there with nothing. Last year [they were] hit by a hurricane that destroyed 90% of the housing, but the government wants money to build back new wastewater treatment plants [while] the community [are] saying “we don’t have enough food to eat.” They have certain types of farming practices that are being displaced by the government. There’s knowledge that has been passed down for generations—how to farm that particular landscape, that particular soil with that particular climate cycle. If that was where the government was putting their money to think about how to fight climate change and make a more resilient community, that would make a difference.

Benally: One of the underlying challenges we have is that current colonial mindsets in values are rooted in a linear sense of time and being. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. But Indigenous belief systems are cyclical. We’ve been through many worlds before that have been destroyed because of the actions of our people. We have prophecies, medicine, ceremonies, we have ways of healing and teachings. This is why our two-spirit, queer, trans relatives have been so vilified and demonized—because they are healers. They have been the first to be attacked in our communities by colonial violence because of their power. 

To me, the solution is about bringing things back into that cyclical understanding that we are part of life cycles, that interconnected activity that we have, that some people will call biodiversity. We call it K’e, which is our familial clan relationships that are also interrelational with our whole cosmology, with non-human beings as well as our environment. 

I appreciate the radical excitement with movements like Extinction Rebellion, but the moment you’re going to say we need to turn ourselves into the cops, or we need to collaborate with these levels of reforms and be polite and respect the state—I think the time for politeness is over, especially when Black and Brown bodies are piling up because of ongoing environmental racism.

“The biggest part of the solution is for the global climate justice movement to get behind or beside Indigenous people.”

Our people are more susceptible to coronavirus: on the Navajo nation, we’re the third highest [infection] rate of cases per capita [after New York and New Jersey], compared to the so-called United States. In some ways it’s because of the disproportionate impacts that are enhanced during these kinds of crises based upon the attacks on our immune systems. Our tribal council was set up in 1923 specifically to facilitate resource colonialism, and the coal fired power plants, the methane cloud that’s the size of Delaware hanging over the Four Corners area because of fracking and so forth. We have communities with no running water, no electricity, about 30% of our res. But that’s not because we’re bad at capitalism. It’s because we’ve been attacked by capitalism. 

We’ve been resisting the war [against Mother Earth]. That’s why we’re still here. Our elder matriarchs, the Diné matriarchs up in Big mountain, who had been fighting Peabody coal company, which previously had operated one of the largest strip mines in the world on Black Mesa, have been facing forced relocation. More than 20,000 of our people had been forcibly relocated because of the coal mining geopolitics in this area. 

We are the frontline defense as Indigenous people to defend the land. The biggest part of the solution is for the global climate justice movement to get behind or beside Indigenous people and… uphold empower and center Indigenous ways of being.

Dinéyazhi: How do we go forward with dismantling some of these structures while also simultaneously protecting Indigenous queer, trans, two-spirit, non-binary, matriarchal communities, if often they are the ones who are the most victimized, through the introduction of colonization in the Americas? These communities were the first who were murdered, the first who disappeared, who were scrutinized and shamed. 

I think that is central to this longer fight as well—how do we protect one another? 

“My work is challenging the forefront of a profession that doesn’t realize that they might be exacerbating a colonial framework.”

Could we talk about the work that each of you are doing to disrupt these systems?

Watson: A lot of my work now is just speaking about the teachings of the book. Trying to push my profession to start to understand. Especially with the climate resilience movement in my profession—there are teams from around the world going into countries to help assist with the effects of climate change, and there’s a systematic movement of displacing community and knowledge that are already in existence. This perpetuated idea of bringing in a team from another country that has a more superior understanding of how to deal with development is being disproved, especially in Pacific Island communities around the world who are at the frontline of dealing with sea level rise and storm surge. My work is challenging the forefront of a profession that doesn’t realize that they might be exacerbating a colonial framework that will not benefit the communities that they’re working with, and will not benefit us as a global community.

Three duo-tone yellow and blue posters with writing overlaying images hung on a red gallery wall
R.I.S.E, A Nation is a Massacre exhibition at Pioneer Works

Dinéyazhi: The whole work of R.I.S.E. came from my undergraduate at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. A lot of the inspiration and initial framework came from feeling so displaced and not represented within art history books and institutionalized spaces.

R.I.S.E. created an opportunity for me to figure out ways that I could feel supported and also support others who were asking themselves similar questions about what it means to be an Indigenous person who isn’t necessarily an elder, but isn’t a youth either.

I was asking these questions about what [it looks] like to embrace ideas of what is considered traditional and what is considered progressive or forward thinking. How do we take what we understand to be traditional through ceremonial practices and creation stories, while also realizing that [as] Indigenous people, we’re intelligent, sexual, amazing beings who are actively evolving and constructing creation stories? I see the work that R.I.S.E. does as continually asking those questions and figuring out how we move forward with traditional knowledges that serve us as Indigenous people. 

We [don’t] take on an apologetic tone, [or] a tone that is necessarily finite…. [or] incapable of being changed. That’s the difference between Indigenous philosophies and settler-colonial logic—there’s always this perspective or standpoint that anything we say or believe in is reflective of our entire philosophy. We are allowed to change and certainly throughout any sort of political framework, there has been a lot of shifting in the ways that we see social struggles and challenges. 

We’re also invested in figuring out ways to support Indigenous communities at the same time, and that has resulted in us starting up this fellowship for artists and poets, on an annual basis that supports the work of Indigenous two-spirit, trans, gender nonconforming, and non-binary artists. A lot of our work also works in infiltrating our institutional spaces and showing what all-Indigenous curation or all-Indigenous programming looks like from an Indigenous perspective led by Indigenous people. A lot of the times these institutional spaces aren’t invested in that, or it’s all white female curators who are doing that work. Their perspective and their word is undervalued, [but] it also perpetuates this romanticization of Indigenous peoples. 

“We don’t want a white settler critique of settler colonialism or decolonization.”

What I love about R.I.S.E. and about Indigenous Action, is this way that both of you distribute information in a really engaging, accessible way. For example, with Klee’s zines, which teach the history of colonization. Is there a particular piece of work that’s resonated with you that you wanted to speak about? 

Dinéyazhi: Two years ago, we were in the process of mounting this exhibition called A Nation is a Massacre in Brooklyn at Pioneer Works. R.I.S.E. has mostly curated small press publications and hadn’t really had an opportunity to focus on what an exhibition would look like if it was just to be concentrated on our own work. This came out of conversations that were happening and activism surrounding mass shootings and gun violence. We created a lot of these text-based images on Instagram stories that were a red background with white text, [saying] things that would remind people that the largest mass shootings were actually through settler colonialism. Wounded Knee was a massacre. There was this conversation about the “largest mass shooting in history,” but it was excluding the waves of colonial violence against Indigenous peoples… through genocidal conquest.

We have a pretty recognizable aesthetic from the ways that we steal and subvert graphics. When we utilize images, we’ll just pull them off of the internet. And we think of that whole process as stealing—we can also talk about it as reclaiming and recontextualizing and subverting. When I was [researching] in my undergrad, I realized that a lot of the tactics of defense by Navajos and Diné people back in the day was [around] raiding camps and stealing equipment from the U.S. Cavalry. So I think of going into the internet and stealing images of Kevin Costner as a continuation of that legacy. Like raiding the supplies in order to get what we need to spread messages and awareness about how the white savior industrial complex is fucked up for us as Indigenous peoples. So a lot of those images were taken off the internet and recontextualized with text. 

There was one large scale print that was a recontextualized Indigenous version of Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President,” but we had changed all the wording to say we don’t want a president. We don’t want tribal presidents, [or] representation from a colonial government that doesn’t ask for consent. We don’t want a white settler critique of settler colonialism or decolonization—all of these things need to be happening from an Indigenous standpoint, from a Black standpoint, from a Brown standpoint, Asian and Pacific Islander perspective.

Benally: With Indigenous Action and some of our organizing here, we have a community space which is a direct action resource center and we focus on conflict infrastructure. So a lot of our propaganda isn’t just symbolic, it’s actually exemplary. And we support a diversity of tactics. So we’ll organize events, like Liberate Earth Day. Initially it was challenging the superficial “change your light bulb” solutions and promoting Indigenous food sovereignty, intervening in settler colonial spaces, through design—banner drops, propaganda, leaflets, zines. A rally point to capture people’s imaginations and inspire them to action. 

Part of the issue here is… colonization is war. If we’re not organizing our tactics and strategies to address that, then almost anything is going to continue to fall short and reinforce the perpetuation of those systems that are destroying our ways of being. So we organize direct actions, we intervene with our bodies, we intervene with design. We disrupt the underlying assumptions through intervening and narratives, which is very powerful and part of the spiritual work, because it’s not just a physical war but a spiritual war. 

Today is the national day to honor and recognize missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit and trans relatives, so we have a piece [called] ‘Violence against the land is violence against our bodies’… We also did a piece a while back that said ‘climate justice means anti-colonial’ struggle. We had a companion zine and we use that specifically to intervene and reinforce disruptions in the reformist neo-liberal agendas of the climate industrial movement as well. This is conflict and we need to come at it from that perspective deeply, meaningfully and with the full force that is Indigenous autonomy, which is a force of nature.