Young Indigenous Activists Lead Climate Justice Action In Alaska

| Resist!

Above Photo: Nanieezh Peter and Quannah Chasing Horse stand together on stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives 2019 Convention. Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News

Two Alaska Native teenagers pushed for a resolution declaring a climate emergency – and decision-makers listened.

“We do not want to stop our ways of life. That’s why we’re here.” Seventeen-year-old Quannah Chasing Horse’s voice broke as she stood on stage in front of a sea of delegates at the Alaska Federation of Natives 2019 Convention in Fairbanks, Alaska. “We shouldn’t have to tell people in charge that we want to survive. It should be our number-one right. We should not have to fight for this.”

In October, at one of the largest gatherings of Indigenous people in the U.S., the Hans Gwich’in and Lakota Sioux teenager stood with 15-year-old Nanieezh Peter (Neetsaii Gwich’in and Diné) and advocated for a resolution urging the federation’s voting members to take action on climate change as it affects Alaska Native people in a way that matches the scale and urgency of the problem. Chasing Horse and Peter, who spoke for the Elders and Youth Conference, which drafted the resolution, also called on members to create a climate action task force within AFN and to declare a state of emergency on climate change. 

In appealing to the public for action, Chasing Horse and Peter join the likes of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, and clean-water activist Autumn Peltier, 15, (Wikwemikong First Nation). A groundswell of voices is amplifying the concerns of youth on larger stages — and decision-makers at the state, national and global level are starting to listen. At the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention — a delegation of thousands of Alaska Natives from 12 different regions across the state — they were heard. Before the end of the session, the convention voted to declare a “climate emergency” to a standing ovation from the audience.

In their speech to the delegation, Chasing Horse and Peter noted that Alaska’s land and waters are warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world and that melting permafrost and mass erosion are forcing many communities to relocate. Chasing Horse said Indigenous youth are watching the climate crisis impact traditional lifeways right before their eyes; she sees it every year as temperatures affect subsistence activities, with berries ripening early, permafrost melting and animal migration patterns changing. Ruth Miller (Dena’ina Athabascan), 22, agreed.

Miller, who grew up in Anchorage, learned at an early age how her heritage, human rights and environment are interconnected, in part from her parents, both Native rights lawyers. This year, she represented the United Nations Association of the United States at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. At AFN, she was in the audience as Peter and Chasing Horse spoke in support of the climate emergency resolution. The impacts of climate change are “devastating,” Miller said, “because they affect day-to-day lives of subsistence hunters and gatherers of our rural communities of a state that relies on and is in deep relationship with our lands and waters.”

Still, the resolution faced opposition from delegates with oil and gas interests along the North Slope, who were concerned that it could hamper their ability to develop natural resources and extractive industry. The conflict illustrated philosophical differences between Native communities relying on natural resource development for an economic base and infrastructure, versus communities who see it as a threat to subsistence lifeways.

“For many Indigenous peoples, we’ve had this agreement to our land and to our animals that we would protect each other, and we keep each other alive. We’d stand up for each other.”

Julie Maldonado works as a consultant for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, developing climate change adaptation plans with tribal communities. She sees a trend in governments and organizations beginning to seek out and listen to younger voices, a necessary step in finding answers to a global problem. “We have a whole lot to learn from them. And they can also see things much more clearly and be informed in ways that we don’t understand,” said Maldonado, a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Because tribal nations are sovereign, Maldonado says, interest groups and governing bodies looking at climate change have a responsibility to consult with them, and to include the expertise of Indigenous communities when determining solutions. That includes heeding the knowledge and experiences of Indigenous youth. “These voices have to be joined together,” Maldonado says. “It has to be an intergenerational conversation.”

Over the next year, the Alaska Federation of Natives delegation will use the climate emergency resolution to guide its legislative and policy work in the Alaska state Legislature and the U.S. Congress. “For many Indigenous peoples, we’ve had this agreement to our land and to our animals that we would protect each other, and we keep each other alive. We’d stand up for each other,” Chasing Horse said during an interview after the AFN resolutions gaveled out, with Peter by her side. “As youth, we have our new ideas and our perspective and fresh eyes,” Peter added, following up Chasing Horse’s thought. “Our voices are powerful.”

  • voza0db

    Very ambiguous… “We do not want to stop our ways of life.“!

    What way of life is she referring to, beside those references to “subsistence activities, with berries ripening early, permafrost melting and animal migration patterns changing“?

  • dopfa

    “Subsistence” IS a way of life in Alaska. Depending on fishing, hunting, and berry picking is just a part of the subsistence way of life. For remote peoples who depend on the migration patterns of animals to fill their food coffers for winter with salmon, caribou, moose, and blueberries, cranberries, changing migration and weather patterns are devastating.
    The salmon are disappearing. I fished at the Copper River for the last five years I was there and saw it go from unlimited dip netting of king salmon to a restriction of one to none per year.
    The permafrost is just that. PERMANENT FROST. All of the systems depend on it being frozen all year. When it melts, whole ecosystems collapse. Polar bears live on ice. When it disappears, which it’s doing at a rapid rate, they will DIE!
    Each region on Earth depends on its own patterns, which have been established over millions of years, all of which are being changed too fast for their specific life forms to adapt. Alaska is the canary in the coal mine for climate change. The ice is melting at an exponential rate as more of the dark ocean is exposed as the ice melts.
    Alaska was my home for decades until I had to move back to Southern California to care for my elder mom. The lack of respect for Mother Nature down here breaks my heart every damned day. Filling every square inch of land with strip malls, high-rises, and mass housing is the standard way of life. They’re expanding Interstate 5 from five lanes to seven lanes of traffic on both sides and they’ll still be filled to the brim at rush hour. The 10,000 square miles I lived in around Fairbanks has 130,000 people. That same square footage, LA, Orange, and San Diego Counties, have 16.5 million and growing. Humanity overload!!
    When my precious mama passes, I’ll be heading back up to what’s left of my home, as I hope to spend the rest of my life in the place my soul fell in love with, even with the devastating changes.

  • So, the largest block of indigenous people in the entire United States declared a climate emergency – well that’s a start. But, it appears there is already dissent among the ranks as some of the tribes are benefiting from fossil fuel and other extractive industries.

    If the indigenous people won’t come together to protect the Earth, then the likelihood of your average Joe’s doing so is virtually nil. Very disheartening.

  • kevinzeese

    There is never 100% agreement on change among any group. Indigenous people like any group will have divisions. We do not need to convince the average Joe, we need to convince a consensus of the pubic who then make it impossible for any alternative but confronting the climate crisis.

  • I’ll concur with you on a ‘consensus’ of the public vs. 100% of a specific group – solid point.
    As a stand alone issue, I don’t see climate change having the depth of support to achieve that ‘consensus’. There are other issues that will take precedence for the majority of people. If we can fold climate change into a package that addresses these ‘everyday’ crisis issues, then we may be able to produce the impetus required to implement mitigating ‘fixes’ to the climate crisis.

  • voza0db

    Hello dopfa… we have already talked about this!

    Can only wish that you can return back and have a good life.

    But since those 7+ billion uman animals don’t care about your way of life it seems that you need to enjoy it while it exists. At some point ALL animals will need to migrate.

  • voza0db

    Try to persuade the folks in the big cities to stop drinking starbucks! If you can achieve that you have a good chance to try bolder changes.

  • Given the exorbitant price of Starbuck’s cuppa Joe, I’d say a lot of folks, big city or rural town, have already stopped drinking them – they can’t afford it. No need to build an anti-Starbucks movement.

  • dopfa

    True that. I’m making the best of the situation. I’m involved in hempcrete building, regenerative agriculture, and am working with an amazing group of like-minded people. Gotta do what I can wherever I am to try and make the world a better place, even in the belly of the beast. Thanks for your good wishes.
    Now that industrial hemp is legal in the US, I’m still hoping Alaska will become a leader in growing and manufacturing the stuff and wean themselves off of oil in a few years. They need to use part of the Permanent Fund to invest in farms and factories built with hempcrete to create a manufacturing base of thousands of clean, sustainable products.

  • voza0db

    Your perception goes against the data!

    It seems that it would be a good test ground for a CHANGE movement!

  • voza0db

    But since the MAJOR polluters and destroyers of ECOSYSTEMS are the elitists seems the perfect target group to address!

  • This is the first I’ve heard of hempcrete. I did some quick online research and was excited to see it’s being used as an insulator. The lime based binder – is it VOC neutral?

  • dopfa

    Well… We could at least start making their paper cups, napkins, and plastic lids out of industrial hemp! 🙂

  • dopfa
  • This is very exciting! Thank you for filling me in.