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Radcliffe Fellow Emil’ Keme Discusses Indigenous Perspectives on Environmentalism at Virtual Event

Emory University professor Emil' Keme is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study this fall.
Emory University professor Emil' Keme is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study this fall. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Azusa M. Lippit and Jasmine Palma, Contributing Writers

Emil’ Keme, a 2022-2023 Radcliffe Institute Fellow, discussed Indigenous Yanomami attitudes toward the Amazon rainforest and approaches to environmental conservation at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study event Wednesday afternoon.

In his virtual presentation, Keme — an English professor at Emory University and an Indigenous K’iche’ Maya scholar and activist — described the role ancestral Indigenous values play in the relationship between humans and the environment. Keme urged the audience to consider the Yanomami teachings in their efforts to combat environmental issues.

He described the need for a collective effort to preserve and value the environment.

“I’m trying to highlight that specific relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land and why it is important for us to defend it,” Keme said. “We’re fighting to defend Mother Earth but it’s not only an Indigenous struggle, it’s a struggle that has to involve all of us.”

Keme based his framework on “The Falling Sky,” a biographical account by Yanomami elder Davi Kopenawa on Indigenous experiences in the Brazilian and Venezuelan rainforest and environmental ethics.

During his talk, Keme presented data from the World Bank that shows Indigenous peoples are protecting 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, despite only constituting five percent of the population.

“Well, how are Indigenous peoples doing that?” Keme asked. “You’re going to find that we are putting our bodies on the street in order to defend the sacred, in order to defend Mother Earth.”

He also cited the Idle No More Movement launched in Canada, which opposes the exploitation of natural resources on lands of Indigenous peoples in the First Nations.

As a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Keme is working to analyze Indigenous efforts toward self-determination in Abiayala, the Indigenous term for the American continents.

Through his research and fellowship, Keme said he hopes to raise awareness about Indigenous protection efforts and learn as much as possible from local Indigenous organizations and leaders.

“The reason why I’m here to work on this project on Abiayala is because I feel that Indigenous communities from the south and the north are so disconnected,” he said. “We don’t know much about each other, and we really need to learn from one another in order to create bridges that can lead us to potential alliances.”

Keme identified a lack of societal awareness about Indigenous people, citing his students’ inability to name Indigenous artists and entertainers.

“‘Tell me about indigenous entertainers.’ Complete silence,” he said. “It's just that knowledge is so absent and so necessary.”

“We offer this wisdom that hopefully can help us better understand our relationship to the environment,” he added.

Despite obstacles, Keme said he has a positive outlook on the future of environmental and Indigenous activism.

“A lot of people have this dystopian vision of the future,” he said. “Even though we criticize settler colonialism, we’re very optimistic that we’re going to overcome a lot of the challenges that we’re facing.”

Keme closed the talk by calling on the audience to apply Indigenous perspectives in environmental protection efforts.

“See how you can connect and support these communities because we don’t expect anything from the government — so it has to be on us,” he said.

“Usually the messages that are given to us by Indigenous leaders is ‘no matter what happens to us, you have to continue to fight,” Keme added.

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