Indigenous Youth Movements Inspire at Bioneers

Photos By: Susanna Frohman and Tailinh Agoyo

Guest Post from Bioneers Indigenous Youth Scholarship Recipient Jade Begay

There is a profound and necessary shift happening right now. We saw it about a year ago when Indigenous peoples led the People’s Climate March, to demonstrate that Indigenous communities are on the frontlines of climate change. Last month, we saw it when the state of Alaska and cities like Albuquerque, Portland, St. Paul, and Olympia, joined the growing movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s day. And this past week we saw with the rejection of the Keystone Pipeline.

The shift that I’m talking about is a shift of awareness and a recognition that Indigenous People and People of Color are the most critical communities we need to turn to, listen to, and support during this time of unprecedented challenge and opportunity.

Indigenous Youth Central to Environmental Conversation

The National Bioneers Conference has been a significant platform in listening to Indigenous voices and bringing their perspectives and solutions into the environmental conversation. Since 1990 the organization and conference have promoted Indigenous leaders to protect traditional knowledge and cultures.

Bioneers says it well:

“Indigenous peoples—keepers of the world’s “old-growth cultures”—provide critically important leadership and insight into Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), empirical indigenous science highly specific to place, earned over generations of careful observation and cumulative collective experience.  To meet today’s challenge of potential global collapse that no society has ever faced, indigenous science offers a way of knowing that can provide a crucial complement to the tools of Western Science.  First Peoples also carry what is sometimes called “The Original Instructions” –guiding principles, values, ethics, social processes and tools for how a culture or society can collectively organize itself in relations to place, embody kinship, and practice peace”.

This year the conference had a very strong presence of Indigenous speakers, panelists, youth scholars, and attendees and I am both honored and proud to say that I was one of the Youth Scholars.

Each year Bioneers strives to offer Indigenous youth scholarships to attend the national conference, to further inspire and inform youth’s work.

For me this opportunity has been invaluable. The main focus of my work in my fellowship at Resource Media is to learn how to authentically and respectfully amplify the voices of Indigenous communities, thus learning more about various movements and meeting leaders and organizers was such a gift. However, putting my professional life aside and speaking as an Indigenous woman, this year’s conference impacted me on a much more personal level.

Internalized Oppression, Intersectionality, Inspiration

Growing up I experienced conflicting and confusing feelings about my culture. There were times where I struggled to feel proud about my Indigenous roots, so I hid it. And there were also times when I felt guilty and ashamed that I wasn’t “Native” or traditional enough because I attended non-native schools and eventually left the community for college. I still work with this internalized oppression, however, there moments when someone or something frees me from that, and that’s what happened at Bioneers.

One speaker in particular got up on the Bioneers stage and blew me away with her fearlessness to be outspoken and authentic. Her name is Eriel Deranger and she is a key leader in the Canadian Tar Sands Resistance and the Communication Coordinator for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Photo By Josué Rivas
Photo By Josué Rivas

Deranger’s session was called “Reclaiming our Indigeneity and Our Place in Modern Society.” She opened her talk by honoring the shift that I mention above and how it has come to be:

“The environmental movement is changing and growing. It’s incorporating and integrating Indigenous rights into its campaigns and practices. However, this hasn’t happened because of the good will of people, it’s happened because of Indigenous people’s tireless work for the recognition of our rights”.

Deranger is one of those heroines working tirelessly and selflessly to stop the Tar Sands Gigaproject, the largest industrial project on Earth, which emits 3 to 4 times more climate-warming greenhouse gases than producing conventional crude oil. This project has had a disproportionate impact on surrounding First Nation communities, namely the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, with increased rates of cancer and disease in humans and wildlife, increased sexual violence towards women, poisoned rivers and bodies of water, and 180 thousand acres of pristine forest cut down. According to the Tar Sands Solutions Network this project is the sole reason why Canada has had to pull out of the Kyoto Climate Agreements.

What is so striking about Deranger’s activism is her full embrace of intersectionality, which is the study of related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. In her speech she challenged not just environmentalists but social justice activists, Indigenous rights activists, and climate activists, “to work together, to find ways that address the roots of oppression.”

She states:

There is still work to be done to fully actualize and empower Indigenous communities to develop independent and sovereign strategies that encapsulate international standards of recognition of our rights… While we remain on the frontlines of environmental racism, we remain poorly resourced and poorly supported. It’s time for all of us to stop, and reevaluate the power dynamics that exist in (the environmental) movement and dissect the dichotomy of high-level environmental organizations and the grassroots Indigenous communities.

This call to action gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes, not only because of the complete truth and urgency in her words but because in that moment Deranger embodied this shift. For me, to see a young First Nations Woman, speak her truth and to share story, to a largely White audience and then to see that audience show such respect and understanding, well in that moment, I was able to reclaim more of my identity and more of that internalized doubt and insecurity was released.

Accelerate the Shift

This is why amplifying the voices and the stories of marginalized people is so important. As Deranger pointed out in her speech, “it’s easy to forget that Indigenous communities have faced centuries of systemic oppression that have robbed us our ability to easily enter local, national, and international forums where policies and decisions are being made, that ultimately affect our rights and our cultural survival”.

This is also true for mainstream media and journalism. Everyday marginalized communities are working to protect their health and their environment, and there are stories of success but also setbacks, rejections and challenge. And far too often we don’t hear either of these stories because stories about the dominant culture are privileged.

So now I am inspired to make a call to action of my own, and I extend it to all media and news outlets, especially the organization I work with: Let’s stop and reevaluate who’s voices we are privileging and ponder what kind of infrastructure we can create to amplify the voices of marginalized communities.

I believe that if people take the time to address these questions, more powerful stories will be seen and heard, stronger alliances will be made, and this shift will grow and accelerate with more steadfastness than we’ve seen before.

Amplify the voices of Indigenous youth—please like and share Jade’s piece with your networks!

Jade BegayJade Begay, of Tesuque Pueblo and Dinétah (Navajo Nation) is a filmmaker and the Sustainability and Justice Communications Fellow at Resource Media, a nonprofit PR firm that provides media strategy and services to groups who are working to protect communities and the environment. In May 2015, Jade completed the Environmental Leadership MA program at Naropa University which trains students, like Jade, in how to lead organizational and community transformation towards an environmentally and socially just and sustainable society. Currently Jade works on a wide range of issues from Women’s and reproductive rights to Climate Change to racial justice and to nuclear guardianship. Jade is also a facilitator in equity and inclusion work. At the foundation of Jade’s work is her life’s purpose to support Indigenous and First Nation communities in restoring ecological balance and protecting their cultures. Her camera, her communications skills, and her passion for justice are her tools for amplifying marginalized voices and movements.

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