Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Who sets the environmental agenda in Indian Country? Mapping information flows and identifying missed opportunities for sovereignty in storytelling

Ryan Comfort's picture
Comfort, Ryan
Category of presentation: 
Scholarly papers

As indigenous people continue to reaffirm their sovereign rights to manage the ecosystems and natural resources of their original lands (Wilkinson, 2005), they will have to consider strategies for managing the human dimensions of environmental issues.  With many environmental and resource issues extending beyond physical, cultural, and political boundaries, and with many indigenous nations sharing similar challenges at local, national, and global scales (Brondizio & Moran, 2008), the use of media communications to share stories, gather support, sway opinion, and influence behaviors affecting indigenous environmental issues will become increasingly important to indigenous resource managers.  Furthermore, the growing diaspora of indigenous people -- in the United States, 78% of people who identify as Native American live away from their traditional territories (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012) -- means that more citizens of indigenous nations might be relying on mass communication media or other mediated communication platforms to learn about environmental issues affecting their traditional lands.  Media communications already play a key role in connecting indigenous people around the globe (Alia, 2010), but relatively little is known about how indigenous people living away from their traditional lands learn about environmental issues, which types of media are involved and to what extent if at all, or how indigenous people respond when they encounter media narratives about indigenous environmental issues.  

In this pilot study, a short series of semi-structured interviews with Native American people living away from their tribal communities was conducted with the purpose of exploring their perceptions of salient environmental issues, the role of media in learning about environmental issues locally, nationally, and globally, and their perceptions of visual media narratives about indigenous environmental issues.  Video elicitation methodology was also used to facilitate recall of other indigenous environmental narratives.  A qualitative analysis of the data revealed several that issues of water quality and contamination were prominent across all interviews, while other issues were largely determined by participants’ local indigenous ecosystems and resources.  Facebook seemed to be a primary site of obtaining environmental information through both mediated interpersonal interactions that conveyed knowledge about locally specific issues and by the dissemination of mainstream media stories, particularly about the Dakota Access Pipeline and water issues affecting the Standing Rock community.  However, knowledge about how subjects’ own indigenous nations were managing environmental issues of concern was low along with knowledge about the issues affecting other indigenous nations, suggesting a gap in environmental information networks that indigenous environmental managers may benefit from filling.