“The Land is Not Empty” webinar; Sarah Augustine with climate riders from Crazy Horse, SD

Over seventy participants joined the climate riders by zoom on their rest day in Crazy Horse, South Dakota last week for a webinar with Sarah Augustine who recently published the book “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Sarah, a member of the Pueblo (Tewa) Nation, is a Mennonite author and activist who lives in Washington on the Yakima reservation. She is the founder and cochair of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition and the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties. 

The topic of the webinar was: “How are indigenous land rights and the doctrine of discovery connected to climate change?”  

The way Sarah sees it, in the world there are systems of death and systems of life.  Systems of death are extractive, industrial, short-sighted and greedy.  They are based on the idea that “the end justifies the means even though the means are destroying our ability to live on this earth.”  

Systems of life, on the other hand, are all of the natural systems, including soil, water and air, that humans and other species rely on for survival.  Right now, “every life support system on earth… is in decline,” Sarah said. And, we must realize that “we are not separate from (creation), we are part of it.” 

Sarah pointed out that many systems of death are only a century or two old. “This is not reality for human beings,” she said, “this is an experiment.”   

Reducing carbon emissions, Sarah said, isn’t enough to make the change needed.  “As long as we’re invested in extraction, which is taking, controlling, destroying, dividing… that is an ongoing spiral that is leading to destruction.”  

Instead, she asked, “What about changing the way that we talk to each other about reality.” What about changing our mindset to one of harvest instead of extraction? 

This is where indigenous perspectives come in.  Indigenous people make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, Sarah said, but they protect 80% of the biodiversity on the planet.  Around the world, indigenous people have had their land taken from them by Europeans under the doctrine of discovery, a theological and legal framework developed under the Christian church in the 1500s that helped Europeans justify large-scale land-grabs.  

Through the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, Sarah and others are working to break down the framework that is still pervasive in politics and society today, and rebuild the connection between the land and the people who know how to care for it.

Anna Paetkau, a climate rider from Goshen Indiana, was one of the panelists for the webinar.  They asked Sarah how she works for indigenous justice within the church when the church has caused so much harm to indigenous people.  

“My commitment,” Sarah said, “is to the Great Animator, to the process of life, and not to institutions… Whatever has happened, we have to work together to move forward.”  

Tyler Goss, the other climate rider on the panel, asked how Sarah finds the energy to keep working day after day. 

“On the climate ride we’ve been really attuned to long and tiring days on the bike,” he said. “I know that you have probably had many long and tiring days of fighting for justice and… writing your book. How do you continue to find hope and life when there is a crazy freight train of death on the horizon?”

Sarah said she is motivated by love for her son.  “I see myself as a bridge generation,” she said. “We’re not going to see the outcome in my lifetime, but I’m hoping that I’m demonstrating to the young ones how to keep going.”  

At the end of the discussion, Katarina Friesen from the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition asked the climate riders for their stories of depending on human power and each other this summer.  

“This past week was probably one of the hardest weeks yet,” Anna shared, “maybe of the entire ride. We did two centuries, and then also crossed the Big Horns in one day. I know personally that if I was by myself, if I didn’t have the other riders cheering me on, I would be home right now. That idea that we need community to live and to go forward, I completely agree with.”  


Sarah’s book, “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” was released the day before the event and is now available for purchase. The climate riders got a sneak peak of it before it was published and they recommend it!