Photo by Tamara Herman
December 10, 2019

Spotlight on Indigenous Activists

Noelle Phillips

As the impacts of the climate emergency become more apparent, activists rallying around the issue are bringing it to the forefront of international discussion. Recently, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has become a global icon for her dedication to raising consciousness and holding corporations and politicians accountable for their contributions to the climate crisis. She has inspired climate strikes across the globe and worked with Indigenous organizers to move forward. We are especially grateful for her allyship.

At this point in our collective climate activism venture, though, it’s crucial to note that Indigenous people have been speaking out against mistreatment of the land for decades — but many still find themselves excluded from conversations around climate.

Indigenous activists are trailblazers in climate organizing, as they often stand on the frontlines when climate aggravators abuse land and water. For decades, Indigenous people have been instrumental in cultivating awareness both within their communities and on the international stage. The discourse around our climate crisis cannot exclude People of Color, especially Indigenous communities, which contribute the least to global climate change, yet are the most impacted by its effects. It is not a true discussion of climate change if Indigenous voices do not have a seat at the table.

So, how do we understand the climate crisis holistically rather than centered on individual experience? We must go back to the roots of environmental conservation, and that requires listening to Indigenous people.

Allow us to introduce you to a few Indigenous climate icons to keep on your radar.

Madonna Thunder Hawk
Oohenumpa Lakota

“Because we're land-based, we're always as a people concerned about the environment and extracting corporations."

Madonna Thunder Hawk, a leader, boarding school survivor, and lifelong activist, advocates for Indigenous communities across the continent and globe. She has fought for Native justice — from child custody to pipeline battles — for over 50 years, and she is still fighting at almost 80 years old.

Growing up on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in the 1940s, Thunder Hawk witnessed the impact of federal land grabs and government-spurred flooding.

In her twenties, Thunder Hawk became a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Red Power Movement, and she occupied Alcatraz. In 1973, she became a member of the Pie Patrol at Wounded Knee, and later, a member of the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Team. In order to help Native children pushed out of public schools learn their culture, Thunder Hawk established the We Will Remember Survival School in 1974. Her daughter, Marcy, is a graduate. Thunder Hawk is also the co-founder of Women of All Red Nations and the Black Hills Alliance, groups that confronted the intersectionality of issues facing Native women and investigated uranium mining in the sacred Black Hills, respectively.

In 2004, Thunder Hawk joined the Romero Institute’s Lakota People’s Law Project with the intention of reforming policy in regard to the Indian Child Welfare Act. In her Cheyenne River homelands, Thunder Hawks now works with Wasagiya Najin, a "Grandmothers' Group" she helped establish to create a system to handle child welfare matters in the community. She also helped to organize camps at Standing Rock in the resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in 2016 and is a supporter of the anti-Keystone XL movement.

Most recently, Thunder Hawk is the subject of a documentary called “Warrior Women,” which recounts her past and follows her from Wounded Knee to Standing Rock. A force to be reckoned with, Madonna Thunder Hawk continues to rise in pursuit of social and environmental justice for all Indigenous people.

JoAnn Tall
Oglala Lakota

“Every day of our life we’re with the land...we’re part of mother earth. We are her children.”

An environmental advocate, JoAnn Tall has been a major figure in Native American activism for decades. Tall survived boarding schools, and because of this, knew nothing about her culture until she had what she called a spiritual awakening in the 1970s. This experience drove her to become very involved with the Black Hills Alliance, tracking uranium mining in the sacred Black Hills near the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Tall worked to ensure that any companies trying to mine for uranium in the Black Hills had to get the approval of voters rather than exclusively from the state of South Dakota. She also organized protests against nuclear testing in the Black Hills.

Tall’s advocacy helped to give Native residents a seat at the table in discussing their own land, which has historically not always been the case. In 1989, Tall became a co-founder of Native Resource Coalition, which worked to educate community members on how the environment intersects with health. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1993.

Tara Houska
Ojibwe Couchiching First Nation

“Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in Indigenous lands. So we are the last holders of these sacred places and of the diversity of the world.”

Tara Houska, raised in North Dakota, is a water and land protector and advocate for Indigenous inclusivity in policy-making. As an attorney, she has helped gain recognition of issues facing Indigenous communities by way of her affiliations with organizations working on a grassroots level to a federal scale. Houska is a co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit working toward fighting the stereotype of Natives in sports and pop culture. She is also an advisor for Matriarch, a PAC that works to increase the number of women in office with the goal of economic, social, and racial justice. Houska also formerly served as the National Campaigns Director for Honor the Earth.

Houska was on the ground for the protest against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and continues to be an advocate for the eradication and prevention of pipelines. In 2018, Houska presented a TEDTalk, discussing the movement and resilience of the Native people who rallied around protecting the land.

Beyond Standing Rock, Houska speaks about the importance of upholding treaties in the present day, saying that the consultation and consent of Indigenous people is crucial to sustain the land for generations to come.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
Aztec Heritage

“The biggest issue we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet. The planet does not need saving, we do.”

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an Indigenous climate activist and hip-hop artist, got his start at a very young age speaking on the topic of climate change. At just 19, he has already had a major influence in holding political leaders accountable for their failure to act on the current climate crisis. He was one of the plaintiffs in Juliana vs. United States, also known as Youth v. Gov: a group of young people suing the federal government in 2015 for threatening their future with climate inaction. Martinez is also involved in Martinez vs. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which highlights the government’s negligence toward climate change and the impact that will have on the youth.

Martinez has a long list of accolades: he has given a TED Talk, has spoken to the United Nations on environmental issues, and is the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, an organization rooted in environmental preservation by way of organizing and policy change. In 2017, he wrote a book titled "We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement That Restores the Planet," about his work in approaching the current climate crisis and how the reader can do the same.

Naelyn Pike
Chiricahua Apache

“We all have one issue and we all can relate. And that’s that we need to protect this Earth.”

Naelyn Pike made headlines in 2015 when she became the youngest person, at the age of 13, to speak to congress. Pike is a youth activist working to defend sacred lands and prevent environmental harm by fighting for Indigenous stewardship of territory. She is a member of the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit that seeks to safeguard land and promote civic engagement to protect a site called Oak Flat. Oak Flat, a place she identifies as home, is threatened by mining corporations that would cause harm to the land, water, and local tribes that hold this place sacred. On the frontlines of this movement, she has helped to organize protests across the country. She spoke at the National Bioneers Conference in 2017 and has garnered a lot of support for her fervent activism. Pike held her first public speaking engagement at the age of nine and continues to address audiences to this day, inspiring many more to advocate for climate justice.

Tokata Iron Eyes
Lakota

“We are at the edge of a cliff in regards to our timeline to save this planet, and the Indigenous people will be the ones to lead the movement off of the edge.”

Tokata Iron Eyes is a 16-year-old environmental activist working with various organizations to prevent the degradation of the land. Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has been a water protector since DAPL first invaded her homelands. In 2016, she spoke in a video for the organization Rezpect Our Water, asking viewers to sign a petition to the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the construction permit for DAPL. She pulled many allies to Standing Rock to protest the construction.

She is now channeling her energy to organize both locally and internationally, inspiring many to actively participate in protesting negligence toward the climate crisis. At her high school in Pine Ridge, Iron Eyes is on the board for Indigenized Energy, a sustainable energy collective that installed a solar farm and is working on other projects to implement. Earlier this fall, Iron Eyes and Thunberg joined forces to speak at Red Cloud Indian School, Iron Eyes’ home campus, on youth activism in the midst of the climate crisis. They then traveled to climate rallies on Standing Rock and Cheyenne River, and in Rapid City, SD, to speak about what we can do to make change moving forward.

Autumn Peltier
Wikwemikong First Nation

"Maybe we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the decision table when people make decisions about our lands and waters."

Autumn Peltier is a water warrior who has been fighting for clean water since the age of eight. From speaking at the United Nations (UN) Youth Climate Summit to organizing at a local level in her First Nations community, Peltier is only getting started. Her auntie, Josephine Mandamin, is her inspiration. She taught a very young Peltier the importance of advocacy. In 2015, Peltier attended the Children’s Climate Conference and, the following year, she tearfully spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regarding the importance of clean water. Today, Peltier is a water protector who speaks out against those who ignore the persistent problems of contaminated water. “A lot of us youth are scared,” Peltier said in an interview with Vice. “We are wondering, do we even have a future to look forward to?”

Earlier this year, at the age of 14, Peltier was named Chief Water Commissioner for Anishinabek First Nation—the role previously held by her aunt Josephine.

Peltier addressed the UN in both 2018 and 2019, highlighting that Indigenous communities are the most affected by contaminated water, that water is life, and it is sacred. This was a pivotal moment for Indigenous communities, as their worldviews have been historically excluded from these conversations. Peltier is challenging this status quo by amplifying the needs of her community — issues that will eventually impact everyone, no matter the nation. Peltier is a living reminder that the time is now, and we must hold lawmakers accountable for their negligence in the face of the climate crisis.

In the era of climate crisis, it is more important than ever to listen to, learn from, honor, respect, and support Indigenous voices.