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Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an adjunct professor of American Indian Studies at Cal State University San Marcos. Courtesy photo
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CSUSM professor probes environmental impacts on Native Americans in new book

Photo above: Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an adjunct professor of American Indian Studies at Cal State University San Marcos. Courtesy photo


Dina Gilio-Whitaker, an adjunct professor of American Indian Studies at Cal State University San Marcos, has released a new book on the history of environmental justice through a Native American lens.

In “As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock,” she argues that the history of environmental impacts on the native population of the U.S. coincides with colonial expansion and displacement.

Gilio-Whitaker outlined some of the arguments, read passages from the book and fielded questions at an April 23 event at CSUSM’s Kellogg Library.

During the talk — convened by the American Indian Student Alliance, California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center and the American Indian Studies Department — Gilio-Whitaker said she hopes her research reframes how the public discusses environmental justice issues as they relate to Native Americans. Specifically, she has argued for a scholarly framework called “indigenized environmental justice.”

“What I mean by that is that environmental justice theory and frameworks need to … expand beyond the concept of racism,” she said. “It needs to acknowledge the history of colonization as a historical process of dispossession of native peoples and their lands in order to understand the way native people are still fighting these battles.”

A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes, Gilio-Whitaker commutes to teach at CSUSM from her home in San Clemente. She also works as the policy director and senior researcher at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and runs a consulting firm, DGW Consulting.

Her 165-page book begins at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s monthslong encampment set up in 2016 to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The pipeline passes through the tribe’s drinking water under both Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, and those who opposed the project called themselves Water Protectors.

Gilio-Whitaker wrote that she chose that example, in particular, because it highlighted the historical and social dynamics she would explore throughout the rest of her book.

Dakota Access started “from the assumption that colonization was not just a process of invasion and eventual domination of Indigenous populations … but also that the eliminatory impulse and structure it created in actuality began as environmental injustice,” she wrote. “Seen in this light, settler colonialism itself is for Indigenous peoples a structure of environmental injustice.”

Beyond a detailed focus on the role the U.S. government has played in what she has described as the “environmental deprivation” of its native population, Gilio-Whitaker also focuses her lens on a lesser known history of the U.S. environmental conservation movement.

That movement, she writes in the book, has roots in dispossessing land once occupied by indigenous populations. In particular, she argues, the creation of the U.S. national parks system has roots in that dispossession.

“The national park system has long been lauded as ‘America’s greatest idea,’ but only relatively recently has it begun to be more deeply questioned,” she explained, pointing to the work of scholar Mark David Spence. “(T)he first so-called wilderness areas that had been deemed in need of preserving were not only and in actuality Indigenous-occupied landscapes when the first national parks were established, but also that an uninhabited wilderness had to first be created.”

Gilio-Whitaker said that she believes non-Native individuals in the U.S. must develop an awareness of “settler privilege” that they possess. She said so in paying homage to the famous scholarly essay arguing that “white privilege” exists, by scholar Peggy McIntosh.

“What does white privilege look like through the lens of settler-colonialism?” Gilio-Whitaker asked rhetorically in explaining the concept. “It looks like settler privilege. But what is settler privilege? What that infers is that it’s always about — land.”

Gilio-Whitaker said she already has another book in the works that further grapples with the “settler privilege” argument. She also recently authored a chapter in the 2017 book The Critical Surfer Reader, titled “Appropriating Surfing and the Politics of Indigenous Authenticity.” In 2016 she co-authored the book, “All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.”