3 Activists Share Indigenous Wisdom for Facing Today’s Challenges
Indigenous Peoples are often on the frontlines of environmental justice movements. As original caretakers of the land, these communities have not only sought to protect their own livelihoods, but also to preserve humanity’s harmony with the Earth.
Below, three leaders on Indigenous issues discuss current events. Journalist and activist Julian Brave Noisecat explores how Indigenous communities are rising in a global renaissance; Ponca tribal Councilwoman, actress and activist Casey Camp-Horinek explains why aligning human law with natural law will help humanity regain balance with the world around us; and Leila Salazar-López, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, urges us to stand with Amazonian Indigenous Peoples to protect and restore the bio-cultural integrity of the “lungs of the Earth.”
Julian Brave Noisecat
At 6 in the morning on Monday, Indigenous Peoples Day, I stood on the sandy shoreline of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, as a 30-foot ocean-going canoe, hewn from cedar and crewed by a dozen members of the Nisqually tribe of Washington, pulled out into the breakwater, its bow pointed for Alcatraz Island. The Bay glistened in the first light of the sun as Nisqually voices rose in unison above the din of the waking city, their paddles stroking the water to the rhythm of their song.
On the beach, I hugged my dad and then my mom. We’d envisioned and organized and fundraised and planned for this moment for more than two years. On Monday, our vision became reality.
The Nisqually canoe was the first to depart on the Alcatraz canoe journey, an indigenous voyage around Alcatraz Island to honor and carry forward the legacy of the 1969 occupation led by Indians of all tribes 50 years later. The Nisqually were followed close behind by the Northern Quest, its hull crafted from strips of cedars and painted with the crest of the white raven. Its crew hailed from the Shxwhá:y Village in British Columbia, Canada. They were soon joined by an umiak, pulled by an intertribal group from Seattle, as well as a dozen other ocean-going canoes from the Northwest and outriggers from Polynesia, representing people as far flung as the Klahoose First Nation in Canada and the Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii. At final count 18 vessels representing dozens of tribes, nations, and communities pulled out into San Francisco Bay that morning.
One of the last canoes to depart was a tulle boat, fashioned from reeds gathered from local marshes. It represented the Ohlone, the First Peoples of these waters. Antonio Moreno, the captain and artist, who made the canoe, paddled his craft and canoe out into the open water, the tulle reed sidewalls of his vessel barely rising above the waves. Antonio and his courageous crew pulled to Alcatraz and touched the craggy shore. His was the only vessel to make landfall that day.
The visiting canoes meanwhile circumnavigated the island, paddling counter clockwise, from south to north and back to Aquatic Park. A local ABC station captured the scene from high overhead.
The late Richard Oaks, one of the leaders of Alcatraz, once said Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. The idea was that when you came into New York harbor, you’d be greeted by the Statue of Liberty, but when you came through the Golden Gate, you’d encounter Alcatraz, a former federal prison reclaimed by Indians of all tribes as a symbol of our rights, our pride, and our freedom.
The Alcatraz occupation lasted 19 months, by the time it was over, the United States had shifted its official Indian policy from one of assimilation, relocation, and termination to one of self-determination and sovereignty.
It’s possible to draw a line from Alcatraz to Standing Rock, Bears Ears, Mauna Kea, and much more. But today the occupation, if it is remembered at all, remains an afterthought. Every year over 1.4 million people flock to Alcatraz, more than any other national park in the country, to peer inside jail cells that once held notorious criminals like the Bird Man and Al Capone. The island has become a monument to carceral nostalgia, to the Mafiosos and lawmen and convicts and fugitives, not to Native Americans.
But for a day, or maybe even just a morning, the canoes made it possible to see Alcatraz as what it could be, a symbol of indigenous rights, resistance, and persistence, an island reclaimed by our elders 50 years ago, an idea, a story, and a moment of organized action that changed history.
On Monday, Courtney Russell, skipper of the Northern Quest, was the first to return to San Francisco. She stood in her canoe and said, “We are the original caretakers of this land. We are still here. We will not be forgotten, and we will continue to rise.”
Ashore, 85-year-old elder Ruth Orta, Ohlone elder, Ruth Orta welcomed her and all the canoes. Orta later told KQED that she was so proud to see the young people, to see the young generation participate in learning what the older generation did, she said. I love it.
Then we gathered in Aquatic Park to share songs, dances, gifts and stories about what Alcatraz meant to our families and our people. Hanford McCloud, skipper of a Nisqually canoe spoke of his auntie, Laura McCloud, who joined the occupation when she was just a senior in high school. Sulustu Moses of the Spokane tribe shared the story of one of his ancestors, a warrior imprisoned on the island after an 1858 war. When he finished, he stood and sung the war chiefs death song.
Alcatraz is not an island, it’s an idea. And with a little imagination and a lot of work, that idea moved bodies, pulled hearts and changed minds. As our people and all people face devastating crises, catastrophic climate change, growing inequality, revanchist hate, maybe the power of audacious and enduring Indigenous ideas like Alcatraz are exactly what we need.
And at this time of imbalance, when humans have gotten their egos so berserk that they think because we speak a particular language that we share, we’re the boss. Yeah. That shows you just how stupid we are. We’re still that little child. We haven’t even hit adolescence. We’re still those little guys that say, “No, no, no, no, no! I want it my way! I want creature comforts! Give me something to eat. Give me something to drink. Take care of me right now!” And she does. And she does.
And those green things that taste our breath as we breathe out oxygen and they breathe it in and shoot that oxygen back to us, they take care of us. Those sacred things in the ocean that have the same pH level and the same saline solution as the womb of the woman still tries to care for us. Those relatives, whether they are of plant life, whether they are of rock, whether they have four legs or whether they have fins, or creepy crawlers that live way underneath the earth, they still take care of us.
So now what? Now what? If you realize that you’re this embodiment, if you take responsibility because you ate this morning, because you drank this morning, because you breathe, what further responsibility will you take? We are beyond the seventh generation, but we haven’t gone so far as to step out of our creature comforts, like that 3 year old. What will do next?
The Ponca Nation has chosen to follow the rights of nature, the immutable rights of nature by recognizing those rights of nature, and recognizing that we as human beings are not separate from but part of this sacred system of life. And so what we have to do, and we cannot wait, is we have to allow ourselves to grow to the point to take chances, to believe that there is a just transition away from fossil fuels, and that we can say that, we can demand that, we can vote people into office, or just kick them out and do it ourselves.
Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today. We need to make that difference. And within our community, we do it in the kitchen-table way. All of our conversations looking for native rights to be upheld and environmental rights, which are one, was begun around our mama’s kitchen table, being taught. All of my daughters and granddaughters go to MIT. I myself am a graduate of Matriarch in Training. Two fists for that one! And down to the babiest one. They know how to listen to our Mother and to receive instructions from her, and to follow through with those fearlessly, as you must do.
We have strong, strong men in our family, and they’re beautiful warriors. They stand around us. Have you ever seen a herd of buffalo protecting the weakest in the center? They stand facing out taking on any obstacles. That’s my family. I’m proud of them. I didn’t even know this word called activist and environmentalist was something separate from what being a human entails.
And that’s what I’m here asking you to do: Take responsibility. Pay back to the Earth herself what she has gifted to you. Take responsibility today. Gather your family around your kitchen table, talk to them about what is going to happen in the next seven generations. Do you want to breathe? Do you want to eat? Do you want to drink? If you do, do something. Go to your state government. Go to your local government. Go to your federal government and say: We are part of nature. We want you to enact these laws, like in New Zealand with the Whanganui River. And if they don’t do it, you do it. You do it. And if you want to look in the mirror this evening, in the morning, any day, see yourself, really see yourself, you have the capabilities, you have the innate understanding, you have the spirit living within you that’s connected to all. Honor that. Honor yourselves. Honor all of creation.
In reference to the Amazon fires: A lot of people ask us, Well, who’s responsible? Who’s doing this? And it is the government. It is the Bolsonaro government. Let’s not make light of it. The Brazilian government has a policy, has not only the rhetoric, but the policies to destroy the Amazon to make way for economic development, to make way for agribusiness, to make way for soy and cattle, to make way for mining. It is their policy to destroy the Amazon for economic development. So it’s not a mistake. It’s not a wildfire. It’s intentional and malicious, and destructive. And not only are they intentionally setting fire to the forest, they’re intentionally rolling back rights of Indigenous Peoples. The moment Bolsonaro got in office, he rolled back the rights of Indigenous Peoples, merged environmental and agribusiness ministries to intentionally destroy the lands and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
And so we have been standing strong with Indigenous Peoples, APIB, the Indigenous movement of Brazil, to say no, to stand up for rights, to stand up for lives, to stand up for territories. And the Indigenous movement of Brazil, actually just on Friday, embarked on a trip to Europe, a 20-city tour for six weeks, to go to Europe to go to companies, to go to banks, to go to European governments, to the EU parliament to say don’t trade with Brazil. Don’t trade in high-risk commodities with Brazil. Because that is what’s destroying the forest. If you care about the forest, if you care about human rights, if you care about Indigenous rights, if you care about the climate, then don’t trade in high-risk commodities. No government, no corporation, no retailer, and no bank should be doing this.
And that’s why we actually joined together with APIB to put out a report called Complicity In Destruction to highlight and expose these corporations, big agribusiness traders like ADM, and Bunge, and Cargill, and retailers like Costco and Walmart, and banks, financial institutions like Chase and Santander, and BNP Paribas. And asset managers, very, very big banks, like BlackRock, and—How many of you all have heard about BlackRock? So thank you for those of you who know about BlackRock’s big problem. The rest of you look up BlackRock’s big problem and you’ll know that they are the biggest investor in climate destruction, whether it be agribusiness or fossil fuel.
And speaking of fossil fuel, these are the fossil fuel reserves in the Amazon. You may have heard about Chevron in Ecuador or Occidental Petroleum in U’wa territory or in northern Peruvian Amazon. That’s in the Western Amazon, that’s in the most biodiverse part of the Amazon, an area that we call the sacred headwaters region. It is the most biodiverse, culturally diverse part of the Amazon, and it’s in the Western Amazon. And these are the fossil fuel reserves across the Amazon that these companies and these governments would like to get their hands on.
There are many protected areas throughout the Amazon and Indigenous Peoples’ territories that are protected in the Amazon. In Ecuador, for example, Indigenous Peoples have rights to their ancestral territories, but they don’t have rights to the subsurface minerals. So the government can still go in and drill, and concession off territories like this. These are Indigenous Peoples’ territories overlapped with oil concessions. And this has been the model for decades.
And as I mentioned, I was just in Ecuador last week with some of my colleagues, and standing with Indigenous Peoples in meetings, actually. We were in meetings to talk about the alternative—alternative solutions to oil development. And it was very hard to be there last week because we were in meetings but we were also standing with Indigenous Peoples as they were rising up, rising up against the continued policies that would cause this, that would cause the destruction of Indigenous Peoples lands and the rainforest to cause massive oil spills like this. This is what it looks like. This is just a very small picture of what it is. We’re talking billions and billions and billions of gallons of oil and toxic wastewaters that have been spilled into the Ecuadorian/Peruvian Amazon as a result of oil development.
And for what? For a few weeks’ worth of oil? This is why people like Sarayaku, who are very close allies, have said no. We’re not. We’re not going to ever allow fossil fuel companies onto our land. We want to be free from oil development. We want to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
And it’s Indigenous People, it’s Sarayaku, it’s women, Women Defenders of the Amazon Against Extraction, it’s Indigenous movements that we’re working with to protect the Amazon, to restore the Amazon, to advance Indigenous solutions, to advance and support climate justice. And we’re doing this together. We’re doing this as NGO allies, we’re doing this as movements in the climate justice movement and Indigenous rights movement, in the women’s movement. We’re doing this together. And this is what we have to do at this time.
The youth have called upon us to stop talking and take action. How many of you were out in the climate march, climate strike? I was out there with my kids in San Francisco marching for climate justice, and I have to say that it restored my hope. After the fires, it was pretty daunting and devastating to come to work, and just get up in the morning, but seeing the youth stand up for climate justice and demanding that we take action really restored my hope.
Being in Ecuador last week, seeing Indigenous Peoples stand up to the IMF and to their government who is imposing policies on them without their consent gave me hope and re-inspired me to really do everything possible to stand up to forces like BlackRock for our children, because like the sign says, we have to act as if our house is on fire, because it is. It’s the Amazon. It’s the Arctic. It’s the Congo. It’s Indonesia. All of these ecosystems have been on fire, and we have to put out the physical fires and we have to put out the political fires, and we have to come together like we did in this ceremony last week. We have to come together, all of us. We have to get out of our silos and we have to come together for our future, for our collective future.
So I want to ask you all to please come together, unify. That’s what we’re doing here at Bioneers. We come together. We share ideas. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We cry together. And what I want to ask you all to do is to take action for the Amazon.
My time is up, but I want you to go to AmazonWatch.org and take a pledge to protect the Amazon, and stand with Indigenous Peoples. And just—If you remember anything of what I’ve said today, I want you to remember that the best way we can protect the Amazon is by standing with Indigenous Peoples. And if we protect the Amazon, we will protect our climate, and we will not reach that tipping point, and we will have hope for our future generations. So will you stand with me?
Our weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.
Join us, hear from those who are uncovering Pathways Forward, and be inspired.