An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2018

Critical Investigations of Resilience: A Brief Introduction to Indigenous Environmental Studies & Sciences

Kyle Whyte
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Indigenous peoples are among the most active environmentalists in the world, working through advocacy, educational programs, and research. The emerging field of Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences (IESS) is distinctive, investigating social resilience to environmental change through the research lens of how moral relationships are organized in societies. Examples of IESS research across three moral relationships are discussed here: responsibility, spirituality, and justice. IESS develops insights on resilience that can support Indigenous peoples' struggles with environmental justice and political reconciliation; makes significant contributions to global discussions about the relationship between human behavior and the environment; and speaks directly to Indigenous liberation as well as justice issues impacting everyone.

KYLE WHYTE is the Timnick Chair in the Humanities, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Professor of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. His research addresses moral and political issues concerning climate policy and Indigenous peoples, the ethics of cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and science organizations, and problems of Indigenous justice in public and academic discussions of food sovereignty, environmental justice, and the anthropocene. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

One telling of Anishinaabe/Neshnabé (Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi) history emphasizes how our peoples have always found ways to adapt to the dynamics of ecosystems.1  Our ancient migration story describes our ancestors moving from the Atlantic Coastal region to the Great Lakes, learning how to adjust to the diverse ecosystems along the route, memorializing these places through stories, and keeping lessons learned for future generations. Knowledge Keeper and Grandmother Sherry Copenace describes one dimension of the concept of bimaadiziwin (the good life) as a society’s or nation’s capacity to respond best to the challenges it faces.2  Academic environmental studies and sciences have recently developed the related idea of social resilience: a society’s capacity to learn from and adapt to the dynamics of ecosystems in ways that avoid preventable harms, promote the flourishing of all human and nonhuman lives, and generate wisdom to sustain future generations .  .  .


  • 1Anishinaabe will be used as shorthand for the diversity of spellings, including but not limited to Neshnabé. Future references to words in this language will include a secondary spelling option.
  • 2Author conversation with Sherry Copenace, July 7, 2017.