Kayla DeVault Interview

Interview on May 19, 2016 with:

Kayla DeVault

1) How do you see indigenous youth acting “holistically, and proactively” around climate change?

The thing about climate change, especially here in the southwest, is it’s sometimes hard to see what’s actually changing.  Drought, for example, is not a new local phenomenon, so what we have to question is the intensity, duration, and cause of those patterns.  On a global scale, it’s undeniable that atmospheric temperature and composition changes are affecting coral populations up to arctic permafrost.  What is special about indigenous youth is that many of us grow up hearing elders talk about tradition and their ways of life.  They talk about how that way is changing, but it’s not always changing because of changes in government, lifestyles, or even the things we are eating.  It’s also changing because indigenous people have a unique epistemological understanding of the natural world that their culture is so intimately intertwined with. 

I think the cultural backdrop to how climate change affects the identity of indigenous youth adds a special element of urgency to it, a need to be proactive.  Understanding climate change as an assault on cultural resources as well as on the well-being of Mother Earth as a whole makes conceiving the issue as a holistic one an easier process.  The greatest challenge for our youth today is how to “walk both worlds,” or live with “one foot in each canoe.”  What we mean by this is that we are dual citizens in every sense: we possess citizenship cards with our tribes as well as our national citizenship, we are told to learn our tribal languages as well as English, and we must learn our traditions and ceremonies while also being told to get a college education in Western society.  It is the indigenous youth of today who are bridging the gap between traditional knowledge and formal education, and we must learn to use the tools from both experiences to effectively and holistically communicate our concerns about preserving our cultures as well as the planet for all of its inhabitants.

2) How old are you, and when did you first become active around social justice issues?

I just turned 26 last month.  I started becoming active in social justice issues when I began my undergraduate degree at 18.  I actually was never much of a “humanitarian” before college.  My grandmother was a story teller and the founder of numerous environmental societies, so growing up the focus was always on environmental education, preserving native species, and keeping rivers free of acid mine drainage.  I also volunteered frequently at shelters, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and bioforrays.  I guess I used to think the planet was a priority over the people since it was the people who were letting the planet suffer.  Going to college kind of transitioned me to see differently and to meet people from other parts of the world.  I got to study abroad on several continents and interview people from all walks of life.  I came to realize that environmental justice and social justice are of the same thread.  I also came to realize that farmers in India, for example, who do no have the modern luxuries many others have, are being hit hard by the effects of climate change – effects that are being caused by those same others because of their said luxuries (cars, electricity, heating, industrialized farming, etc.)…  I began seeing environmental justice in a different light then. 

At the same time, I was volunteering with Engineers Without Borders.  My trip to India exposed me to different approaches of “community development.”  The whole time I had been working in Cameroon, I had this uneasy feeling about the wells we were installing and the disconnect between my project team and the villagers.  During one implementation, we visited another project in the same region of Cameroon only to find the well had already failed after two months of closing the project.  The people were back to using the contaminated well they had used before.  Many of my team members seemed angered by this.  I realized then that many NGOs strive to insert Western technology to “improve” the lives of people they think live a less fortunate life.  Yet these villagers have a culture and a way of life they’ve survived on for thousands of years.  Taking care of a new technology was a change to their way of life that, when they failed to keep up with it, just meant they went back to life as they knew it. 

I realized then that the Western definition of “poverty” is not a uniform global definition.  (In fact, many Navajo elders say “poverty” is when you have no family and that money is useless to them.)  We have to be careful in how we “help” people because not everyone wants to adopt the culture and way of life that we think is best.  Imposing our beliefs in this way is one form of modern colonization.  When I started seeing this cultural element in working with indigenous communities, suddenly connections between the social, environmental, cultural, and economic all became clear and fascinating.

3) What motivates your work as an engineer? How do you link engineering and climate work?

Although I practice as a Civil Engineer, my background is in Geo-Environmental Engineering.  I went into Environmental Engineering because I was interested in things like green architecture, biomimicry, and even rooftop gardening.  Throughout my undergraduate, I participated in a number of design challenges where I got to blend engineering with environmental concerns.  I competed in a sustainable laptop prototype design for Saint Gobain, a green building redesign for ThinkBox at my University, and a stormwater management campus design for EPA RainWorks.  I also did work study programs, including working on the organic Farm-to-Fork program while doing alternative energy feasibility studies for the campus farms.  When I was offered to assist my advisor Professor Aaron A. Jennings in conducting research on brownfield remediation standards on American Indian reservations, I was inspired by his persistence to add all federally-recognized tribes to his global database of the world’s nations.  I suddenly saw how many nations lacked environmental monitoring programs and I realized the importance of bringing my education back to my tribal roots. 

After one of my engineering courses where I studied atmospheric chemical reactions and collected coral reef data in the Bahamas, I saw how important data collection is to monitoring and interpreting environmental shifts, especially in regards to climate change.  And, much like my views on working with indigenous communities, I began to see how holistic and inter-related climate change activities in the biosphere are.  You can’t separate one element from another: they all move together. 

Currently, my community is attempting to use engineering to address local issues, including climate change.  We are building a program called “Dine Bida’ak’eh,” or “the People’s garden,” which will have a weather/solar monitoring station as well as crop yield and water use data.  On the side, we give presentations about composting and soil science, food sovereignty topics, and even how climate change and overgrazing affects our vegetation, forest fires, dust storms, watersheds, and even the early melting of snow packs on the sacred mountains.

4) What do you think about how the mainstream climate movement interacts and works with indigenous communities?

I think it used to be lacking severely, but now the importance of interacting with indigenous communities has been realized.  Probably the most powerful stories I hear come from my Native Alaskan friends.  One friend in particular, her traditional village will be completely underwater within 50 years.  Her tribe has inhabited that area for thousands of years, so these changes will wash away much more than just a place to live.  She has been invited to work with other Arctic countries such as Russia to be proactive about climate change on a global scale.  The United Nations has not only been pressuring the implementation of UNDRIP across the planet, but it has also been reaching out to indigenous groups on climate change topics. 

Meanwhile, among indigenous groups themselves, I hear more and more emphasis on the need to unite.  An increasing number of global conferences have been reeling in tribal members from all continents to discuss all kinds of rights, including the right to healthy, traditional land bases and resources.  It is encouraging to see many outside organizations not only take notice of the indigenous communities and their fight, but to also acknowledge the need to respect cultural customs, values, and perspectives in tackling such issues.  Next week, I will be traveling to Nicaragua to work with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice to do just that: Immerse in an indigenous community, hear their concerns about local climate change and coffee farming, and then work alongside them.


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