Land-Based Education

Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete’s (1994) foundational work on indigenous education asserts that indigenous teachings are “among the oldest continuing expressions of ‘environmental’ education in the world” (21). It follows that his ideas for indigenous education have revolved around what are now referred to as ecological processes and patterns. Cajete’s vision of indigenous education is premised on three main needs: “1) Native education informed by Native thought; 2) Alternative approaches to how education is done; and 3) A synthesis of disciplines about Indians to contribute to ecologically-based, Indigenously-inspired curriculum” (ibid.). His work is a response to the historical imposition of Western education through assimilation policies (Lomawaima and McCarty 2006), and the dispossession of Native peoples from the land through forced removal and/or capitalist incorporation (White 1983), all of which had drastic implications for indigenous cultural continuity. Although indigenous education has flourished within Native American and Ethnic Studies programs and departments in the United States and Canada since the late 1960s (Champagne and Stauss 2002), many indigenous communities still lack programs that center land-based indigenous knowledge. Vine Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux) and Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee/Yuchee) phrased this as a need for continuing indigenous “experiential systems of learning” that center community and place, in addition to individual growth (Deloria and Wildcat 2001: 10; see also Cajete 2015; Grande 2015).

Many American Indian nations are finding that fostering renewed relationships to land through culturally tailored, land-based education programs holds promising results for reversing the cultural loss experienced by past generations (Aldern and Goode 2014; Alfred 2014; Ballantyne 2014; Radu et al. 2014; Simpson 2014). This recent outpouring of indigenous land-based education efforts marks both a critical shift in approaches to cultural revitalization and a reaction to the diminishing state of indigenous environmental knowledge throughout Native communities. The approach distinguishes itself from other models of environmental education by emphasizing tribal relationships to land as the foundation for instruction (Simpson 2014), and by centering the well-being and future integrity of indigenous nations (Bang et al. 2014; Tuck et al. 2014). Indigenous land education proponents assert that since colonialism dispossessed Native people from the land and sought to assimilate them into Western ways of life, reversing this process requires that indigenous people reconnect with the land and reinvigorate land-based knowledge (Wildcat et al. 2014). Doing so mends severed sacred relationships between indigenous people and nonhuman beings (including plants, animals, landforms, and spirits), and restores traditional practices that embody foundational ethics, values, and teachings (Ballantyne 2014; Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014). Language revitalization is a key component of indigenous land education due to the place-based nature of many Native languages (Bang et al. 2014).

Key to perpetuating Cherokee environmental knowledge is the ability to adapt this knowledge to impending effects of climate change mentioned above. Although Oklahoma Cherokees have had to adapt their environmental knowledge from the southeastern homelands to the lands they now inhabit west of the Mississippi River (see Carroll 2015), conditions in this era of profound climate change call for more innovative and informed strategies for maintaining and preserving indigenous knowledge, subsistence-based practices, and relationships to land. Land education can be vital to such adaptation strategies. For example, indigenous phenological knowledge, or knowledge of the timing of events like flowering or migration in the annual life cycles of plants and animals and how these are influenced by climate and other factors, can provide a foundation for culturally appropriate tribal adaptation planning (Turner and Clifton 2009; Green et al. 2010; Lefale 2010; Cochran et al. 2013; Leonard et al. 2013). Ultimately, what some scholars have termed “two-eyed seeing” (Bartlett et al. 2012; Martin 2012), or the merger of indigenous and mainstream knowledges within science educational curricula, expresses the goals of indigenous environmental education and adaptation within a changing climate regime, and holds implications for diversifying sustainability science methods (Johnson et al. 2016).


Aldern, J. D., & Goode, R. W. (2014). The stories hold water: Learning and burning in North Fork Mono homelands. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 26-51.

Ballantyne, E. F. (2014). Dechinta Bush University: Mobilizing a knowledge economy of reciprocity, resurgence and decolonization. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 67-85.

Bang, M., Curley, L., Kessel, A., Marin, A., Suzukovich III, E. S., & Strack, G. (2014). Muskrat theories, tobacco in the streets, and living Chicago as Indigenous land. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 37-55.

Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2012). Two-eyed seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together Indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2(4), 331-340.

Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indian Education. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.

Cajete, G. (2015). Indigenous Community: Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.

Carroll, C. (2015). Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Champagne, D., & Stauss, J. (Eds.). (2002). Native American Studies in Higher Education: Models for Collaboration between Universities and Indigenous Nations. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Cochran, P., Huntington, O. H., Pungowiyi, C., Tom, S., Chapin III, F. S., Huntington, H. P. et al. (2013). Indigenous frameworks for observing and responding to climate change in Alaska. Climatic Change, 120(3), 557-567.

Coulthard, G. S. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deloria Jr, V., & Wildcat, D. R. (2001). Power and Place: Indian Education in America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Press.

Grande, S. (2015). Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (10th edition ed.). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Green, D., Billy, J., & Tapim, A. (2010). Indigenous Australians knowledge of weather and climate. Climatic Change, 100(2), 337-354.

Johnson, J. T., Howitt, R., Cajete, G., Berkes, F., Louis, R. P., & Kliskey, A. (2016). Weaving Indigenous and sustainability sciences to diversify our methods. Sustainability Science, 11(1), 1-11.

Lefale, P. F. (2010). Ua ‘afa le Aso Stormy weather today: Traditional ecological knowledge of weather and climate. The Samoa experience. Climatic Change, 100(2), 317-335.

Leonard, S., Parsons, M., Olawsky, K., & Kofod, F. (2013). The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: Insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Global Environmental Change, 23(3), 623-632.

Lomawaima, K. T., & McCarty, T. L. (2006). To Remain an Indian: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Martin, D. H. (2012). Two-eyed seeing: a framework for understanding Indigenous and non-Indigenous approaches to Indigenous health research. CJNR (Canadian Journal of Nursing Research), 44(2), 20-42.

Radu, I., House, L. L. M., & Pashagumskum, E. (2014). Land, life, and knowledge in Chisasibi: Intergenerational healing in the bush. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 86-105.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1-25.

Tuck, E., McKenzie, M., & McCoy, K. (2014). Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 1-23.

Turner, N. J., & Clifton, H. (2009). “It’s so different today”: Climate change and Indigenous lifeways in British Columbia, Canada. Global Environmental Change, 19(2), 180-190.

White, R. (1983). The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wildcat, M., McDonald, M., Irlbacher-Fox, S., & Coulthard, G. (2014). Learning from the land: Indigenous land based pedagogy and decolonization. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), i-xv.