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Indigenous, POC voices are imperative in the fight against climate change

On May 1 of this year, a panel sponsored by the New School in New York City called “Coming Together: Gender and Privilege in the Youth Climate Movement,” took place on Zoom. It was organized by Ludovica Martella, a researcher and reporter on sustainable practices and climate justice, and was focused on gender, race, and class privilege within the environmental movement.

The panelists featured the likes of Nine Berglund and Kellie Berns, who represented the ancestral Arapaho & Northern Cheyenne tribes as part of Earth Guardians, a youth-led indigenous activist group based in Colorado and Wyoming that are prominent in the fight against pipeline construction and food insecurity. Also present was Taylor Morton on behalf of We Act for Environmental Justice, a Harlem based nonprofit dedicated to supporting Northern Manhattan public housing residents disproportionately affected by environmental health issues and injustices related to air pollution and living quality.

Two students joined: Christian Tandazo, a graduate student at The News School, and Zoe Cina-Sklar, an 18-year-old student activist with the Sunrise Movement.

In his opening statement, Tandazo professed that “patriarchy is one of the real causes of the climate crisis, and how it connects to colonialism and white supremacy.” Without this dimension to the conversation, he said, “we won’t be able to create the change we want to see.” The importance of talking about colonialism and racism in the context of climate change is because these issues are so intimately intertwined in proliferating modern day struggles, he says. “We need to do the labor to dismantle a system that doesn’t care about certain folks.”

Likewise, Cina-Sklar expressed the sentiment that “we’re living in a society built on slavery and colonialism, and in order to address this issue we need to grapple with the systemic injustices our country was built on that we’re seeing so clearly at this moment in the coronavirus.”

Sabrina Chapa also spoke. “It’s important to have this conversation on gender and privilege because it allows us to heal as we go,” she said. “That’s super important whenever we’re focusing so much on deconstructing systems so we don’t further our divisive wounds.” From the land of Aztlan in the South Texas region, Chapa works with the Autonomous Brown Berets as a community organizer and activist working toward Chicano and indigenous liberation through self-determination and achieving native land rights, as well as indigenous land rematriation—a word that holds extraordinary weight in recognizing the female roots of indigenous culture, and perhaps most substantively conveys the ends of a truly inclusive climate justice movement.

In his 2012 memoir "The Unlikely Peace of Cuchumaquic: The Parallel Lives of People As Plants: Keeping the Seeds Alive," Pueblo author Martín Prechtel writes of the definition of rematriation: “This term describes an instance where land, air, water, animals, plants, ideas and ways of doing things and living are purposefully returned to their original natural context–their mother, the great Female Holy Wild. Like the repatriation of prisoners after years of war or millennia of unwilling slavery in service to an unconscious civilization, exploited and depleted for their wild vitality, any attempt to ‘rematriate’ them back to the Holy in Nature is the beginning of cultural sanity and healing.”

Rematriation is core to the narrative driving indigenous food and water sovereignty movements across the country, because it both strikes a tone that reaches the cultural roots of those most affected by climate change and directly implicates the patriarchal structure imported from Europe that has—through the capitalist aura of extraction, conquest, and profit-maximization—significantly wiped out Native American and Chicano ways of life and simultaneously fuels a deadly climate crisis. This use of language implies a changing conversation on where our priorities as a society lie in this fight, and a departure from the traditional structures that are usually applied to solve pressing issues.

Rematriation does not just simply a decolonization of land, it also implies a decolonization of the mind and spirit. It’s ethos is centralized around questioning the effectiveness of a system built upon traditionally patriarchal structures. “There’s something big in our movements, the labor that’s done by women and fem folks, looking at the way there’s so much care and so much listening and so much processing and dealing with men’s feelings,” Zoe Cina-Sklar said. “As we think about the society we want to be building, we want to be building a society that is not based on extraction, we want a society built off of mutual relationships. I think within our own work and our own movements, there are ways where like [sic] building relationships and building containers for having hard conversations and for talking about the patriarchy often falls on fem folks and looking at ways in which we can be building a movement where their work is actually valued … People who are domestic workers or childcare workers or teachers or social workers get so little value and looking as we think about changing systems and changing institutions, thinking about how we can put more value on care-based work rather than who can be the loudest or the most confident.”

“When we first talk about gender and sexuality in the climate crisis, I think it’s fundamental to reflect on how powerful hegemonic and homogenous identity terms are being used,” Chapa said during the panel. “I wanted to give the example of LatinX identity, and what that does to confuse people who come from mixed indigenous Spanish ancestry ... somebody who identifies as LatinX might have a difficult time finding their roots because their identity is fundamentally at odds with themselves. I think it’s important to mention the history of colonialism and what Spain and Hispanics did in coming over to South/Central/North America in regards to colonialism. I think that in order to think about talking about gender and sexuality in the climate crisis is that we have to go to our cultural roots. In the climate crisis, we have a plethora of different cultures, different roots. The significance is evaluating our own history to how we see gender and sexuality and getting to know what our ancestors practiced and seeing how we relate ourselves to systems and how systems try to enforce what the system’s need to continue, like the capitalist colonial state that survives on extraction.”

In Ludovica Martella’s opinion, the climate crisis we face today did not originate out of the Industrial Revolution, which many historians identify as the catalyst for centuries of rising global temperatures. Instead, by drawing from the work of experts, academics, and activists, Martella identifies the first instances of European colonialism in North America as the true inflection point based on research and data she has respectively conducted and collected regarding the history of greenhouse emissions since Christopher Columbus’ landing in the East Indies in 1492.

Ludovica Martella is an Italian immigrant working as a researcher and a reporter in environmental affairs. She played a part in the production of an episode of PBS’s Great Decisions, where her team talked to Jeffrey Sachs, James Hansen, and Ernest Jeffrey Moniz. She has presented her research as a panelist at the United Nations and spoke at the Youth Climate March in December of 2019 alongside Greta Thunberg. She recently became an adult mentor with This is Zero Hour, a youth climate movement based in New York. Today, in addition to her independent research, she works in tandem with the Three Sister Sovereignty Project (3SSP), a woman-led Mohawk advocacy group on the St. Regis Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne in the northern and eastern regions of New York, extending into Ontario. Her work there, as she defines it herself, is in “dismantling the patriarchal mindset imposed on the Mohawk people through colonization.”

In a more specific sense, she currently focuses on fighting the adverse effects of several toxic waste sites surrounding the reservation, called Superfund sites. The EPA defines these regions as “contaminated sites … due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed,” which the government or the companies responsible are compelled to clean up. There are a couple ongoing cases in and around New Jersey, the state that contains the most Superfund sites. “The Superfunds exist across all the U.S., and New Jersey disproportionately has more,” Martella told me. “There’s a huge harbor where they have stuff shipped overseas, and that basically created a lot of environmental justice issues in the community in New Jersey.”

“The problem is that there are no public documents about it,” Martella continued. “In the statement the company released, they committed to reconstruct the habitat they destroyed but have no local knowledge about what the habitat was. I’m advocating for a collaboration between local people, especially the Mohawks.”

The improper disposal of harmful waste was committed by four companies: General Motors, Domtar—a Canadian paper mill company—and two branches of the aluminum companies Alcoa, which have been poisoning waterways that have supported native communities for hundreds of years. “Domtar is open, GM closed and is there to clean up,” Martella said. “The two aluminum companies have also committed to the cleanup in 2013, it has just started only in 2019. The cleanup is supposed to last four years.”

This is a significant part of Martella’s dialogue on “modern colonialism,” which must be defined in relation to the historical colonization of the Americas. The use of this language to describe the actions and mindset of today’s corporations and government in infringing upon Indian sovereign lands in the interest of enterprise rests on two legs. The first is of the negligent way corporations today treat the sanctity of the land they extract from and monopolize on, especially in the context of the New Jersey Superfund cleanup processes that are taking years to complete while indigenous populations are bearing the brunt of these externalities, which materialize in health issues like cancer, birth defects, asthma, other respiratory illnesses, and mental health complications, leading to domestic violence, substance abuse, and a lack of access to traditional living resources.

“The value of local communities is huge, because the local people are the ones affected by this issue. Indigenous people have a knowledge of their ecosystem and their land, because they have that knowledge, they know what is best to be done as their habitat to be recreated,” Martella said. “Nobody outside of that community can commend unless they’ve had some interviews and conversations with local people; nobody can come in and base a general model [for environmental fixtures] on a specific ecosystem, because that’s when other problems come in.”

In regards to these pressing matters, Martella and 3SSP responded by launching local initiatives in an effort to reclaim the Mohawk Valley on the St. Lawrence River that they had been forced off of almost three centuries ago, and to re-establish and rejuvenate Mohawk culture in the midst of overwhelming apathy that has been overlooked by a popular climate movement infused with ignorance and privilege. According to its self-description, the Three Sisters Sovereignty Project seeks to “restore our food, energy and cultural sovereignty by re-birthing a sustainable Mohawk community based on traditional ways of life, on our ancestral soils of the Schoharie Valley in Central New York.” Several concrete initiatives include advocating the building of traditional Native American longhouses and communal cook houses, as well as “teaching the Mohawk language, ceremonial and cultural traditions, and growing organic food and medicinal herbs using soil stewardship and regenerative agricultural practices.”

“Fast forward through settler colonial history, the area saw the arrival of General Motors, Alcoa West, Alcoa East, and Domtar facilities, which were attracted to the area with the proximity of the St. Lawrence Seaway project that began in 1954,” Martella writes in a blog article. “It widened and deepened the river by creating new canals and locks with the aim of opening the region to ocean-going vessels. As a result, in 1957 the Moses-Saunders Power Dam was constructed on the St. Lawrence River and attracted industries with its low-cost hydroelectricity.”

This is not the first instance during the modern era in which Native Americans have seen their traditional practices and access to resources threatened by industry in acts of modern colonization. A notable example has been the battle against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have stretched 1,172 miles underground through the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, passing through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation’s culturally important tribal burial grounds. Another, more modern example, has been the grassroots resistance of land defenders and university students in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs against the construction of Kholberg Kravis Roberts’ Coastal GasLink pipeline that is set to run through 416 miles of Canadian subterrain.

The second leg of Martella’s dialogue on modern colonialism is historical. Her research includes a full environmental analysis of the colonialism upon which the U.S. was founded, and uses scientific metrics to locate moments in time that had permanent implications for the climate, as well as cultural teachings about the spirituality of indigenous communities’ relationship to the Earth and the fundamental ways of life in safeguarding the environment that would be under attack by the arrival of European settlers.

In terms of the Mohawk communities spanning New York and Canada, Martella writes of the historical strife that has followed natives since Dutch and French settlers, both of whom sought to benefit through trade with local tribes, washed up on the shore in the late 1600s and early 1700s. “ The Mohawk first suffered from European diseases brought by the settlers, and later on, from the Christianization of their land,” Martella writes. “In fact, in the 1750s, the French Jesuits established a mission on the St. Regis River, at the center of the Mohawk territory. Because of the proximity of small rivers merging into the St. Lawrence River Valley, this area was especially important to the Mohawk hunting and fishing practices.” On their webpage, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe affirms that “today, the Mohawk people of Akwesasne still rightfully claim territory outside the confines of the current boundaries of the reservation and exercise guardianship over these lands through National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106 and Environmental Protection Act processes.”

Martella’s key metric for examining the climate consequences of American historical colonialism is the GSSP, or Global Stratotype Section and Point. It illustrates rising global oxygen levels along an independent time variable. With Colombian colonialism, native land that was “freed” for European agricultural prospects that adversely affected the existing ecosystem. Through the Columbian trade, in which potatoes, squash, and maize were shipped east across the Atlantic in exchange for wheat, rice, cattle, smallpox, and measles, Europeans did things their own way, killing off most indigenous populations in the Americas while introducing invasive species on land they stole. The GSSP sees a general drop in greenhouse gases due to an influx of agricultural ventures and a drop in the population due to the genocide of local communities.

One key implication of the colonialist takeover of local American ecosystems was a shift away from the indigenous multi-crop farming tradition and toward the growing of one crop in a territory for maximum output and profit. “Essentially, indigenous populations grow everything together,” Martella told me. “What industrial agriculture does is clean up the soil each season, and cultivate one product.” This shift involved “transforming crops originally harvested by indigenous people with Earth-friendly techniques such as polyculture and agroforestry, to the monocultural system,” Martella writes, “which today make up for the majority of the ‘modern’ industrial agriculture system.”

“Indigenous people have a deep knowledge about the ecosystem, the earth, and the elements,” Martella told me. “They live in synchronicity. Their way of living is strictly related to the welfare of the system. By practicing policultural methods such as agroforestry, they practice and obtain food sovereignty. Traditionally, they’re not accustomed to buying things at the supermarket. But those who experienced being brought away from their cultures through colonization have lost this cultural knowledge.”

Local approaches are key to an effective national agenda, Martella tells me. “The value of local communities is huge, because the local people are the ones affected by this issue,” Ludovica told me. “Indigenous people have a knowledge of their ecosystem and their land. They know what is best to be done for their habitat to be recreated. Nobody outside of that community can contend unless they’ve had some interviews and conversations with local people. ”

The popular, mainstream environmental movement is sorely devoid of the voices that really matter in terms of who climate change adversely affects the most. Without this crucial underlying understanding and a recognition of the racial, class, and gender privilege within the movement, the effort against climate change is myopic and overlooks one of the core mechanisms at work in preserving the status quo: the white, male, and Christian dominant standards that implicitly perpetuate the nefarious implications of climate change. What the environmental movement needs is a departure from this privilege-heavy base and toward a broad inclusion and centralization of frontline voices.

“For a lot of indigenous folks, their religion is the land. Indigenous tradition is based on the idea that there is a spiritual connection to the land. I have faith in the land. That faith was structured through a colonial structure of capitalism. To deconstruct that, I’ve kept faith that I don’t need to go to church or say certain prayers to feel welcome and feel loved by God, because I know that the Earth, Pachamama, loves us all regardless of who we are. We are all her children,” Christian Tandazo added of Christianity’s role in the extractive, racist structure upon which America was built. “We ought to respect how people practice their spirituality and ways of life, but I also think some of these structures of religion perpetuate a lot of patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy.”

The next step is to then support grass roots movements and heighten their voices. “The best way folks can support is through resources. There’s been a lot of labor,” Tandazo said. “These grassroots activists are working for free. Folks who have economic privilege: if you could share your resources, that would help amplify the work people on the ground are doing.”

“One of the campaigns I’m working on is around environmental health and public housing. There are maintenance deficiencies, mold, waste, pesticides that are negatively impacting the folks living there,” Taylor Morton said. “A lot of our work is very intimate to the nature of the folks who are in it, so you can’t really contribute unless you’ve lived in public housing, you don’t really know the issues. It comes down to what can you do if you are a member of the community and what you can do if you’re not. If you’re not, what you can do can be limited and can seem like it’s minimal or not helpful at all. But, I also think that that’s where the real solidarity work comes in, using your privilege to be pushing on systems and boundaries and mobilizing things to happen, but also to leave those working out these issues alone to work it out and supporting them in that work.”

“We’re running a voter registration campaign. We know the system’s broken and the politicians aren’t great right. We have to hit this from all angles. Voting is one of them,” Kellie Berns said, describing the many ways for people to plug in to the movement based on issues that affect them or that they care about, from food sovereignty to minority rights. “The more that youth can get out to vote, the more that BIPOC people can get out to vote. Then we’re really able to turn the tides in a different direction in relation to what we’re talking about with patriarchy and capitalism.” Berns had a unique phrase to describe today’s status quo: “predatory instage disaster capitalism.”

Without this understanding of how privilege can be used to mobilize change for those on the frontlines fighting the climate crisis, the responsibility of cleaning up plastic waste is levied on consumers instead of apathetic corporations that overproduce with zero regard for externalities. Without this understanding, the communities most vulnerable to the ravages of the climate crisis will be left in the dust as more affluent activists ignore the systemic issues that propagate food and water insecurity that indigenous populations know all too well. Without this understanding, the fight against climate change remains a suburban pet project without the teeth to address these pressing systemic issues in their totality.

Perhaps the most poignant manifestation of this shortsight would be the Crying Indian ad campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful, Inc. of the 1970s, which featured an image of a crying Native American man portrayed by Italian-American actor Espera de Corti; the tone of the ad campaign is through a passive Native American experience, signified by the hopelessness of the tear itself, without recognizing contemporary work by Native activists like those who occupied Alcatraz island in the late 1960s. “By making individual viewers feel guilty and responsible for the polluted environment,” describes the Chicago Tribune’s Finis Dunaway, “the ad deflected the question of responsibility away from corporations and placed it entirely in the realm of individual action, concealing the role of industry in polluting the landscape.”

The most problematic and lasting implication of Keep America Beautiful’s Crying Indian ad campaign, Dunaway writes, is that according to the ad, contemporary climate injustices had “nothing to do with power, politics or production decisions; it was simply a matter of how individuals acted in their daily lives,” which has influenced popular media outlets to “have repeatedly turned big systemic problems into questions of individual responsibility.” The consequences of this outlook on environmental justice as the responsibility of the individual—to go vegan, use solar panels, to recycle & compost—and not the responsibility of the destructive industry currently contributing the most to climate change, Dunaway writes. “While we’re busy testing each other’s purity, we let the government and industries — the authors of said devastation — off the hook completely. This overemphasis on individual action shames people for their everyday activities, things they can barely avoid doing because of the fossil fuel-dependent system they were born into.” Frequently, Dunaway continues, this “ … raises the price of admission to the climate movement to an exorbitant level, often pricing out people of color and other marginalized groups.”

In response to Chapa’s dialogue on identity, cultural recognition, and indigenous rematriation, Nina Berglund spoke on the correlation between questions people are asking and the systematic implications of those questions. “When people ask questions like ‘Why do I feel this way?’ and ‘How can I support these groups’—all of the answers to those questions can be found throughout history. About ‘looking back,’ There were generations of our elders who were beaten, were raped, were killed for speaking their language, for being who they are. They had Christianity forced onto them, the way they lived their lives that was passed down. I know people my age who still promote the Christian, anti-indigenous, anti-cultural lifestyle. That’s what they were taught, it’s not their fault.

“But we need to take responsibility. We didn’t ask to be born in this situation, we are not at fault for the past, but we need to address these things head on,” Berglund continued. “Addressing your own identity, deconstructing how colonial systems have affected our lives. The more we think about how these different systems play into how we react with other people, if we accept them. It will help you understand the next person, what their experiences have been like, that’s how we bring together our communities. You see things from how our relationship to the land, to our women, to our children. Instead of going forward all the time, we need to step back and make sure our work is continuing in the name of decolonization and fighting the patriarchy. We need to make sure we’re bringing everyone forward with us, because there’s no room for anyone to be left behind.”

“Brazil is the world’s number one exporter of beef. And, 80% of the soy in the world is grown in the Amazon,” Martella tells me. “Brazil has a huge economic incentive to burn down the Amazon.” Indigenous people hold the key to taking down these oppressive systems that have been placed by colonization and proliferated by capitalism.” Without incentive to overhaul the system to accommodate its most disenfranchised citizens, those in power will not change. And those that benefit from the oppressive capitalist system we live under risk overlooking which communities are the most at risk, and instead directing interest in favor of greenwashed corporate and government sustainability campaigns like the Crying Indian ad of the 1970s and the infamous green campaigns put on by Shell in the 1990s.

The normative culture is individualistic thinking, Chapa said. “So, it’s like: how do we change the normative culture to be one of community empowerment? How are we going to contribute in a positive way to where we live? How are we going to stop these systems that are degrading lands, speeding up carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, that are speeding up the uprooting of local communities?”

“Think about this moment in time that’s so unusual, where everything has slowed down and stopped,” Berns said of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected activism efforts, and the way we think about our society from here on out. “Take this time to dream and vision as to how we want to recreate and how we want to choose the world we want to live in once we start to move forward. I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t cutting it when it comes to equality, care, community development, food sovereignty.”

Mark Lu is a rising senior double-majoring in Economics and Political Science in the School of College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Agora.

Image courtesy Robyn Beck, Ludovica Martella

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