“We will always be here to stand up. We will always be the voice that no one else wants to say . . . that’s who we are as the Indigenous people and the protectors here.” — Hanford McCloud (Nisqually), council member and co-host of the 2018 Protecting Mother Earth Conference
Close to 1,500 Indigenous representatives and their allies from across Turtle Island (North America) gathered from June 27–July 1, 2018, at Frank’s Landing on the Nisqually reservation in Washington State to attend the 17th Protecting Mother Earth Conference. The conference was co-organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Canadian-based Indigenous Climate Action, and hosted by the Nisqually Tribe. In addition to a large turnout of local Tribal members, participants came from as far away as Ecuador, Japan, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Australia to connect with Indigenous leaders actively campaigning to stop the destruction of the planet.
Equal parts relationship building, spiritual centering, organizing, campaigning, and information sharing, the Protecting Mother Earth conference modeled how to run a grassroots Indigenous event. Participants were invited to camp at the conference site, and all events took place outdoors under tents next to the mouth of the Nisqually river; everybody was welcomed. The conference grounds at Frank’s Landing Nisqually Wa-He-Lut School offered many spots to visit with new and old friends. The Nisqually Tribe took care of all attendees with three meals a day plus snacks and refreshments. Younger children enjoyed culturally-based art activities, and older youth took an active part in the workshops and discussions. I met with friends and colleagues of all different ages and backgrounds. My child played with my colleagues’ kids. We even met one of our Alaskan cousins for the first time. The underlying ethos of the conference supported relationships new and old. The conference began and ended with Nisqually leaders and representatives of the original signers of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 in welcome and closing ceremonies following Northwest Coastal protocols. This set the tone for a respectful event, carried out in intention and balance.
The Power of Indigenous Resistance
“We all have a responsibility to take care of this Mother Earth. . . . Because we knew and we understood our relationship with Mother Earth we must protect them [our salmon, berries, medicine, basket materials], but we also come with the intent of gratitude, to always remember to say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for giving their lives to become our food, our spiritual food.’ When we take something from nature, we always say thank you.” — CONNIE MCCLOUD (Puyallup), cultural director of the Puyallup Tribe
The first day of the conference, I met up with a Diné grand-mother I know. We talked about acknowledging intergenerational trauma and the healing that needs to take place part and parcel with Indigenous environmental justice work. As we shared a meal under a massive oak tree, she said, “One thing I have learned is not to say anything unless you are feeling okay. If you take negative thoughts and emotions into your work, it will come out in your words. It will affect the outcomes.” She was referring to the mind-spirit-body connection carried forth in Diné and other Indigenous Peoples’ ways of being and relating to Mother Earth. Nourishing the spirit and prayer is just as critical to protecting the planet as direct action, not just for Native-led campaigns, but for all environmental movements. This is why so many Indigenous environ-mental justice protectors turn to prayer first. Prayer has long played a deep role in Indigenous environmental organizing, but was perhaps only recently made public when the world witnessed water protectors and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in prayer at Standing Rock in 2016.
Another lesson I took home from the conference was the power of convening. When Indigenous People from around the world come together, we are always reminded of what we have in common. We share similar traumatic histories of colonization and ongoing genocide. Our nation states enact policies to marginalize and disempower us. We have the same experiences with mining, fracking, polluting, and paving of our ancestral territories in the name of development and progress. Case in point: while researching for an article I was writing on the topic of Indigenous Peoples and capitalism, I discovered that Rio Tinto corporation has driven Indigenous deaths and destruction of homelands in the name of natural resource extraction on every continent but Antarctica.
Across the planet, Indigenous Peoples are fighting the same battles with the same corporations. These corporations are staffed by (mostly) men who don’t have a deep connection with the cultural landscapes being exploited, and don’t care. The camps they inhabit to rape the earth are also a breeding ground for drug abuse, human trafficking, sexual assault, and murder of Indigenous women. Fighting corporate goliaths whose land claims are supported by lawmakers feels overwhelming. But, when Indigenous grassroots leaders come together at events like the Protecting Mother Earth conference, powerful alliances are made. Knowledge and strategies to stop the rampant destruction of Mother Earth are shared. I left the conference feeling confident that together, we are strong enough to protect the planet so it can take care of us for generations to come.
“Having this conference and having all of our people from across the great continent of Turtle Island come together to discuss ways and strategize ways to protect life, to protect water, to protect Mother Earth, is absolutely critical in strengthening those sacred hoops, in bringing our minds together.” — ERIEL DERANGER, executive director, Indigenous Climate Action
Plenary sessions focused the biggest environmental campaigns of our time, covering themes including the rights of Mother Earth, food sovereignty, and resisting extreme energy, encompassed within a ‘just transition’ framework to create new sources of well paid employment in healthy communities as we move towards a fossil-free future. Community and movement leaders led a diverse array of breakout workshops that took different forms. Many of the workshops were led in a talking circle style, inviting everyone to introduce themselves and contribute to the conversation while learning from movement leaders. Specific breakout sessions were dedicated to youth, intergenerational, and intersectional organizing through dedicated spaces. As I moved in and out of these spaces, I heard exciting and critical dialogues sharing truths, experiences, and strategies to address serious environmental threats.
Though current crises, such as climate change, GMO monocrop agriculture, and ocean pollution were major themes throughout the conference, breakout sessions did not ignore ongoing issues that are not “in the moment,” and they offered good practices for organizing and building alignment with each other as Indigenous Peoples and allies. These topics included health and wellness, representation and storytelling, and the impacts of big agriculture and genetic engineering. I attended a fascinating breakout session about the current state of the battle to stop uranium mining, where I learned about a successful strategy implemented by the Havasupai Tribe that brought together a coalition of Tribes along the Colorado River to prevent any new operations. This same strategy could be employed in similar fights against other extractive industries. I also attended a powerful panel featuring young Alaska Native activists openly sharing what climate change has done to their villages and broader ecosystems. I felt honored to hear firsthand the stories that aren’t readily apparent in the mainstream media.
The Current State of the Indigenous Environmental Movement
“We’re here to come together and develop one voice as Indigenous Peoples, to stand with one mind in defense of the sacredness of Mother Earth. We are strengthening our sacred hoop of Indigenous Peoples from the four directions to build alliances and alignment that recognizes the territorial integrity of Mother Earth and Father Sky and the future generation of all people and life.” - Tom Goldtooth, executive director, Indigenous Environmental Network
The Protecting Mother Earth conference embodied the current state of the broader Indigenous environmental movement. For me, an overarching takeaway was that any solutions to environmental issues must address the interlinked crises of climate, economy, and democracy. Indigenous Peoples have never suffered the illusion that the United States (or other colonial settler states) is a fair, just, and democratic society. We have always known that greed and power drive the conditions under which we live our lives. We also recognize that Indigenous values and worldviews are often polar opposite to the logic of neoliberal late capitalism that drives the world’s greatest environmental catastrophes—including climate change.
In order to stop, and even reverse, the rampant destruction of ecosystems, we must embark on a transformative pathway to change. We can’t just address the symptoms of the issue; we must also upend the underlying causes. These include our increasing disconnect from nature, our refusal to recognize the interconnectedness of the planet, and our growing sense of apathy towards our own communities. The Protecting Mother Earth conference also filled me with hope. Participants shared many stories of renewal and successes. Strategies that worked involved whole communities from the ground up. They focused on the importance of learning about the need to address internalized oppression and the need for culture and wellness. And they included plans for regeneration through strategies to detoxify, demilitarize, de-gentrify, and re-democratize our economies and communities.
—Alexis Bunten, PhD, is the project manager for the Indigeneity Program at Bioneers, a proud partner of Cultural Survival. She co-organizes the annual Indigenous Forum within the broader Bioneers over the third weekend in October each year. This year’s Indigenous Forum will be October 19–21, and features an exciting lineup speakers sharing Indigenous approaches to coastline management, protecting our rivers, flexing sovereignty, allyship, a Just Transition, blood memory, and much more.
Protecting Mother Earth Conference participants. Photo by Eriel Deranger