The following are excerpts from presentations and interviews conducted at the Rising Voices conference.
On the Forefront of the Struggle
Andrea Carmen (Yaqui), Executive Director, International Indian Treaty Council
Women are very strong voices in the work for the protection of the environment. We have a natural connection to Mother Earth and the knowledge of Indigenous women in particular as food producers, as knowledge holders, as the first teachers of the children, plays a very key and central role. The cultural practices and traditions that Indigenous women keep alive and pass down generation to generation in Indigenous communities are being recognized very strongly all the way to the United Nations, but also in Indigenous communities and the broader movements addressing climate change. The importance of that knowledge and that role, in not only addressing the adaptation and mitigation, but also confronting the solutions to climate change: fossil fuel burning, mining, oil development, things like genetically modified seeds, which introduced into Indigenous communities really decreases our ability to utilize our natural biodiversity to respond to changing climate conditions. Indigenous women are at the forefront of discussing these matters on the community level, but also nationally and internationally.
In many places we see our young people, our youth, including young women and girls, really on the forefront of the struggle. If you look at the opposition to the oil pipelines, for example in Standing Rock, it was the young people that started that struggle and then got the Tribal Council and the Elders involved in support. Another place that I’ve worked is in the Yanite Traditional School in Alaska, and it was the elementary school students that decided to oppose coal mining there and then convinced the Tribal Council and the leaders to support them in that position. You actually see that happening already, where a lot of young people are taking a stand and asking their elders and Tribal leaders to support them.
I’m the executive director now of a very large international organization that has a lot of standing at the United Nations, but I started out in the IITC working as a student intern folding newsletters and answering phones. There is a lot of place and space for young people to get involved in this work. We’re constantly looking for new blood, new enthusiasm, new ideas, and we have to keep in mind that our young people, including our young girls, are the knowledge holders and the leaders of the future. I would like to see more youth involved. As we move towards future events, we can do a more effective job at including the voices of youth, students, young activists, and our young women in this work, because it’s very important and they have a lot to offer.
The Connection between Climate Change, the Environment, and Language
Kaimana Barcarse (Native Hawaiian), Cultural Conservancy
There’s definitely a connection between the environment and our language. Hawaiians believe that we are a part of the earth and the ecosystem, and we have that connection to the earth. In many ways our deities are all connected to the earth. We have deities that are connected to the mountains, to the trees, to the oceans, to the sky. We communicate with these deities, and we do it of course through our Indigenous language.
We have hundreds of names for rain and just as many names for the winds, and knowing the names of the winds and the rains can tell you where you are, what island you’re on. It can tell you what season you’re in, what kinds of events are happening. It can also help you predict what kind of events are going to happen. If we’re in the uplands of Waiakea and we feel the Uluau winds, we know the trade winds are light, and we know this is a land-associated breeze that brings with it a certain feel and certain fragrance. If we feel the Mālualuaki‘iwai winds, it’s a cool, stiff wind, we know that rain is going to follow shortly after because Mālualuaki‘iwai means to gather and bring the rains over. Our language is closely tied to what we observe and what we see out in nature. So in that way we can understand; we can frame the climate and frame the environment through our language, and our language describes the environment.
Looking through our oral histories and our written histories to understand what the seasons and the cycles are can give us data over time. That is fully scientific data that is historic, observed over hundreds of years. And when we understand how that cycle changes and compare it to how that cycle changes now, you can see the pattern of climate change—as things start to warm up, as certain areas start to have the sea level rise...We listen to our songs of a certain area, it talks about the līpoa, it’s a type of seaweed, and the ‘alamihi, crabs. You go there today, you won’t see alamihi. You won’t smell the līpoa like you used to. That tells us that that the environment has changed. By knowing your language, by knowing your history, by understanding how descriptive and how intimate our language is with the environment, you can understand the nuances, whether they be really subtle or really obvious. You can understand the changes, and by that you can understand your relationship to the environment.
I remember being on a canoe, a voyaging canoe, and we were headed into a storm—big waves, but we knew we could handle it. One of the crew members to the front of the canoe in essence said, “Bring it on.” As soon as he said that, the ocean brought it on. Our catwalks on the outside of the canoe snapped off, several of the lines snapped off. The ocean brought it on. So we do have the intimate connection, but we have to also watch what we say. We can use that mana, that spiritual power, and we can use that [ word] which is our language, but we have to use it in the right way. And with that, we’re connected to our environment and our environment is connected to us.