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Wings of America recently hosted a deep and thoughtful conversation at the Hotel Santa Fe during the Santa Fe Indian Market. The panel featured an all-star lineup including Haudenosaunee Faithkeeper Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo from the Muscogee Creek Nation, and world-renowned artist and Indigenous food activist Roxanne Swentzell from the Pueblos of Santa Clara and Taos.

The discussion was titled The Great Turtle Talks: Indigenous Perspectives on a World that Demands Value Change for Survival. The conversation focused on climate change, the relationship indigenous people have with the land and overpopulation. The panelists also shared their perspectives about how to remain proactive in the face of “gloom and doom.”

Oren Lyons, who conceived the idea of the event to stage a series of dialogues, as well as Joy Harjo, who is also a distinguished musician and author spoke with Indian Country Today’s Harlan McKosato.

What was the original idea behind Turtle Talk?

Oren Lyons: “It’s to open up a message to the general public about the issue of climate change and what’s happening today, and to try to get a dialogue going. Eventually, we want it to be a national dialogue. Santa Fe is a pretty lively place. It’s a good place to start. We’ll be having Turtle Talks in different parts of the country. The next one I think will be in New York City.”

Chief Oren Lyons, photo: Vincent Schilling

Chief Oren Lyons, photo: Vincent Schilling

“If we can it to catch hold, began to grow, consolidate ideas and get a purpose and to get a direction going – people don’t know which way to go. So focusing on a direction can be helpful in how we approach the problem we’re in. This is a national problem. It’s an international problem. It’s a global problem, but you have to start somewhere.

You talked about overpopulation. There’s really no way to deal with that, is there?

Oren Lyons: “No, that’s nature. What I understand is that the population started to expand when people discovered electricity. That power source enabled people to do more, so after 1860 it took about 69 years to triple the world’s population because of the ability to have energy. So now we have 7.7 billion people. How are you going to teach them? How are you going to help them direct their families?

“They’re at a loss. They don’t what to do anymore. So we’re at a crisis. Since it is nature and natural, it means there’s going be a huge die-off of the human population. It will probably come from pandemics at first. Then maybe we will do it to ourselves. Maybe they unleash the nuclear power – either they’re going to die of thirst, they’re going to starve or they’re going to kill each other.

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Do you think there’s going to be a war?

Oren Lyons: “Unless the leadership addresses the problem on a global solution. That’s not beyond possibility, but when you look at what’s happening here in the United States the leadership here is doing the opposite. Talk about going the other way. But I think that will be temporary.

What gives you hope?

Oren Lyons: “What always amazes me is what I think is going to happen tomorrow – something else happens. You think you know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We’ll see. I think the fight is on.

Joy, the theme here was climate change or climate chaos. How do you describe it?

Joy Harjo: “It’s climate change but it’s more than that. It’s about a change of heart or a disconnect. It’s really about disconnection and forgetting the connection between ourselves, each other and the land. It’s exploitation. It’s what happens when the forces of destruction take over. As Oren Lyons said, we forget how to share, we forget that we’re one people ultimately – and forget that essentially this land isn’t our land; it’s not your land. Ultimately, we are the land.

When we forget that we are the land we forget who we are as human beings. We are part of the immense, incredible, beautiful system of connection.”

Do you see any way of reversing the population explosion?

Joy Harjo: “I was thinking about it earlier and I think it’s on a track. I don’t think this is the first time it’s happened. We talk about different worlds. We will keep getting the same lessons until we learn them. We’ve been taking the tests and we haven’t changed. I don’t want to leave with a sense of hopelessness because I don’t feel that way. I feel like we’re in a moment of flux and a moment of forgetfulness. It’s bearing itself out.”

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Harlan McKosato is a former host of Native America Calling and has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2005 McKosato was recognized by his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, as a “Distinguished Alumnus of the Gaylord College of Journalism.” He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communications (Radio/TV/Film) from OU in 1988. Harlan is a citizen of both the United States and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.