INHABITANTS summons native guidance and collaboration, indispensable to the discussion and practice of sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. Written by GOOD DOCS intern Celeste Graham.
“Indigenous people make up 6% of the world’s population,
manage 25% of the world’s land surface,
and support 80% of global biodiversity.”
The drum rhythm of Big River Cree begins as these statistics are left on a blank screen before the credits roll, leaving viewers with one thought – Why have I not seen this sooner?
Directed by Costa Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer, Inhabitants delves into the omnipresent role of Native Americans in climate-adaptive conservation techniques, making it one of the most relevant environmental documentaries in the ongoing debate on climate resolutions. Winning multiple awards, including the Audience Choice Award at the DC Environmental Film Festival and Best International Feature Award at the Planet In Focus Festival, Inhabitants has earned its global recognition with good reason.
This documentary focuses on five Indigenous communities that have revived ancestral traditions to then be passed on, within and beyond native generations. Exploring the Hopi dryland farming in Arizona terrain; the Karuk Tribes return to prescribed burning practices in the Californian landscape; the benefits of native food forest systems in Hawaii; the cultural healing of Blackfeet buffalo restoration in Montana; and the biodiverse forestry of the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. Inhabitants portrays these stories interwoven with one another, advocating for the recognition of indigenous land stewardship over Millennia, as the survival of native wisdom remains a political and social struggle.
The documentary begins with Michael Kotutuwa Johnson, a Hopi farmer and Ph.D. in Natural Resources. He demonstrates the planting of corn during extreme drought, stating “we don’t believe in irrigation” hence these varieties are so drought tolerant. Over the last decade, Kotutuwa Johnson has worked towards the recognition of native origins of regenerative agriculture within academia, all while native land sovereignty is still under discourse.
Boutsikaris has stated in an interview that tribal leaders often referred to the “original inhabitors” of the land inspiring the title Inhabitants, building onto the “identity and the history of the people who live in that place” (Civil Eats, 2021). This statement is felt throughout the documentary, exploring the effects of local prejudice and centuries-old settler laws on indigenous communities as legitimate guardians of their land.
As Kotutuwa Johnson sifts through multiple bags of corn varieties he has collected and grown over the years, he models a return to the independence of farming and the community bonds indigenous agriculture forged in the past, pre-privatisation of native land. These “super seeds”, characteristically “very tough” as well as adaptive and resilient much like the Hopi, are integral to the continuity of his heritage – “This is our blood in a lot of ways, this is who we are”.
Along a similar thread, the documentary moves to a wide-angle shot of a smoke-filled forest. As we hear the crackle of wood, a team in protective gear pours fire onto semi-arid grassland while Karuk educators narrate the management practice of prescribed fire for the survival of this ancestral territory.
We are shown archival photographs of indigenous women whose role was to intentionally burn to nurture the surrounding ecosystems. With scientific evidence, the benefit of this practice is present in each aspect of the ecosystem from fertilising the soil for vegetation to preserving water for nearby fishing streams. Multiple cultural practices are tied to burning encompassing the needs of community, individual well-being, and ecology.
In a 2021 interview with the deputy director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, Bill Tripp differentiates between “prescribed” and “cultural” burns. Tripp states that cultural burning is a cultural norm, a traditional law that is practiced in regular cycles, based on principles held by the native community. Furthermore, it is “developed by people who have been in a place a very long time, who know their surroundings intimately” as opposed to a professional development structure (Bioneers, 2021).
Inhabitants digs deep into the origin of their current challenges, built on unclarified laws leaving indigenous rights subject to interpretation. Policies that have been set up by people who have not been educated on native wisdom are yet to be changed, therefore how can these be overcome for cultural practices to be implemented on a wider scale?
Today, local neighbourhoods vouch for the efforts of the Karuk tribe as the effects of wildfires have been reduced since prescribed burning has been reintroduced in the area. Under the government’s guise of ‘protection’ is profit, the initiatives “built around fighting fire” are in stark contrast to what the Karuk people see as a partnership – learning to live and work with fire. Inhabitants is the first step towards this education of fire as the Karuk prompt “the more you know about it, the less fear you have”. Inhabitants radically shifts our relationship to the elements, shaping our perception of fire from threat to protector of the community; through intentional burning fuel load is reduced lessening the consequences of uncontrollable wildfires.
Inhabitants carries a hopeful moral of the possibilities of native knowledge for future generations. This is well in force among the Blackfeet buffalo restoration. Through the iinii project (the Blackfeet word for buffalo), the elders and their descendants can rediscover their tribal identity engaging with one another in the buffalo harvest. In the image of the Blackfeet people buffalo are strong, adapting to withstand harsh conditions they traditionally provided food, clothing, and economy until killed to near extinction by settlers. Blackfeet native Ervin Carlson says they are “good stewards of the land. They belong here just like we do.” emphasising the importance of the return of buffalo and the native songs accompanying them.
In a similar style, Inhabitants showcases the ancient practice of agroforestry, rebranded as ‘regenerative agriculture’ today by non-natives. In Hawaii, indigenous communities have re-established food forest systems - traditionally designed to retain water, survive drought, and provide food security during the evermore frequent manmade or natural disaster. Hawaiian native Kalani Souza shifts our outlook on living off tree food and forest plants as an example of “nature in relationship with humans for thousands of years” sustained by a diversity of crops supporting each other. However, monocropping in the 19th century in the name of ‘progress’ brought environmental degradation to these lands. Inhabitants challenges viewers to recognise the disruption of the past, questioning us to honour the ways of the people on the land before us and incorporate this cultural knowledge into our everyday living.
Adding to this idea is footage of the Menominee people in Hawaii providing an alternative to capitalist-incentivised agriculture. Historically setting up their tribal enterprise in Wisconsin, combining “intensive forest management” and a “forest protection strategy”, founded by Menominee Chief Oshkosh in 1827. Being woodland people, it has always been “the land first” for the Menominee, offering insight into the value of trees beyond timber, from maintaining a balanced ecology to a healthy community.
With a biodiversity of 33 different tree species in the Menominee reservation, we see the possibility “to have an economic harvest done in a sustainable way” when tapping into tribal wisdom. The Menominee people have adapted to resource management as well as dealing with varying political ideas, always while “staying true to cultural identity”. Their goal persists, adamant to leave something for their children – to not only survive but to be the voices leading the next generations.
The topics and themes that Inhabitants draws attention to remains fundamental to current environmental activist discussions. As of writing this article, Brazil’s congress has passed a bill denying Indigenous peoples rights to their land unless proven inhabited there in 1988, limiting the amount of land protected by Indigenous stewards. The statistics introducing this article emphasise the relevance of indigenous eco-justice across the globe.
Inhabitants is a reckoning with the dominant narrative surrounding our environment, with preservation as the underlying message – of diversity of knowledge, culture and seed. Holding the qualities of a peaceful protest it inspires viewers to uplift the voices who have endured and can adapt in the face of adversary. In our ever-changing condition of climate unpredictability, political turmoil, and economic precarity, looking to return to these climate-resilient livelihoods is becoming inescapable.
This documentary is a foundation for ancient knowledge, as one Karuk fireman reiterates, “teach the younger generations the traditional practices, that knowledge never gets lost, just keeps recycling and repeating itself” – the essence of sustainability. To continue this educational journey, the Inhabitants film page encourages collaboration, connecting viewers to information on native land stewardship and how to support local indigenous communities. With this, the next generations may sustain our cultural and natural resources with certainty of survival and praise the original inhabitors who kept this alive for them.
Learn more about INHABITANTS: INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE ON RESTORING OUR WORLD and how you can bring the documentary, and the speakers, to your campus + community