Clark Family School of Environment and Sustainability

31st Headwaters Conference: Inclusive Climate Action

31st Headwaters Conference: Inclusive Climate Action

Sept. 18-19, 2020 | Free and Open to the Public

Keynote: Winona LaDuke, Culturally Inclusive Climate Action

Date: Friday, September 18, 7pm

Speaker: Winona LaDuke, Program Director of Honor the Earth

Winona LaDuke is an internationally renowned activist working on issues of sustainable development, renewable energy, and food systems. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and is a two time vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader for the Green Party.

All sessions on Zoom
Optional audio: 669-900-6833
Enter meeting number above
Free and open to the public

Date: Saturday, September 19

9-10:30: Diversifying Climate Action, with Climate Change from the Streets‘ Michael Mendez and City of Aspen’s Ashley Pearl

10:30-12:00: Climate Action Scavenger Hunt

12:30-1:00: Aaron Abeyta’s Annual “Letter to the Headwaters”

1:00-4:00: Simulation Exercise with Gunnison County’s John Cattles

All sessions on Zoom
Optional audio: 669-900-6833
Enter meeting number above
Free and open to the public

Vandana Shiva Walter Echo Hawk Winona LaDuke
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Walter Echo Hawk
Winona LaDuke
Devon Pena Rick Bass Enrique Salmon
Dr. Devon Pena
Rick Bass
Dr. Enrique Salmon
Regina Whiteskunk Gary Snyder Robin Wall Kimmerer
Regina Whiteskunk
Gary Snyder
Robin Wall Kimmer

Click here to watch our 2020 conference videos

About Western Colorado University

Western Colorado University sits centrally in what could be called “the Headwaters Region of the Southwest”: a mountain-and-valley region of wonderful but difficult geographic and climatic diversity, and also of cultural diversity. Western’s “Headwaters Project” is part of the university’s effort to serve the mountain valleys of this region as a resource and rallying-point, as the region’s communities attempt to both retain unique cultural identities and still thrive in a globalizing and homogenizing world. The Project reaches out into the region interactively through the annual Headwaters Conference every autumn.

Dear John,

What then, if the savior looks that of the oppressor?  What then, if the benevolent angel of change is instead the misguided missionary of well-meaning misplaced ardor?  And the call of the anti-racist, what of their education of shackles, the prison without bars of their imperial books whispering of a system of homogeneous heroes – flower of language sweet and fragrant to the ear, rendered into a canonical hammer swung silently to suppress the souls of those not therein?  And of our human descent what of it – this earth of petroleum authority, plastic oceans, fires razing the west, war and pestilence, neighbors rent by pettiness and the ghosts of greed kissing upon our foreheads, water that no longer purifies but instead stains?

Hermano, you ask of anti-racist climate change, and I want to say that all is possible, that there is a call upon the wind, benevolent, pure and necessary.  I want to someday read of a glacier that is growing or a river that reaches the gulf of its intended longing.  Someday, when I read a book or the news or the faces of my people, I hope to find some eternal fruit of our tenure on this planet, something of our perseverance and our temporary human stamp on place and our attempts at a sweet permanence.

I no longer wish for the books of not belonging, the bitter septic colonialist osculation of my gente, turned against one another, surrogates of the hate their supposed education has taught them.  Assimilation is the deforestation of the human soul.  Poverty is the genetically modified organism of a deliberate and measured genocide. The impossible act of hoping to belong is the warming ocean of despair.  The triage of rent or food is the cyanide leached into the river.  The brutality of living and the arrows of hatred inflicted by so many weapons, from words to missiles, those, my dear friend, are the oil slick washed upon the shore of our day to day, no flight possible, suffocating in the grime of spilled negligence.  I could go on here, but I know you are seeing my point, though I will, bluntly, repeat it here.  The well meaning stewards of the earth must be competent on a human scale as well; loss on any level is connected.

How then to be culturally competent?  How to reach beyond our ridiculous and naïve aspirations of a colorblind society, this absurdity of equality.  Seek equity not uniformity. Find peace in not knowing; how arrogant and complacent to feign at conquering difference, not with knowledge or human touch but with fallacy and assumption.

Summon the distant and faint echoes of when you did not belong or the fleeting moments when you felt entirely alone, or the despair of brokenness that visited once – now stir them, mix them, multiply them by generations, unfold them all, this alchemy of shared human experience and then, perhaps, you will know the plight of the earth, the poor, the lost, the broken, the beaten, the conquered, the fallen entirety at your doorstep.  To be culturally competent is to be more than the ally.  To be culturally competent on a greater plane is to finally be comfortable with being wrong about those assumptions that have masqueraded, too long, as truth.

So what of hope?  Amigo, what of a letter not so attuned to misery but is, instead, seeking the clearer frequency of a shared calling?  I would be remiss to lay the problem upon the table of brotherhood and then walk away, leaving you to supper alone on the tough meat of anguish.  You asked me once, the same question that was asked of you, the question you grapple with, still.  What kind of ancestor do you want to be?  What lives after us?  Can the legacies of our better angels persist?  We must believe they can.  We must do more than believe.  Belief without action is pointless and irresponsible.  So what of action?

Feed people.  There is no force so powerful as hunger – I mean this both literally and figuratively; it can go either way.  Feed people food grown from tradition not corporate greed.  Feed people with the knowledge of books, education and knowledge built from a new wood – liberation is the subject of the current intellectual renaissance.  Feed people, not just the plate of despair but the banquet of foresight and preparedness of the obstacles before them.  Take for example this refrain about young people and how they are not prepared for higher education, how they do not know the language, the expectations, the unwritten rules.  Feed them, not the bitter roots of the narrow gate of exclusion and the myth of exceptionality, but instead nourish them with the knowledge that school, for many of them, was never intended as their liberation but instead the invisible snare of their prescribed future.  Put another way, do not nurture the discourse of the hegemony but, instead, teach it for what it is so that when siren song calls them from the decks of their passing ships they do not wreck themselves upon the shores of ordinary.

Hermano John, you may be asking what of climate change, what of the earth, what of the subject I was tasked to address.  My apologies for not speaking directly to the subject.  My currency, by gift and by responsibility, has always been the human, but I suppose you know this, and that is where you knew I would take this letter.  Once you called me something of an agitator, though that is not the term you used.  I believe you called me a complicator, and I own that.  From the various points of distant light I have accepted the obligation of creating constellations that, perhaps, are not so evident to others.  Anti-racist climate action, your topic alone has already joined two disparate stars. In a sense, you have already pre-complicated the subject, and for that I am grateful.

Many of us, either through our knowledge or our denial, know the language of a climate and a world in peril.  It is a type of faith I am presenting here, call it hope, call it promise, call it aspiration or maybe just identify it as a shared calling, whatever you name it, please know that what we do to humans – the weak, those at the periphery, the poor, the voiceless, the assimilated and the broken – what we do to those we do to the earth.  How we currently speak of them is not the language of the culturally competent but of the colonialist trappings of our human discourse and therefore the way we also seek to unwittingly conquer the planet that sustains us.  How we speak and what we say, those words that escape us, those are not arrows they are mirrors.  The Fool told Lear to “see better.”  I understand the Fool, and paraphrase him here, speak better.  Know that our words, the very means by which we frame our world and our humanity is the language of conquest and oppression. Anti-racist climate action is, I would imagine, a simple proposition, the need for a new language, a new treatise, a new paradigm, so speak better of our fellow humans knowing full well that to do so is to speak better of our planet.

John, earlier, I said we need to feed people, and I was sincere.  Earlier, when I said feed people I meant it.  Earlier, when I said feed people, both literally and figuratively, it was heartfelt.  This is a letter about hunger.  This is a letter about longing.  This is a letter about language.  This is a letter about being human.  For you, and for those like you, those that build new things from new ideas and make the disparate align for a greater good, for the light beckoning from a distant galaxy so that it might enter us purely and with purpose, this letter is for you.

Much Peace, your friend,


Learn More

Contact Headwaters Director Melanie Armstrong, Ph.D. for more information.