Earth Day 2022: Why Indigenous voices 'must be acknowledged and centered' to truly tackle the climate crisis

·6-min read

At the 52nd-annual National Day of Mourning gathering, held on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on a grassy knoll overlooking Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, activist Mahtowin Munro, Oglala Lakota and co-organizer through the United American Indians of New England, spoke passionately — not only about colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty but also about the raging climate crisis.

"When corporations and the U.S. military account for 70% of the world's pollution, promoting a narrative of individual responsibility is not going to save us," Munro said. "Recycling and carbon offsets are not going to save us. Hoping that capitalism will get kinder will definitely not save us. The Green New Deal is not going to save us. Only by listening to Indigenous people and dismantling the systems that allowed climate collapse to happen in the first place will we be able to save the planet."

A scene from the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass., a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people and the theft of Native lands. (Photo: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A scene from the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass., a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people and the theft of Native lands. (Photo: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Indigenous people, Munro said, "have always been caretakers of the land, water and the life therein, despite intense efforts of settler governments to stop us from doing so. And for generations, our people have been warning about climate crisis. It's not too late to achieve some climate justice on this planet."

But to do so, she stressed, "Indigenous voices must be acknowledged and centered."

This year for Earth Day (April 22), Yahoo Life is doing just that: looking at the climate crisis through Indigenous eyes by speaking to Native Gen Z activists — in the unique position of living at the intersection of racial inequality, social injustice and climate crises, and, being young, having the fire in their bellies to do everything in their power to have a viable future on this planet.

Clockwise from top left are Autumn Peltier, Ruth Miller, Trenton DeVore and Leala Pourier. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Clockwise from top left are Indigenous climate-justice activists Autumn Peltier, Ruth Miller, Trenton DeVore and Leala Pourier. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

"[Native people] have always viewed the Earth in a way that she's one of us," explains Leala Pourier of Earth Guardians, one of the young leaders who spoke with Yahoo Life, along with Ruth Miller of Native Movement, Trenton DeVore of Pueblo Action Alliance and Autumn Peltier, Chief Water Commissioner for the Aniishnabek Nation.

Pourier, Oglala Lakota and a 21-year-old University of Denver student hailing from Colorado's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, discussed a crisis that many people don't connect to climate justice: the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women living near oil pipeline camps. "I'm really passionate about it," she explained, "because it shows that climate change is not just crazy weather events."

Over in Alaska, Miller is focused on preventing oil spills, protecting native species and speaking out on both national and international stages, while DeVore spoke to Yahoo Life from New Mexico about trying to stop the controversial Hydrogen Hub Act. Peltier, meanwhile, at just 17, talked about serving as the youngest-ever Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner in Canada. "Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth," she said. "That's how we look at it, as a living thing. It has a spirit."

The connection between Indigenous people and climate justice

"Indigenous peoples are the original climate scientists" is a sentiment shared across Native American communities, explains Jade Begay, Diné and Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico and Climate Justice Campaign Director for NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to "building Indigenous power."

"It really just comes from honoring the hundreds and thousands of years of learning and understanding, and holding what we call 'traditional ecological knowledge,'" she tells Yahoo Life, "and this ranges from the knowledge of how our ecosystems work to being the original stewards of lands across the world."

In fact, notes Begay, who has testified about climate issues before U.S. Congress, 80% of the world's biodiversity is stewarded by Indigenous people — despite making up less than 5% of the world's population. So being so invested in protecting the land, she says, "is no coincidence."

It's also often said that Indigenous communities are "on the front lines of climate change," as they are in strong contact with how the environment is shifting. "I think it's safe to say that, in many ways, we're noticing the changes first, and oftentimes firsthand," despite having contributed "the least" to carbon emissions and to global warming.

As a prime example of this, she points to the Yup'ik village of Newtok, in Alaska, where lifelong residents are currently moving their entire village inland because permafrost, melting at an alarming rate, is causing buildings to collapse into the Bering Sea.

NEWTOK, ALASKA - OCTOBER 8: A child's tricycle sinks in the muck off a boardwalk in Newtok, Alaska on October 8, 2019. Thawing permafrost creates a wet and ever-shifting environment in the village. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A child's tricycle sinks in the muck off a boardwalk in Newtok, Alaska, where thawing permafrost creates a wet and ever-shifting environment in the village, which is slowly having to be moved inland. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"This community was a migratory Indigenous community that really had no impact at all on the climate," and yet was one of the first to be officially named as "climate refugees." It's a story worth paying attention to, she says, "because this could be so many of us in the not-so-distant future."

As far as what can be done to save the planet, Begay believes it calls for a systemic shift, including the embrace of Indigenous ways.

"These knowledge systems are going to help us restore what we've lost, and hopefully revive ecosystems and bring some balance to the atmosphere and the climate," she says. "But also I think it's just a beautiful way of living, being in right relationship to earth and water and air and community.

"A big part of Indigenous knowledge systems is how to be a good relative — not just to the earth and its systems, but also to each other," she says. "And I think we're seeing a lot of signs from Mother Earth," whether it's the pandemic or extreme weather or the war in Ukraine and our reliance on Russian oil, "telling us we need to get back into right relationship." 

Part of what might help, she says, is handing power over to the Gen Z activists. "I really want to highlight the climate organizers and activists who are doing work on the ground in their community and rising up as leaders, because that is something we 100% need — young leaders stepping up as we see the old guard, you know, make its transition."

—Video produced by Olivia Schneider

Find all of Yahoo Life's Earth Day profiles here.

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