2022-2023 Radcliffe Institute Scholar Emil ‘Keme discussed indigenous Yanomami attitudes toward the Amazon rainforest and approaches to environmental conservation at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study event on Wednesday afternoon.
In his virtual presentation, Keme – professor of English at Emory University and Indigenous K’iche’ Maya scholar and activist – described the role that ancestral Indigenous values play in the relationship between humans and the environment. Keme urged the public to consider Yanomami teachings in their efforts to tackle environmental issues.
He described the need for a collective effort to preserve and enhance the environment.
“I try to highlight this specific relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and why it is important for us to defend it,” Keme said. “We are fighting to defend Mother Earth, but it is not just an indigenous struggle, it is a struggle that must involve all of us.”
Keme based his setting on “The Falling Sky”, a biographical account by Yanomami elder Davi Kopenawa of indigenous experiences in the Brazilian and Venezuelan rainforest and environmental ethics.
During his speech, Keme presented data from the World Bank which shows that indigenous peoples protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite making up only 5% of the population.
“Well, how do the native people do that?” Keme asked. “You’re going to find that we put our bodies on the streets to defend the sacred, to defend Mother Earth.”
He also cited the Idle No More movement launched in Canada, which opposes the exploitation of natural resources on the lands of First Nations indigenous peoples.
As a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Keme works to analyze Indigenous efforts for self-determination in Abiayala, the Indigenous term for the American continents.
Through his research and fellowship, Keme said he hopes to raise awareness of Indigenous protection efforts and learn as much as possible from local Indigenous organizations and leaders.
“The reason I’m here to work on this project on Abayala is because I feel like the indigenous communities in the south and the north are so disconnected,” he said. “We don’t know each other very well, and we really need to learn from each other in order to build bridges that can lead us to potential alliances.”
Keme identified a lack of societal awareness of Indigenous peoples, citing his students’ inability to name Indigenous performers and performers.
“’Tell me about indigenous artists.’ Complete silence,” he said. “It’s just that knowledge is so absent and so necessary.”
“We offer this wisdom which hopefully can help us better understand our relationship with the environment,” he added.
Despite the obstacles, Keme said he has a positive vision for the future of environmental and Indigenous activism.
“A lot of people have this dystopian view of the future,” he said. “Even though we are critical of settler colonialism, we are very optimistic that we will overcome many of the challenges we face.”
Keme closed the conference by calling on the audience to apply indigenous perspectives in environmental protection efforts.
“See how you can connect and support these communities because we don’t expect anything from the government – so it has to be on us,” he said.
“Usually the messages given to us by indigenous leaders are ‘no matter what happens to us, you have to keep fighting,'” Keme added.