November is Native American Heritage Month. While we believe that Native American heritage should be celebrated throughout the year, this month provides a good opportunity to reflect on the central role that Native peoples and activists play in the climate fight.
Why is it important to recognize Native and Indigenous activists?
Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of climate change. Government-forced relocation has made Native tribes more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Tribes were forced onto the least desirable lands by settlers — they’ve lost 99% of their historical lands — and now they’re watching as those lands succumb to climate change, from extreme heat to reduced rainfall to flooding. Forty percent of federally recognized tribes live in Alaska, where warming temperatures and melting sea ice threaten their way of life.
So it’s no surprise that Indigenous activists are on the front lines of the climate fight, too. For just one example, look at protests against fossil fuel projects such as oil pipelines. One study from the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that Indigenous-led actions against fossil fuel projects in the US and Canada have prevented or delayed carbon dioxide emissions equal to 25% of annual emissions from the two countries.
But it’s an uphill battle. Even though Indigenous peoples and local communities manage about 80% of our planet’s biodiversity, they receive less than 1% of the funding to prevent deforestation. In addition, Indigenous protesters face jail time, fines, and even violence. Some states are also passing anti-protest laws, which will only increase these risks.
Those are just some of the reasons it’s important to center Indigenous voices in the climate conversation, this month and every month.
Indigenous climate activists to follow
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Mashika People
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez made his first public appeal for the climate at the tender age of six years old. At nine, he organized a youth Earth Guardians group to stop the use of pesticides in Boulder, Colorado, where he lived. By fifteen, he had already received the United States Community Service Award from President Barack Obama and addressed the UN General Assembly. Since then, he has served as the youth director of Earth Guardians and taken part in lawsuits including Juliana v. United States, which accused the government of inaction on climate change, and Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Today, Martinez is a hip-hop artist who writes and performs music rooted in environmental justice.
“We are at a tipping now, where we will either be remembered as the generation that destroyed the planet, as a generation that put profits before future, or as a generation that united to address the greatest issue of our time.”
Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd, Quechua People
The list of what Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd has accomplished is long indeed. A self-described “‘organism’ stewarding earth-based queer community through ancestral skills, interspecies relations and rites of passage,” they are the founder of Queer Nature, an organization dedicated to reconnecting queer people to the natural world to create a sense of belonging. In addition, they are a founding Council Member of Intersectional Environmentalist, a trans ambassador of Native Women’s Wilderness, and a founding member of the Diversify Outdoors coalition. Sinopoulos-Lloyd is an artist and eco-philosopher interested in liminality and what it can teach us about climate advocacy.
“To bring us back to the land to reclaim and understand our cultural and ecological roles is core to our mission. To reconnect us to our earthy queerness is an act of resistance in a dominant culture that says we are unnatural and do not belong. This is about belonging in a deep way.”
Quannah Chasinghorse, Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota Peoples
Quannah Chasinghorse uses her platform as a model to educate others about her Indigenous culture and to advance her environmental activism. Chasinghorse fights against drilling in Alaska and advocates for wilderness designation to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. She is a member of the International Gwich’in Youth Council, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and the Alaska Wilderness League, and has spoken at many climate action events. In 2020, she made Teen Vogue’s “Top 21 under 21” list.
“Being able to be an Indigenous youth in this space is so important. I grew up never seeing any representation — now I get to be that person for a lot of others.”
Want more news about clean energy and climate justice? Sign up for our Greater Grid newsletter.Subscribe
Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation
Tara Houska is a land defender who spent six months living and working at Standing Rock to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline — then spoke about the fight on the TED stage. She’s a tribal attorney who advocates for Indigenous rights and justice at the local and federal levels. Houska is also the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a non-profit organization that fights against stereotyping of Native representation in the public sphere, including sports.
“Storytelling moves hearts and minds. I thought about who is telling the story of climate, and the critical missteps of sporadically including and romanticizing Indigenous wisdom.”
Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe Nation
Winona LaDuke is a longtime and well-recognized Indigenous rights activist, working tirelessly on issues connected to climate change, human rights, green economies, clean water, local foods, and renewable energy. She is the executive director of Honor the Earth, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and resources to help sustainable Native communities. LaDuke is also the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which focuses on recovering the original White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota and preserving its people’s traditional practices. Somehow, she also finds time to advocate for sustainable development and run her hemp and heritage farm.
“As I reflect on the question of how to be a good ancestor, I reflect on intergenerational accountability. How do I account for my behaviors and decisions to my ancestors and to my descendants?”
Dallas Goldtooth, Dakota and Dine Peoples
Dallas Goldtooth mixes “traditional” activism — he leads the Keep it in the Ground Campaign for the Indigenous Environmental Network, which his father founded — with comedy activism through his comedy group, the 1491s. The 1491s portray modern Native American life through sketch comedy, which they believe can help educate and heal. Goldtooth has drawn on his comedy to protest the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, for instance. He is also a Dakota cultural/language teacher and a trainer in non-violent direct action.
“Our acts of resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline are a perfect example of us wising up to the ongoing modern colonialist game, and a proactive step toward protecting future generations from the worst impacts of climate change.”
Jasilyn Charger, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
Jasilyn Charger’s activism started with a mental crisis among youth on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Charger and their friends came together to create The One Mind Youth Movement, which began by offering young people on the reservation a safe place and a sense of community and soon expanded to incorporate activism. The One Mind Youth Movement became an integral part of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Since then, Charger has gone on to co-found the International Indigenous Youth Council and 7th Defenders, which aims to empower more youth from the Cheyenne River Reservation.
“You never know how strong you are
until being strong
is the only choice you have
born again savage
living for the land
my mother you will not ravage
and forever I will stand”
These seven activists are just a handful of the incredible Indigenous leaders on the front lines of the climate fight. Consider this list just a starting point!