A United Nations General Assembly side event co-hosted by GPE, Population Council, and Girl Rising.
Where I come from, we’re facing a crisis. A crisis that has left over 30 Indigenous communities without access to clean drinking waters for decades. My community, Oneida, was on a Boil Water Advisory earlier this year. We spend an average of $20,000 a day on water bottles for the families in our community. In my other community, we’re located downstream from Chemical Valley. It’s where 80% of Canada’s petrochemical industry operates 24/7 and they’re still legally allowed to pollute in our waters today. This affects our fishing and hunting rights. It affects our ability to pick medicines and pass on knowledge to our future generations. My grandmother and her sister both died before the age of 40 from cancer, most likely because of the contamination of the land and the water.
Despite these adversities and the impacts of environmental racism and intergenerational trauma, our resiliency as Indigenous peoples and our love for Mother Earth prevails. My community, Walpole Island, is one of the most biodiverse areas in all of Canada.
Our vision, our desire to help and to restore, is what keeps us going. Our creation story, we’re told, when we were lowered down from the spirit world, is that our limbs spread across the land. That story tells us that we are part of nature and anything that we do to her we are doing to ourselves and to our ancestors. We call the rocks our grandfathers, and we recognize the water as a living being with rights. Women are the water protectors in my community. We were given this role because we have the ability to bring life to the world. We understand that sacred responsibility. Because that’s our first environment we experience during our time on earth. There is no other place in the world, not at Tesla, not in the banks, there is nowhere that can turn a spirit into human form other than that womb of water, that life force.
In our treaties back home, our ancestors negotiated our right to education. They knew there would be a day our people would need to understand these laws, policies and know how to fight against them. That’s how far ahead they saw, negotiating on good faith for generations into the future.
When I’m at school, I’m so thankful. I can’t help but think about my ancestors. There was a time when they would need to give up their Indian status to attend a university. There was a time when schools committed a cultural genocide against our people. Today, when I learn about laws and policies for Indigenous professors, I can’t help but think how far we’ve come and how much progress and hope has led us here. But there’s a long way to go. Indigenous peoples are so interconnected to the land and Mother Earth.
In the United States, almost half of all uranium mines are on Native American reservations. That's 40% of toxic uranium mines situated on 2.3% of the land which are reservations. This inequity isn’t only a violence to the land. It translates directly to physical violence to Indigenous girls and women. The workforces in these extraction areas are predominantly single and male. And this results in dramatic increases in violent crimes, and sexual assaults adding to an ongoing genocide where Indigenous women are murdered in ten times the rate of other ethnicities.
It is Indigenous women who ensure the survival of their people. But they experience environmental racism in countless interconnected ways. When you allow violence to the land, you allow violence to our bodies.
But it isn’t the land that is broken, but rather our connection to the land that is broken.
We need to recreate a world based on reciprocity and community care. Before, we go out to hunt, to fish or to pick medicines, we always offer the earth a gift. We offer a prayer, a song, a dance or tobacco. We acknowledge and nourish the fruits she gives us every single day. She heals and teaches us. Every day, the sun rises and the plants and animals go to work without a single day off. That’s how much she loves us, and it’s time that we love her back too.
Today in my community, I am working with Thirteen Moons land-based camp. I’ve been helping them develop policies that center indigenous knowledge and recognize its science and value. Oftentimes, in policy development, especially regarding the environment, Indigenous voices are silenced and overlooked. In Western science, our knowledge is not seen as of equivalence. So my goal is to create policies that are led by Indigenous peoples for indigenous land which is all land.
I’m also working at a law school in Toronto. We aim to develop a distinctive environmental justice framework informed by indigenous knowledge systems, laws, concepts of justice and the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. We work with elders, knowledge keepers, the land and Indigenous kin to help develop and inform this framework.
I want to challenge you to see who is not in the room, see who is not being represented in these spaces or part of these conversations because far too often we are overlooked.
We need to empower and invest in our women and girls. Give them the tools and resources to become the leaders of change that we so desperately need in this world. To have hope. It’s scary, but our native kin need you. We’ve been fighting and advocating for Mother Earth as her caretakers since time immemorial. We need you to stand with us. To listen to our knowledge, stories and experience.
Every girl has a voice and a gift. We need to nurture and amplify those girls. So call your contacts, and your networks and support those girls because it takes a community.