We are sitting in a small conference room at Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Anchorage, Alaska. In front of me on a piece of paper, Carl Wassilie draws a circle with a dot in the center and tells me this represents mindfulness. This symbol was Carl’s answer to my question about what he had referred to earlier as the “Yupik mind.” The Yupik mind is more than just a way of thinking, it’s a way of being informed by centuries of stories passed from generation to generation through language, dance, and lived experience. This concept of mindfulness came up in many of our conversations with the people and organizations we met with in Anchorage and Kivalina, as well as our daily group conversations.

A key part of mindfulness for native communities is the act of maintaining what outsiders usually term “traditional knowledge,” but community members understand as simply knowledge through experience. We were told many times during our interviews that stories do not carry the same weight as studies backed by “western” scientific data, whether they are part of an environmental impact assessment, development plan, or discovery in a lawsuit. The disconnect between science and human experience does not capture the holistic picture necessary for adaptation to and resilience in the face of a changing climate.

Mindfulness is about connection to culture. This connection is gradually being eroded in a less tangible but just as threatening way as Kivalina’s shoreline due to many of the same drivers: climate change, a historical and present colonization of native resources and sovereignty, limited power to self-govern, and development for profit without regard for community well-being and environmental sustainability. The “idleness,” dependency on drugs and external resources, and high suicide rates in native communities, particularly among adolescents, is partly a manifestation of a cultural change from a subsistence lifestyle to a cash economy. This “intergenerational trauma,” more so than relocation, may be the most important issue to address when it comes to Kivalina’s survival.

Mindfulness is about being conscious of where you’ve come from, where you are, and where you are going. The most common question we received was, “Why are you here?” Implicit in that question are inquiries about who you are, what is your purpose, and what do you want? That night, we all took a step back to return to our personal motivations for coming to the Arctic and Kivalina in the first place.  Our group mosaic comprised a diversity of geographical, academic, cultural, analytical and work experiences that fit together through a common interest in learning through the heart and not just the mind about what it means to live climate change. Regardless of each individual’s motivation, we all discovered that the answer had to be informed by the people of the Arctic and the Kivalina community.

In order for the latter to occur, mindfulness requires listening with an open mind and the humbleness to acknowledge and change preconceived notions when they prove inaccurate or misinformed. In essence, mindfulness can be a transformational process that involves internal reflection through external engagement. As one community elder told us, there will be no future survival unless you think it and create it. There will be no future survival for anyone, anywhere, unless there is mindfulness—mindfulness that we are all connected by history, culture, the environment, and community. In order to survive, we must learn to listen and speak from the heart and not just the head.