How Not to Be an Invasive Species

The descendants of settlers and immigrants can’t become Indigenous to the land where we live. But we can follow the models of coexistence.

The plantain, or Plantago major, fits into small places and coexists with others, providing a model for other non-native species.  

Photo by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic

In Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene, Alejandro Frid argues for a change in thinking about environmental management and our place as humans in the natural world. We may not be Indigenous to the land where we live, but we can follow the example of Plantago major—a plant species that is naturalized but not invasive.

Sixty-six million years ago, a huge asteroid collided with Earth. The shock unleashed earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, obliterating three-quarters of animal species on land and sea. I like to think of the emergence of some human cultures that crystallized much later, only within the last 14,000 years or so, as the inverse of that event. Wherever people ceased to live like roving bandits, sequentially depleting area after area, and instead became inherent to specific places and to their functioning ecosystems, biodiversity thrived and persisted.

Dúqvảísḷa (William Housty), a Heiltsuk hereditary chief dedicated to integrating the traditional knowledge of his people with scientific methods for resource management and conservation, points out that, according to customary laws known as Gvi’ilas, “Heiltsuk have been present in traditional territory since time began and will be present until time ends.” This belief, which is shared by all First Nations with whom I have spent time in Canada—both coastal and inland—arguably is the most powerful conservation tool imaginable.

The moment you believe—in your spirit, your gut, your whole being—that the surrounding lands and waters are where your people have lived “since time began,” and that those very same places are where your people will stay “until time ends,” a cascade of commitments and responsibilities begins to flow.

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This cascade, Dúqvảísḷa writes in reference to Gvi’ilas, includes “responsibility over traditional territory as much as over immediate home,” which entails that, “out of respect and understanding, certain areas should be off-limits to some, or all, human activities.” Further, “The right to use a river system [or any other part of the land or sea] comes with the responsibility to maintain [it] in its natural or ecological entirety.” And critically, the focus of resource management decisions “should be on what is left behind, not what is taken.”

But what about those of us who are not Indigenous? That includes me, the descendant of immigrant Jews who centuries ago left the Middle East, scattered over Eastern Europe and Mediterranean countries and, more recently, barely escaped the Holocaust as they found sanctuary in Mexico. There, only two generations were born before my immediate family migrated once again, this time into Canada. I, who descend from wandering ancestors, am the antithesis of Indigenous. Does that mean that the notion—and conservation power—of becoming part of a place and its functioning ecosystems is unavailable to the likes of me? I sure hope not.

Indigenous peoples now are only 5% of the global population. If the remaining 95% of humans lack connection to place, chances are that future Earth will be grim.

So how do we become part of the land on which we stand? Even if settler families arrived at their present countries several generations ago, it takes intentionality to become inseparable—spiritually, physically, viscerally—from the biodiversity that defines a coastline, a river valley, a forest, or any other landscape. Culture creates that intentionality, yet cultural appropriation does more harm than good. Becoming Indigenous, genuinely linked to a place “since time began,” is off the table for most of us. Yet disconnection to place is not the only alternative. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a plant ecologist at the State University of New York, has thought hard about these issues. Her positionality as an Indigenous woman and an accomplished member of the global scientific community has led her to powerful insights. And to answer some of the hardest questions facing humanity, she often turns to the wisdom of plants. Of invasive species brought by European settlers into North America, she wrote, “Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over other’s homes and growing without regard to limits.”

These bullies, which spread with impunity and simplify ecosystems into low diversity and low resilience, embody only one possible narrative for what a settler can be, and often has been. But, Kimmerer points out, settlers also can access an alternative narrative: the one symbolized by plantain, Plantago major, which “fits into small places” and “coexists with others.”

“Just a low circle of leaves, pressed closed to the ground with no stem to speak of, it arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere they went. It trotted along paths through the woods, along wagon roads and railroads, like a faithful dog so as to be near them. Its Latin epithet Plantago refers to the sole of a foot.”

Kimmerer goes on to describe how her people first distrusted this “White Man’s Footstep” but eventually “became glad for its constant presence” because the seeds “are good medicine for digestion. The leaves can halt bleeding right away and heal wounds without infection.”

We can become naturalized, mindful and respectful of Indigenous laws.

Kimmerer’s insight is that plantain is “so well integrated that we think of it as native.” Yet it is not. Plantain is naturalized: the term used for immigrants into a new country who “pledge to uphold the laws” of that specific part of the world.

The First Nations with whom I work—Nuxalk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Wuikinuxv, and Heiltsuk—have ancient and sophisticated legal systems that outline human responsibilities towards human and nonhuman kin. Paramount to these laws are principles of respect, gratitude, and reciprocity towards all living things. Of taking only what we need, not wasting. Of making management decisions that prioritize what is left behind rather than what is taken. These laws are codified in traditional stories and in the archetypal symbols used to create art. When Europeans arrived at the Americas, many other cultures, including Kimmerer’s people, practiced similar legal systems. For the First Nations I work with, as for many other Indigenous peoples, these traditional legal systems are still very much alive and being incorporated into modern resource management.

So there you have it.

The likes of me will never become Indigenous; nor should we want to. But we can become naturalized, mindful and respectful of Indigenous laws. Those that, in the tradition of Kimmerer’s people, provide the “Original Instructions” for practicing an “Honorable Harvest,” one that promotes the diversity of life and the resilience of ecosystems.

Following the paths of kudzu, loosestrife, and cheat grass is a choice. But so is a future shaped by Kimmerer’s alternative narrative. Plantago major, a naturalized citizen who came from faraway to practice coexistence, to share healing powers that benefit settler and Indigenous both.

This excerpt from Changing Tides: An Ecologist's Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene by Alejandro Frid (forthcoming, October 2019) appears by permission of New Society Publishers.