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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.”