The Media Today

Q&A: Joseph Lee on ‘Indigenous knowledge’ and covering adaptation to extreme weather 

July 10, 2024
The Kuskokwim River in Alaska. Photo courtesy Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee, an author and freelance journalist, is a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. In January, while researching a forthcoming book on Native identity and sovereignty, he visited Alaska and noticed that, at twenty degrees Fahrenheit, it was cold, but not of the bone-chilling kind one might expect deep into an Arctic winter. Much warmer than historical averages, the conditions got Lee thinking about the consequences of a warming planet and the necessary adaptations that Indigenous locals might need to make in order to survive changes to their environment. 

Lee’s curiosity brought him to Bethel, Alaska, the largest city in the western boroughs of the state, which is reachable only by plane or along the Kuskokwim River. In addition to travel—snow machines on the winter ice; boats in summer after the thaw—the river is the primary resource for the sustenance-based economy and lifestyle of the area. As temperatures rise, the ice melts earlier and conditions remain unpredictable for longer periods of the year. This predominantly affects salmon fishing, but there are other concerns, too. A few years ago, the town took an unexpected yet practical step toward protecting its people: it built a swimming pool and started to offer swim lessons. 

Humble adaptations like this one form the core of “Changing with Our Climate,” a five-part series for Vox exploring “Indigenous solutions to extreme weather rooted in history—and the future.” Paige Vega, Lee’s editor at Vox, wrote in an introduction that “there is no easy fix for our planet” but that “some of our most effective solutions are the simplest.” In addition to Bethel’s swimming lessons, Lee is covering prescriptive burning in fire-prone regions, the building of resilient housing within storm trajectories, and 3D mapping to source clean water, in Indigenous communities from California to Guatemala. “Not everybody’s dealing with melting ice on the river or 130-degree temperatures,” Lee told me recently. “But hopefully this approach to climate adaptation can be interesting or useful, or at the very least something to think about.”

With a hundred and forty million Americans under extreme-heat advisories this week, sixty-nine fires burning more than half a million acres in various parts of the country, and a hurricane slamming into South Texas in July, foregrounding immediate and practical climate solutions is perhaps more urgent than ever. In doing so, journalists must respect the Indigenous sources of many such solutions, but without essentializing or mystifying them. Last week, I spoke with Lee about reporting on climate adaptation, what “Indigenous knowledge” actually means, and how to avoid stereotypes when reporting on Indigenous stories. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Joseph Lee. Courtesy photo.

KL: Tell me more about “Changing with Our Climate.”

JL: Vox had this vision for doing something on extreme weather for this rough summer period. I had an idea to look at Indigenous people and climate change through different types of extreme weather—whether that’s heat, storms, or fire—and at how they are responding, as well as what’s standing in the way of them being able to do what they’re trying to do, and how they are figuring some of those things out, whether that’s historical inequities and issues or current policies. 

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Often, when climate change solutions are offered, the conversation devolves into a debate about policy or the significance of the effects. Would you say that, for the series, you were seeking to highlight the straightforward solutions that Indigenous people are using to survive on our changing planet? 

The point of this series isn’t to say that there aren’t those big structural issues. There are big policy conversations that need to be had and big-picture solutions that are out there. One of the places I’m coming from with this is that in climate journalism now, we hear a lot about how Indigenous people are on the front lines of the climate crisis. We’re hearing that Indigenous land stewardship is a good thing; we’re hearing about “Indigenous knowledge” or “traditional ecological knowledge.” Those terms are out there now, but there’s not a ton of specificity about what they actually mean. What I’m hoping to do with this series is to answer, What do those things actually mean? What do they look like? What I’ve found is that a lot of those answers are in smaller places than national policy conversations. But small is relative: that could be one person, a tribe, a collaboration between tribes having an initiative. For most people, they’re not living those big-picture policies in a day-to-day way. Especially for Indigenous people, a lot of the stuff that is starting to creep into national awareness is things that they’ve been doing or trying to do for a long time. 

Native knowledge, wisdom, or history is often framed as mystical. Can you talk about that trope and how you wanted to make sure that it wasn’t present when discussing Indigenous solutions to climate change? 

Obviously, there’s a long history of stereotypes and misrepresentation with Indigenous communities and people. In some ways, how we talk about Indigenous wisdom, Indigenous knowledge, or traditional ecological knowledge is a new version of that. People are now aware of those terms—they are coming up in policy decisions, laws even—but I don’t think people have a full understanding or even a willingness to engage with the complexity of what that looks like. One of the things that we’ve talked about with this series is that traditional knowledge, for example, does not mean, A community did something this way a thousand years ago and traditional knowledge means we have to get back to that. That community a thousand years ago was adapting every year to their circumstances, just as Indigenous people are continuing to adapt to their circumstances, whether that’s climate change or colonialism. Built into those concepts, Indigenous knowledge and wisdom is essentially what we would now call adaptation. One of the series’ goals is to go deep into that and show what adaptation looks like. When people think about Indigenous knowledge, they may think about it in this stereotypical, mystical, mythological, super-sacred way—that’s not to say that there aren’t sacred elements to Indigenous knowledge—but the way that non-Indigenous people talk about it and the way that Indigenous people talk about it are often totally different. 

When you were interviewing your sources about the ways they’re adapting to various climate disasters, how was that adaptation of their lifestyle framed? Would the language they used be helpful to communicate with people who do not necessarily understand or believe in climate change, but are currently exposed to extreme weather? 

Most people are not addressing or adapting to capital-C climate change. In this series, what we’re trying to do is show, Okay, what are the actual climate impacts being felt by this town, person, or tribe? I mentioned how this concept of Indigenous people being on the front lines of climate change is this catchphrase in climate journalism now. Are we talking about more wildfires? Warmer temperatures? Stronger storms? Drought? What is the actual thing that we’re talking about? 

Sometimes these big-picture words aren’t as meaningful as the more specific circumstances that people are dealing with. I did hear from a few people who work in climate spaces with their home communities who say, People at home don’t talk about climate change. They talk about water, fish, or whatever, which of course are connected. It’s not always useful on a local level to talk about big-picture things when there are much more specific problems or changes that you need to deal with. 

Your editor mentioned that you did not write these stories specifically for a white audience and that you wanted to avoid what can be an unconscious media bias. When you were doing your reporting, how did you keep that nuance in mind?

One of the mistakes that mainstream outlets make is just ignoring a potential Indigenous audience and making no effort to reach them or approach stories with them in mind. Indigenous people broadly know a lot of the things that get covered and recovered in mainstream media about Indigenous people. It’s not new information. An outlet or a reporter might learn about something and think it’s really new, but is it new to the community? Is it new to a certain group of readers? Has it been covered before by other mainstream outlets? You see a lot of the same types of stories out there. I always try to think, Is this something that other tribes or people back home might be interested in? Is it something that they could learn from? Whether it’s a shared struggle, a new idea, a new solution, or just an interesting story about Indigenous people. 

As journalists, it’s our job to explain things to readers. But I also think that we can ask a little bit more of non-Indigenous readers. For example, you don’t have to retread the same ground over and over again. You can push the conversation past that level. It is important to not get non-Indigenous experts to validate Indigenous voices. That’s something you see commonly—there’ll be interviews with some local organizer or tribal leaders, and then the piece comes to this quote from some white academic at a university who says, My research confirms this. I just don’t think we need to do that. There are tons of amazing Indigenous academics—Western-trained experts and scientists—who can also speak to those things in a much more nuanced way.

What advice would you have about stereotyping? 

There’s a lot of complexity in Native communities and tribes, a lot of historical context. I’m an Indigenous journalist writing about Indigenous people, but I’m writing about tribes and communities that are not my own. It’s not like I just go in like, Oh, because I’m a Native journalist, I know all things. Maybe I have a slightly different way of thinking about it than a non-Native journalist, but I have to do that same amount of work in building trust, building relationships, and getting that knowledge. 

The other big piece is just to be as specific as possible. There are not that many things that you can say, “Native Americans are right” or “Indigenous people feel…” There are very few things that you can generalize in that way. Even if you can, it may not be a very interesting story. Journalism is about being good at getting human voices. The more you can do that, the better it’s going to be as a story—and, also, the more you’re going to avoid those stereotypes, clichés, or tropes. That speaks to this bigger thing of not seeing Indigenous people as fully people and also not seeing tribes as sovereign nations; not seeing the complexity of these things. You have to really do the work and think about who you are talking to. Are you talking to a tribal leader? Are you talking to a community activist? Are you talking to just some guy from the community? You wouldn’t just have, like, “Guy in Boston” representing the state of Massachusetts. But for some reason, that tends to happen with Indigenous communities.

What advice would you give about how to responsibly cover Indigenous communities? 

It’s important to put in the work beforehand to make sure you know what you’re talking about, that you’re not replicating harmful coverage, and that you’re thinking about who you’re writing for. Are you writing for an Indigenous audience? Non-Indigenous? How is that going to change your approach? It’s a sustained effort. People talk about parachute journalism, and I don’t know if that’s the right term or not, but there is definitely a lot of popping in and out of covering Indigenous issues. For the most part, that does not really work that well. It takes time. If you think about the goal of what you’re trying to do, are you just trying to say, “Oh, I saw this cool thing, I’m going to write about it”? Are you trying to write journalism with a purpose that can have an impact? To have that impact, it takes understanding that this is its own beat. But it intersects with a lot of other beats, whether that’s climate, politics, economy, or whatever, however people want to organize those things. It takes investment from reporters and editors, but it’s also investment by outlets and media organizations. I think we’re seeing that, increasingly, with Indigenous-affairs desks, but there needs to be a lot more. Once you create those positions or desks or whatever it is, those things need to be supported with more freedom, more resources. 

Other notable stories:

  • In other news about major newspapers, Stephanie Armour, a reporter who was fired by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, is suing the paper for discrimination, alleging that it has invoked “trumped up performance issues” to get rid of staffers who incur significant healthcare costs; NPR’s David Folkenflik has more details. Elsewhere, the Post launched an AI chatbot that draws on the paper’s coverage to answer users’ questions; its focus is restricted to climate for now but could expand in the future. And, for the Post, Paul Farhi explores the legacy of USA Today, which was scorned as “the news equivalent of junk food” when it launched in 1982 but “turned out to be one of the most influential media creations of the past half century,” even if it now faces challenges.
  • And—after mounting speculation that Vice President Kamala Harris could replace Biden atop the Democratic ticket inspired an avalanche of memes likening her to Selina Meyer, the hapless fictional protagonist of VeepVanity Fair’s Joy Press asked David Mandel, Veep’s showrunner, what he makes of the comparison. “I personally choose not to accept it. It’s too simplistic,” Mandel said. In his view, those pushing the narrative online are “doing it to try and somehow make her seem less than, and I don’t enjoy it.”

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Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.