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Whose Sustainable World? Choosing Hope in Creating a Sustainable World with Indigenous Populations

The relationship we have with our environment helps us to define our view of a sustainable world. When we set about creating a sustainable world the first thing we must consider is whose world? In the world of indigenous people sustainability truly is survival. The people sense an urgency to keep in existence all that is traditional around them.

Yu’pik elders teach young people to use one’s eyes to be observant, observe in order to understand the things around you and that “all ways of knowing your surroundings come from being observant.” For example, the elders say that on the hillocks in the tundra the direction in which the grass freezes is the direction in which the wind blows. They say that by observing this you can find your way even in a blizzard. The rapid change in the surroundings of Yu’pik young people has altered their observations of the world. An elder noted that the pouches once used by young people to hold tobacco are now used to hold cell phones. As is the case for many indigenous cultures, a dramatically changing environment threatens the sustainability of Yu’pik life ways and a world is at risk.

In public service how can we assist in creating a sustainable world for people whose environment and way of being is so threatened? The erosion of language, the disappearance of traditional practices, the deterioration of health and the despair that accompany these are enormous and heart wrenching challenges. Yet these are the conditions we face every day in the delivery of services at the interface of government and indigenous people.

The truth is this: everyday we have a choice. We can resign our self to the role of holding the hand of a dying patient or we can be a purveyor of hope. We can choose to become mired in the despair that confronts us, we can choose to ignore it or we can choose to work with others to create a more sustainable world for current and future generations.

Here are ways we can work with indigenous populations to create sustainability:

Be observant. Listen to what the elders shared; observe in order to understand the things around you. What are the traditional responsibilities of those you work with in the villages and communities? What are the social challenges people face daily? How do these responsibilities and challenges connect or conflict with the service you provide?

Acknowledge others. We can never truly know what those of another culture feel. However, we can begin to know how others relate to their environment and where others perceive harm in our work. When we acknowledge people’s fears we show empathy, and it is here where we can find a place in the lives of others. Sometimes what people need most is to be acknowledged.

Extend yourself. Suspend your position description and mission statement. Replace “that is not my job” with “let me find out for you.” In my life the most compelling acknowledgement I’ve ever received is, “this is Joe Sarcone, he tried hard for us.”

Do what you say you will do. This may sound as if it goes without saying, but it is the key to trust. And trust is the starting point in working with others to build the capacity needed to achieve sustainability.

We are taught that the environment is everything around us. This is the place from which we view the world and measure our capacity to make our world a more sustainable place. The world of many indigenous peoples is quickly slipping away and the need to create a more stable and sustainable world is urgent. What we must know is that sustainability is born of hope, the hope that we can exist in a better world now and into the future. If we are ever to find a role for ourselves in working with indigenous people to create a more sustainable world we must choose hope.


Author: Joe Sarcone is a regular contributor to PA TIMES online and his most recent commentary was “I Will Think of You Everyday,” on Acknowledging Sacrifice.


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