Indigenous Youth Took Center Stage at People's Climate March

Washington D.C.—On Saturday, over 200,000 people marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. in response to the Trump administration’s recent environmental policies and their possible effects upon climate change. That number included hundreds of indigenous youth who felt it was their responsibility to be present and heard.

“I’ve come to the march so I can stand up and show people that the youth have a voice to protect our water and the world we live in,” explained 22-year-old Morgan Brings Plenty of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation. “We only have one earth. We should make her better, not worse. Our world is showing that she is sick. We should protect her.”

“If we protect the mni (water), it’s a start,” she added.

The youth began the day by gathering with their elders near the reflecting pool, just as the sun began to rise above the Capitol Building. With ceremonial sage burning, attendees began to speak and sing a greeting to the day, while offering prayers of protection for water and earth.

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(credit: Christian Miles Studio)

The ceremony, which welcomed the spirits from the four directions, officially opened the People’s Climate March, a massive show of resistance on a day that also marked Trump’s 100th day in office. Within a few hours, the youth would be braving record heat, to take the lead of the 1.5 mile march, which covered eight city blocks and ended near the Washington monument.

As participants made their way along the route, gigantic banners, puppets and signs could be seen above the crowd. “Water is Life,” “Native Nations Rise,” “Defend the Sacred,” and “Respect the Rights of Mother Earth,” were some of the messages.

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(credit: Christian Miles Studio)

As the convoy reached the White House, the crowd sang and native drum lines took to the front.

Merlejohn Lone Eagle, from Bridger, South Dakota, was among them. Although he is only 13, Merlejohn is already an experienced pipeline fighter. He said he worked with youth in his community to send videos to President Obama showing their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. He was overjoyed in the fall of 2015 when Obama rejected the pipeline.

But he couldn’t celebrate for long.

“We thought we were done until we heard about DAPL,” said Merlejohn. He and his family spent several months going back and forth to Standing Rock and he spent part of last school year going to the Oceti Sakowin Camp School while working with other water protectors to defeat the pipeline.

Then in January, President Trump not only approved the Dakota Access pipeline, but overturned President Obama’s directive, moving forward with the KXL as well.

James Hansen has called the Keystone XL pipeline “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet,” regarding its role in unleashing the carbon stored in the Canadian tar sands region. He said it would mean “game over" for the human race and the planet.

Meanwhile, DAPL runs under the Missouri River and the KXL will go through the Ogallala Aquifer. Together, they threaten drinking water for millions of people and endanger more than 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation water. Merlejohn said a spill could be devastating. “It’ll kill the water, and people drink that water." 

Merlejohn said he plans to continue to fight the pipelines and to protect the water for future generations.

“When my kids are my age I want the world to be healthy, good and protected,” he said.

Jaime Butler, a 16-year-old from the Navaho reservation in Arizona, knows what it’s like not to have clean drinking water. She said uranium mining has contaminated her community’s water, which has been undrinkable since before she was born.

“I think anything that has to do with saving our environment for our future—and not just for the humans—I think just in general saving the environment is very important,” she said.

Jaime is one of 21 youth plaintiffs from across the country who have filed a lawsuit against the federal government for not doing enough to protect their constitutional rights to “life, liberty, and property,” from the effects of climate change. The young plaintiffs, who range in age from 9 to 20, allege that while U.S. administrations and agencies have known of climate change for more than 50 years, they have done little to curb the effects and protect their families and their futures.

Seventeen-year-old Mani Wanji "Journey" Zephier, of the Yankton Sioux Nation and a plaintiff in the suit, agrees, and has seen first-hand the effects of climate change in his Hawaiian community.

"In Hawaii, I see the impacts of climate change every day,” Journey said. “Our beaches are shrinking with sea level rise, our reefs are dying, half the time our island—which used to be one of the wettest places on Earth—is in a drought, then storms come and we are flooding. Everything is more extreme.”

He said his small town of Kapaa, on the island of Kauai, will be mostly underwater by the end of this century unless the world makes immediate changes.

“I am at the climate march to send a message to our government that our generation is here, we are awake, we know what they did and have been doing to destroy our planet and we are rising in solidarity to stop them. I am also here to send a message to Hawaii and the world, to please, wake up to the truth, science and facts, before it's too late,” said Journey.

Issues such as those affecting Journey were front and center for tribal youth who attended the march, while they also included talking points around tribal sovereignty, water rights and environmental justice.

All of these issues will continue to directly affect indigenous youth as they age, according to a 2008 UN report titled "Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples."

“Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, owing to their dependence upon, and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment,” it reads.

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(credit: Christian Miles Studio)

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, says it is natural that native youth would be at the march and take the lead on these issues to protect the planet.

“As indigenous peoples we feel the pain Mother Earth and Father Sky have to endure due to pollution and rising temperatures. We march to elevate the indigenous voices that have the solutions to climate crisis.”

Ozawa Bineshi Albert, also an IEN board member, agrees. “I think young people bring new ideas and new approaches to the work," she said. "We have been in this battle for a long time and will likely be in it for a long time. In this case, young people are not 'the future'—they are being affected today and have ideas about how to address it today.

“They have to be at the table when solutions are being discussed because they are the ones who are going to have to hold people accountable to see those solutions manifested. They are our wildest dreams right now.”

“As long as Mother Earth is in danger, the youth of our Nations will continue to rise,” adds Morgan Brings Plenty. “We won’t stop, because we can’t stop.”

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Activist and writer Cherri Foytlin speaking at the People's Climate March (credit: Christian Miles Studio)


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