Listening to indigenous people about looking after our world

A Māori bishop from New Zealand, the Rt Revd Te Kītohi Pikaahu, says the world can learn from indigenous people about how to care for the world and ways to tackle climate change.

Bishop Te Kītohi Pikaahu is the Bishop of Te Tai Tokerau and the faith leader to Mihingare (Māori Anglicans) in Northland and Auckland, New Zealand. He has served as a priest for more than 33 years, and as a bishop for 19 years. When he was consecrated a bishop, aged 37, he was the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Bishop Pikaahu is one of the longest serving indigenous bishops in the global Anglican community and for the last six years has been chair of the Anglican Indigenous Network within the Anglican Communion, representing North America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. He said, “We meet in order to have the indigenous voices in the Anglican Communion shared among ourselves of our own realities.”

He talked to the Lambeth Conference team about the impact climate change is having on indigenous people.

Bishop Pikaahu said, “Because of our connection with the land, with the sea, with the rivers and the plains and the lakes and forests, indigenous peoples are affected directly by climate change, because we live largely on those traditional grounds. And for that reason, particularly in the Arctic and the Pacific, where the rising sea levels are occurring, we are finding many are being displaced from their homelands. This means they are displaced from their traditional values and practices and have become virtually refugees. If we lose our connection with the land for which we are related, then that becomes more than an issue of climate injustice, but also really about our existence as indigenous peoples.”

He said, “In the Pacific, on the island of Tuvalu, rising sea levels have virtually taken away the island and many are finding refuge here in New Zealand. So, the biggest community of Tuvalu, actually live in New Zealand. And for that reason, there’s no going back. There’s a complete displacement from the homeland in the island. And that’s happening in other islands like Tokelau, particularly in the Pacific area, and it will occur in other islands as the sea begins to rise. So, their very existence is under threat.”

The bishop said displacement of people whose homes are disappearing has become an issue about identity. “The Tuvalu people came to New Zealand and met in the Auckland City, forming a new community. They have tried to maintain their identity, language and culture away from their homeland, and it is a challenge. I’ve seen their resilience as they continue to value people, living in not just a foreign land, but an alien land for them, where they have to discover a new identity.”

What are people able to learn from indigenous people in how they have sought to look after the environment and the land?

Bishop Pikaahu said because of their understanding of the land and earth, indigenous people have become the guardians of the land. “Indigenous peoples don’t have a belief that ‘this belongs to me’, rather they believe that, ‘I belong to the land, the rivers, or the sea, and I am one with the sea.. and the forest is where I learned to live and it provides protection for me.’ In that way, because both our traditional knowledge and indigenous understanding is respectful, the land enables us to understand how we are to care for the land.”

He said to treat the land and rivers in the same way would treat and care for a person is something everyone can learn from. “Traditional knowledge is really about who I am in relation to the world, to the earth… what we can learn from indigenous peoples is that I have a duty, a moral duty to that river, or that mountain, or those planes. So, humanity can learn from that indigenous knowledge.”

How well do you think the world is listening to the voice of indigenous people over our relationship with the environment?

“I believe the world will listen, when we actually get right down to the heart of the crisis, when we have no other options. So, where do we turn to? We can’t turn to technology, we can’t just change to new ways of living. We have to go back to our origins to understand that, if I am related to the world environment around me, I have a responsibility to it. And that responsibility is for this generation and future generations.”

What part can indigenous young people play in responding to climate change?

“Indigenous young people are the sign of the future hope for the world. Young people don’t have hidden agendas. Young people can see the mistakes of previous generations. There is a certain vitality and energy for young people to do better, to be better than the earlier generations. In that way, young indigenous people are going back to the old traditions and narratives to say, this worked 100 years or 200 years ago, and asking, how can I apply myself today? So, because young people are the other side of the future hope of the world and of the church, young people themselves are looking for the indigenous peoples and for the indigenous knowledge that is beyond what the world provides today. They are finding hope in our traditions, our stories, and in particular, the relationship with indigenous people, and the rest of humanity.”

How can bishops around the world work together to respond to the climate crisis?

Bishop Pikaahu said, “Bishops wield a lot of influence and power, so it is our duty and responsibility to keep our governments accountable and as the Anglican Communion, to be the conscience to the world.”

He believes the sharing the stories of indigenous bishops enables bishops to stand in solidarity together over the climate crisis. “Then we are able to say to all the world governments, ‘Please listen, if we don’t do anything now, there may not be a future for the generations to come’. If we make every effort to influence the governments we can begin to turn it around.”

The bishop believes one element of tackling climate change is to go back to sustainable living. He explained, “On small farms here in the north, where I live, we are able to grow our own food crops, we are able to go to the sea and responsibly gather shellfish. We need to remember that I’m not the only person on earth, and all of that is not just for me. I have a responsibility to my neighbour, the next community or the next tribe along this river, this ocean. Then that way, we are living justly, we are living responsibly, and we are living humbly… those were the keys which our ancestors lived by. And so going back to those practices and values is what is going to provide for the future.”

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