One of the most stirring images in Kelton Stepanowich’s (an Indigenous filmmaker from Fort McMurray, AB) short film Gods Acre (2016) forces its audience to witness a future landscape that is drastically altered through climate change. Frank, the film’s protagonist played by Lorne Cardinal, stands on his family’s ancestral Cree lands that are now covered by water. He wades beneath tipi poles that jut out of the blue water towards an overcast sky; though the image is bleak, water and sky fade together in breathtaking shades of grey and blue where only the tipi poles demarcate the division between these spaces now that the land is no longer visible. The film is set in the recent past, yet this scene momentarily jettisons viewers towards a future landscape where much of the country will be similarly transformed through rising sea levels, melting ice caps, and thawing permafrost. As Frank tends to his family’s ceremonial grounds and cemetery plots, he shows a relationship with his homelands that is resilient and ongoing despite the environmental change, yet the film also lingers on his mourning for a relationship to place that is now altered.
We can view Stepanowich’s film as an artistic examination of what Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis (non-Indigenous scholars from Memorial University and the University of Western Australia respectively) call “ecological grief.” Ecology and psychology research has significantly focused on the wide-ranging environmental, social, and economic impacts of climate change for decades. Within this context, Cunsolo and Ellis’ article, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change,” examines the emotional impacts of climate change where feelings of loss and grief are emotional extensions of physical losses due to climate change—whether that be the loss of “valued species, ecosystems and landscapes” or the impacts on physical practices like navigating, hunting, fishing, and communal gathering that are contextualized by the landscape itself. While ecological research has been focusing on rapid environmental impacts and change, Cunsolo and Ellis explain that researchers and community members witnessing and being impacted by “Climate-related weather events and environmental changes” can have wide-ranging emotional and mental impacts, such as sadness and fear to depression and post-traumatic stress. Cunsolo and Ellis reflect that ecological grief is an unexplored facet to understand the connection between climate change and addictions or to understand the connection between climate change and sense of place, cultural identity, and ways of knowing. Cunsolo and Ellis intervene within this body of research to consider “ecological grief” as a unique facet of mourning. Though grief is familiar to people at a personal level for anyone who enters a period of mourning after losing a loved one or experiencing a significant life change, concepts of grief can be extended to understand people’s responses to “experiences or anticipated ecological losses.”
Ecological grief is not well-understood or publicly acknowledged in literature, policies, or press, because researchers may be focused on documenting the material aspects of changing landscapes and rising sea levels; research may not explicitly document Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members’ psychological responses to these experiences and researchers may not express their own emotional responses during the course of their research. Yet, ecological grief is a significant concept, because grief is expressed in a multitude of social and cultural contexts; focusing on climate change through the lens of grief will foster deeper social and culturally-specific responses to the psychological and social impacts of climate change. Ecological grief occurs in many forms. For example, it can emerge suddenly after acute weather-related disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, or earthquakes. Once evacuees are removed from their homes due to the lack of safety, they may experience acute loss from the removal itself and from the destruction of their villages, hamlets, cities, and landscapes. It can also occur more gradually from witnessing slow changes to ecosystems, weather patterns, and landscapes that were once so familiar, but are now unpredictable and significantly changed after decades. Therefore, ecological grief is layered as people directly impacted by the changes in their own communities may also grieve from the gradual changes that they observe across the globe during their lifetime.
The article demonstrates that training an eye on community responses to climate change can foster linkages across divergent geographies and cultures. Cunsolo and Ellis compare interviews with Inuit from Nunatsiavut—Inuit homelands in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada—and farmers from the Australian Wheatbelt who have witnessed the significant ecological change from receding sea ice and melting permafrost to drought and dust storms. Inuit and farmers expressed a cultural and familial connection to their home territories, a loss of confidence that the environment is stable enough to practice subsistence hunting and agriculture, and dread at imagining future generations’ relationship to a landscape that is very much changed from that of their grandparents’ generations. This comparative study of ecological grief reveals the ways individual and collective sense of self and place-based knowledge—knowledge attained through lived-experience and longstanding relationships with land—is affected by global warming and climate change. Cunsolo and Ellis are hopeful that further research into the risk factors and approaches to psychological responses to the environment will foster interdisciplinary approaches for “supporting the resourcefulness of individuals and communities.”
One area where I hope further research will occur through Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers’ collaboration is an examination of the difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ecological griefs. Cunsolo and Ellis draw similarities between Inuit and settler Australians’ responses to climate change that identifies ecological grief’s common characteristics. However, it will be fruitful to see further writings on Indigenous peoples and settlers’ unique forms, and political resonances, of ecological grief. The sense of mourning experienced by Indigenous peoples who have lived within their home territories since time immemorial is categorically different from non-Indigenous peoples because shifts in the environment impact Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge systems, food security, political structures, and language systems in ways that non-Indigenous peoples do not experience. Furthermore, Indigenous communities may experience an ecological grief that is layered onto other forms of mourning; for example, ecological grief may be experienced by communities and Nations who have already experienced removal from their home territories due to settler colonialism.
Gods Acre examines the many-layered aspects of ecological grief. The film begins with Frank marking the rising water levels with polls and the viewer is able to understand that he has been documenting the rising levels for a long time. His grief is cumulative as his grim face denotes an exhaustion, perhaps because he understands that the water will not stop rising and so his sadness anticipates a future landscape. It is important to note that the film itself is not a dirge that fetishizes Frank’s grief or falls within problematic narratives of Indigenous erasure; instead, it is a meditation on persistence through change. The film acknowledges the significance of Frank’s loss and emotions: at his family’s cemetery he mourns for older generations and for the land itself that is now submerged underwater. Frank’s mourning for his relatives and his relationship to his family home are given equal weight; the film persists, however, by examining the ways Frank adapts to a new relationship with place that now includes the water’s presence. He replaces toppled crosses and tipi polls and continues his daily activities demonstrating a resolve to maintain deep relationships with his homelands through environmental change. Frank may grieve, but that grief does not mean an end.
The mourning in Gods Acre is unique and represents a particular iteration of ecological grief within the contexts of Indigenous politics, socialities, and philosophies. Taken in context with Cunsolo and Ellis’ conclusion, which calls for a development of a variety of therapeutic responses, forms, and methods, the film pushes for a consideration for nation-specific responses to ecological grief that supports Indigenous peoples’ ongoing relationships with place. Similarly, Cunsolo and Ellis are aware that any response to address the emotional impacts of climate change must include Indigenous-led responses by Indigenous policy makers, psychologists, counselors, and communities who can best support Indigenous peoples’ particular political and cultural relationships with their homelands. As more and more Indigenous filmmakers create works that examine specific iterations of climate change, for example the documentaries Qapirangajuq (2010) and Rise (2017), we will see the ways artistic responses also guide an understanding of nation-specific responses to ecological grief.
This is a summary article and analysis by Katherine Meloche. Please see the original article for further reading.
Cunsolo, Ashlee and Neville R. Ellis “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss.” Nature Climate Change, vol 8, April 2018, pp. 275-281.
Latimer, Michelle, director. Rise. Vice Studio Canada, 2017.
Kunuk, Zacharias and Ian Mauro. Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2010.
Stepanowich, Kelton, director. Gods Acre. Half Breed films, 2016.