UNH Earth Day Lecture Highlights Value of Indigenous Storytelling

By Jacob Towne (Journalism Major ’23)

Editor’s note: This article was written for UNH course ENGL 621, Newswriting.

The University of New Hampshire hosted a lecture on Earth Day which highlighted the importance of Indigenous storytelling in education, especially regarding climate issues. The April 22 event featured stories told by Anne Jennison, an Abenaki storyteller and historian, and Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, a storyteller of the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation of the Yukon Territory.

The lecture is part of a series to encourage new perspectives on climate change in the face of a crisis. Although rumors that it’s “too late” to limit climate change are false, according to a report from NASA, there’s still a sense of urgency as we see the effects of careless emissions.

“People started to talk about glaciers melting, and I heard stories from elders talking about living with the ice,” said Profeit-LeBlanc. “You must never cook food near the glacier because it will start moving, like it’s a living being.”

Relating to the encouragement of new perspectives, Profeit-LeBlanc mentioned that experts on climate and the environment would consult Indigenous elders because many had experienced dramatic ecological shifts during their lifetime living with nature.

“There are better ways to live in balance with nature,” said Jennison, who shared a story of the Abenaki people that stated they were created from ash trees.

Indigenous groups displaced during colonization already understood this respect for and coexistence with nature, said Jennison, but settlers brought the trend of exploiting resources for profit. Stories like her own demonstrate how the link between humanity and nature is ingrained into culture.

Cheryl Savageau, an Abenaki poet, author and storyteller and the moderator for the event, said this same creation story influenced her way of thinking about nature, along with stories from her father. “My father saw the land as foreground, and things like the houses as sort of temporary things there,” said Savageau. She emphasized returning to this way of thinking about nature. “We have to change this paradigm, we have to see ourselves as part of the world, not seeing nature as separate from human beings,” said Savageau. “If you see a lake or a river and you see it as alive, it becomes unthinkable to do certain things, like throw your sewage in there.”

The April 22 event served to teach that educating people on this perspective is much easier through storytelling than through scientific jargon, as the stories are more personal and can carry a greater impact. “When you’re going through the story, every person hears something different based on their own worldview,” said Profeit-LeBlanc. “It’s not just for Indigenous people, it’s for everybody.”

Savageau, who similar to Jennison is from the northeastern United States, highlighted the natural beauty of the region as a tool for teaching. New Hampshire is one of the least polluted states in the U.S., ranking 54 out of 56 states/territories nationwide in terms of toxic releases, according to a 2019 EPA report. Rather than seeing such beauty as a resource, said Savageau, students should appreciate it for what it is.

“One of the things that I’m always amazed by at UNH and Durham is where they’re located. Get outside, go and enjoy that and pay attention to it,” said Savageau.