Native tribes’ close relationship with and dependency on the natural environment has placed them on the frontlines of a crisis they are not responsible for. Though Indigenous communities contribute relatively small amounts of planet-warming emissions, climate change poses a significant threat to Indigenous survival and ways of life. However, we are increasingly understanding the immense value that Indigenous knowledge has in guiding natural resource conservation, regeneration, and land stewardship.
Indigenous communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis are transitioning to clean energy, releasing comprehensive climate adaptation plans, and curbing their emissions. Indigenous knowledge, and their resistance to government and corporate incursions on land, enables them to take a critical approach to environmental justice and activism that all state climate policy stakeholders can learn from and support.
To discuss this topic more in-depth, we were joined by four Indigenous leaders in the climate space on our latest Deep Dive webinar. Jade Begay, the Climate Justice Campaign Director at the NDN Collective, Ruth Miller and Nauri Toler of the Native Movement, and Angela Mooney D’Arcy, the Executive Director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, each provided insight on how Indigenous climate advocacy can be best supported, and what policymakers and advocates should learn from tribal communities who are leading the way.
Jade Begay, NDN Collective
Jade Begay, a Diné woman and citizen of the Tesuque Pueblo tribe of northern New Mexico, is the Climate Justice Campaign Director at the NDN Collective and also serves on the White House Environmental Justice Council. The NDN Collective is an ecosystem organization; it is an organization that spans seven legal entities of both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) status. With their (c)(3) nonprofit arm, they focus on advocacy, campaign building, philanthropy, and grant writing, and also work to resource and network Indigenous people to give them greater access to opportunity. With their (c)(4) arm, they work to mobilize voters. Their last arm is for-profit and works on incubating businesses and supporting native entrepreneurs.
The Climate Justice Campaign within the NDN Collective was launched in July 2021 and created this video to demonstrate their vision of climate justice, framing it with the question: what if the best times are ahead of us? The campaign seeks to answer this question by finding what can be done today to create a future that is more equitable and just for all people, especially Indigenous peoples. Their vision statement addresses how climate justice is about bringing people back into their land and ancestral ways, while also building a just and renewable economy that is no longer dependent on extractive industries. They envision a world where our communities and our land coexist in a state of liberation, exemplifying their goal of empowering Indigenous communities in order to combat the climate crisis.
Many of the collective’s campaigns focus on ending extraction, with their most prominent effort right now being a technical research project around the Dakota Access Pipeline. One of the main reasons for their focus on the extractive industries is to reduce the violence that is brought into their territories. As part of this, they advocate for the attention to be drawn to the missing and murdered Indigenous people in these regions.
They utilize Indigenous knowledge systems in order to develop climate solutions that reflect their value of living with respect to all sources of life. Primarily, the audience of the NDN Collective as a whole is made up of tribal nations. The climate justice team works with Indigenous peoples who are doing land protection work, conservation work, and folks already involved so that they can expand their existing base while bringing more people in. They do this for two reasons: to build knowledge, educate, and create awareness, and also to prepare for the impacts of legislation that is to come and that which is already in place.
The Climate Justice Campaign is working with communities to prepare and protect themselves from fire, drought, flooding, and all extreme weather. They also work to build bridges with policymakers to ensure that we never repeat the inequities or injustices that have long oppressed Indigenous people.
Within NDN Collective as a whole there are many other advancements in motion. They are mobilizing the vote and educating on the necessity of Indigenous voters. They work to support native entrepreneurs and small business owners, often partnering with tribes to build sustainable small businesses that are inclusive and designed for Indigenous people. Additionally, the collective also works in impact investing where they allocate resources to sustainable, regenerative local models that help build the local economy and that build these climate solutions. One example of this is their incubation of a buffalo wildlife sanctuary through a land-back model, meaning that they are reclaiming lands and putting lands back into Indigenous hands. It’s addressing cultural revitalization, bringing Indigenous people back into relationship with the buffalo nation and revitalizing the population. It is also a regenerative business, employing native people as well as other people in the community. This circular local economic model is essential to ensure that Indigenous voices are not only encouraged but also amplified through prosperity in their local communities and nationally.
From Begay’s work and experiences, she identified three ways you can support their cause:
- Working in partnership with policymakers and staffers in political office to build an understanding of how we can move resources from the private and public sector into our communities in an equitable way. This is especially important with the roll out of Build Back Better.
- We need policy makers to understand frameworks such as FPIC (Free Prior and Informed Consent) , UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) and the National Environmental Policy Act.
- With the new commitment from the White House to include Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowing into policy decisions, we need policymakers to come to our communities and learn from our knowledge holders to understand how these systems can inform policy making.
Nauri Toler, Native Movement
Nauri Toler, the Environmental Justice Organizer at Native Movement, is Iñupiaq from the North Slope of Alaska, a community that is particularly involved with oil and gas extraction. There are eight main communities on the North Slope that are especially close and deeply impacted by the fossil fuel industry. Just eight miles away from Nuiqsut, one of the communities on the North Slope, gravel pit mine blasts happen every night, and some are so strong that they have cracked the walls of people’s houses. Toler also talked about the Gwich’in particularly, another heavily impacted community just below the Iñupiaq, as their caribou habitat has been encroached on by oil and gas companies.
Crucial to understanding the context of oil and gas extraction in this region is the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which works differently than the allocation of reservations in the lower 48 states. In Alaska, they created corporations in an effort to buy the land and make deals with the Indigenous people there, which has effectively created a for-profit enterprise. There are 12 different regional corporations in addition to 171 village corporations. The Iñupiaq people’s corporation, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), has land rights and has a hand in the oil and gas development that happens there. The two main areas where oil and gas is developed are the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska (NPRA) and the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). When we hear government officials or oil and gas corporations say that they have the support of the Indigenous people, they’re usually referring to the support of the corporations because they benefit financially from the industry.
However, these communities are suffering from increased health issues as a result. The Village of Nuiqsut has increased respiratory illnesses, rare cancers, and exacerbated mental health issues, with high rates of suicide on the North Slope. Socially, the community’s health has also been affected as people have lost jobs and local tensions have grown. The wildlife has also suffered, with black bone marrow found in caribou, mold in fish, and decreased numbers of subsistence populations.
The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. Oil companies in the Arctic plan to use “chillers” to refreeze the ground because the ground is starting to thaw out and ruining their infrastructure. Nauri pointed to the absurdity of this by pulling a quote from an American Progress article that read: “The oil lobby’s answer to a melting Arctic: refreeze the areas it wants to continue drilling.”
Toler then highlighted some of the organizations that are working to combat the advancement of oil and gas companies in Alaska. One such organization is the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which was formed in 1988 in response to a proposal to drill for oil in the ANWR. The steering committee is primarily focused on protecting this land as they rely on the caribou calving grounds where the proposed development is. It is worth noting that the UN is currently investigating human rights violations with a proposal to drill in the refuge from 2020. The next organization she brought up was the Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA) that works to foster healthy impact communities. They work against oil and gas development on Inupiat land in both the NPRA and Anwar, but primarily on NPRA since the Gwich’in Steering Committee is fully focused on Anwar. SILA was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management on the Master Willow Development Project and they won, effectively freezing the project.
These Indigenous communities are also making great strides with renewable energy in the Arctic. The Inupiat village of Kotzebue has 3,000 residents and sources 50 percent of their energy from renewables, with some wind power and mostly solar panels. The Gwich’in are working on a solar energy project that is helping to bring renewable energy to their village, and they’re also making some income off of that by putting energy back into the system. As of the beginning of August 2021, the solar project is 100 percent operational and the diesel generators were shut off for the first time in over 50 years with plans to be off diesel in the summer months from here on out.
One of the areas where Native Movement has been working with the North Slope communities recently was the People versus Fossil Fuels week of action in Washington D.C. Every day, hundreds of people marched to the White House and delivered two million signatures in support. They occupied the Bureau of Land Management for the first time since the ‘70’s. The movement had two demands: (1) President Biden must stop approving fossil fuel projects and speed up the end of the fossil fuel era, and (2) President Biden must declare a national climate emergency and launch a just, renewable energy revolution.
Additionally, the Native Movement worked with the IMAGO Initiative, which aimed to invest in Indigenous-led processes to explore new designations that could protect the Arctic Refuge for conservation as well as cultural and subsistence needs. It was a large collaborative group, with some elders and people from the environmental justice space who wanted to brainstorm innovative ways to protect the refuge. A smaller area that the Native Movement works in is with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA). They are a public corporation of Alaska that has bid on the leases in ANWR, as recently as January of 2021. They got a lot of attention by bidding on those leases, making them less popular as a lot of people care about the Refuge. They also work with the Arctic Refuge Defense Coalition, the Reserve Campaign Coalition, various insurance campaigns to get them to stop insuring oil and gas on the North Slope, and the Keep it IN the Ground (KING) campaign.
Toler closed with one important thought. The phrase “land back” is often met with doubt that Indigenous peoples could ever get their land fully back and be fully sovereign. She asks that everyone take a moment to rethink why they immediately think that giving land back is not realistic; if you’re not going to put work behind it, that’s alright, but you should rethink why exactly you think it won’t ever happen.
Ruth Miller, Native Movement
Ruth Miller, a Dena’ina woman from Dgheyay Kaq in Anchorage, Alaska, is the Climate Justice Director at Native Movement and elaborated on some of the complex dynamics that Nauri mentioned are at play in Alaska. She pointed out Alaska as the oil colony of the U.S. Empire. In a predominantly conservative state — with predominantly conservative elected officials across the board, deep seated oil interests, a lot of outside money flowing in to buyout our elections, as well as the largest population of Alaskan Native and Native American peoples — it can be really difficult for the Native Movement to move campaigns forward. Miller emphasized that, for Indigenous women, this isn’t a job. She stated how she doesn’t ever identify as an environmentalist, because “to love our lands, to love our bodies, is who we are. It’s taught in our cultures, and it’s been so for 30,000 plus years in our land. It is our responsibility, it’s our identity to protect our lands and to ensure that the future we choose moving forward on our lands is one that is sustainable, and just so our work of climate justice is challenged to be very broad.”
In order to do this, it is important to work to address the historical trauma and violence that Indigenous people have inherited through the process of colonization and now corporatization. Additionally, we also have to work within the environmental and climate movement to decolonize those spaces because there is a deep seated history of racism, White supremacy, and eugenics within the conservation movement of the United States. Native Movement offers a decolonizing advocacy and environmentalism training for those eager to learn more about that history.
The Indigenous objective with land is to rekindle their peoples relationships to their land, and not to look at the land as a resource that needs to be sustainably managed. Instead, Miller advocates for looking to mend sustainable relationships that are based on reciprocity, respect, responsibility, and justice. The Native Movement at large works towards this in a number of ways. Through their Gender, Justice and Healing Department, they address the ways that Indigenous women are affected and impacted by environmental racism because native women are the demographic with the highest numbers of abuse, homicides, and disappearances in the U.S. She points out that this area needs more attention, and we should have full webinars and conferences about the ways that this violence is inflicted, particularly on Indigenous female bodies. The other departments in Native Movement include the Climate Justice Department and the Environmental Justice Department, which Toler is a part of. They work together through a number of broad approaches by including Indigenous leaders who are also hoping to intervene in and build relationships with the broader climate community. A big part of this is acts of translation: taking the time to translate Indigenous values and ways of being into climate policy, and doing the same to bring climate policy pieces like the Green Deal into Indigenous communities, and translate them to their frameworks and languages to ensure that they can see themselves in any policy that they’re asked to endorse. For the past year and a half, Miller has been the Alaska State Lead for the National Green New Deal Network and created a zine as part of that translation work so that Indigenous people could see their values represented and become invested in the climate policy on the table — specifically the Green New Deal, knowing how it would benefit them as well as what parts they may disapprove of.
A year and a half ago, Native Movement began convening the Alaska Climate Alliance, which is composed of over 80 different organizations, including historically white-led conservation groups, and Native organizations coming together to strategize. There are five different working groups: community care and resilience, renewable energy, resource extraction, climate adaptation, and clean energy. The Alliance has created a supportive opportunity for conservation groups to not only address the climate crisis strategically through sharing information and resources, but to also be guided through the process of decolonization. The Native Movement decolonization working group is now doing what they are loosely calling audits: voluntary audits for organizations to think about what diversity, inclusion, and equity looks like within their organizations and how they can grow into greater alignment with Indigenous sovereignty. Miller points out that real liberation and real sustainability will not come from separating native peoples from their lands, but instead from land back initiatives that give tribal management and stewardship of their lands and resources.
Another important point Miller brought up was narrative work. She pointed out that Indigenous storytelling and elevating Indigenous ways of being is true climate action. Miller began this work when she was 14 years old, working against the proposed Pebble Mine in one of her home regions, Bristol Bay. She reflected on her first day on the job and remembered cutting fish and talking with relatives because they knew that it’s the Indigenous ways of being, storytelling, and frameworks that are the messages that carry so much weight in what kind of climate policy is elevated. She still takes the stand by this method today, such as during her time at COP26; she noted the Indigenous approach to climate justice is curated for a broader audience, thinking about what their storytelling can look like, and the ways that they can change the popular narrative about what “real” climate policy must look like.
To learn more about Miller’s work, check out the latest publication she co-authored called “Relatives, Not Resources: Applying an Alaskan Native Lens to Climate Sovereignty, Economic Justice and Healing,” in which she dives deeper into what an Indigenous regenerative economy can look like.
Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples
Angela Mooney D’Arcy, is Acjachemen and spoke from the unceded Tongva ancestral homelands that are now known as Los Angeles. She is the Executive Director of Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. There are over 150 native nations in what’s known as California, and D’Arcy’s nation, as well as many nations in California, are not federally recognized, which means that they have no jurisdiction. She points out that the results of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny were the roots of climate injustice as the genocide and displacement of native peoples occurred. Despite being an old concept, it still manifests in contemporary law and policies. She showed a map of the extractive industries in California and pointed out that there is a direct alignment of where colonization first started and where extraction is taking place. Over the course of time from colonial invasion to now, trillions of dollars in fossil fuels have been extracted from Californian Indigenous lands, and yet a third of Native people in California remain landless and not federally recognized. However, she also points out the resilience of Indigenous peoples as they still know the names of their places in their language despite these horrors.
D’Arcy also noted the accelerated speed with which violence occurred not only to native peoples in California but also the land. The transition to introduced plant species took more than 300 years of colonization in Mexico, but in California, the transition happened in just one lifetime. The landscapes were radically and violently altered due to the introduction of forests, plant species, crop animals, and systems of working to dominate as opposed to working with the environment. The native relationship to land was greatly altered before and after colonization. Before colonization, Indigenous peoples lived in relationship with the water and Earth and were not separate from nature. Afterwards, however, they were enslaved and forced to dominate other species and landscapes that weren’t their own and were rooted in practices of domination and extraction instead of their natural relationship.
D’Arcy also drew attention to the massive expenses of California’s attempted genocide. In just six years, the state of California and the Federal Government spent $449,605 (in contemporary dollars) to reimburse private militias to attempt genocide, engaging in multiple expeditions around the state.
The Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples does lots of important work amplifying Indigenous voices, particularly in Southern California. Their work with NDN Collective has been really transformative because in urban areas and large cities like Los Angeles, it is rare that Indigenous voices are ever listened to. The Sacred Places Institute was able to use a grant from NDN Collective to support their work. Now, for instance, there are three local tribal representatives appointed for the LA County Task Force, a rarity for such a large community that is not majority Indigenous. They also do a lot of land back work. One of the things that they do during interventions at local and state government is demand that a map of Indigenous territories be included. This is important to include so that decision makers, policymakers, and state and local agencies have to confront the fact that they are on Indigenous land every time they’re doing climate work.
D’Arcy also pointed to the work of the Climate Science Alliance Tribal Work Group, which is led by Californians uplifting traditional cultural practitioners’ voices and responses to climate change. One of the things Sacred Places Institute did during the pandemic was partner with the Climate Science Alliance to create tribal elders fellowship to make sure that elders have the resources they need to be the traditional cultural practitioners. Their demographic is often overlooked in philanthropy, and Sacred Places and The Climate Science Alliance wanted to create an intergenerational link to support elders financially and otherwise so that they can continue to do the good work.
She also stressed the impact that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples could have if adopted, and she encouraged people to look into it and for policymakers to adopt it in their states as California did several years ago via joint resolution. D’Arcy also showed Governor Newsom’s Native American Ancestral Lands Policy from last year whereby the state commits to returning lands to California people. She emphasized that it’s not impossible to return Indigenous lands. There are actually local and international administrative infrastructures set up to help support Indigenous tribes. She concludes on a point about land-back initiatives, saying, “If people can acknowledge if it’s stolen, then they can give it back.”
The amplification of Indigenous voices in all pursuits of justice is of the utmost importance, but the Indigenous experience with environmental practices and relationships will be especially integral in the fight for climate justice. This webinar was just the beginning of a conversation – we could have had double the time and it still wouldn’t have been enough. This is not meant to be a fully comprehensive, deep dive into each of these issues, but it is important to listen and advocate for Indigenous perspectives, such as those of these women, as often as possible.