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Indigeneity and Identity: The Complexities Behind COP

Those in the climate movement have likely heard of the Conference of the Parties (COP), a convening of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP is also a place for activists to lobby for international climate policy. However, for those of us from indigenous communities, representation in this space is complicated. We often find ourselves lobbying to colonial leadership, not our own tribal governments. We can argue for sovereignty and self-determination, but we can never speak on behalf of a community. As past and future delegates to COP with the youth-led organization SustainUS, we have experiences navigating these privileged activist spaces:

Kayla’s Story…

My whole life, I’ve drifted between contrasting elements of my reality. I’ve lived in many places and engaged with the various components of my ancestral identity. While my maternal line is heavily engaged in conservation work, my paternal line is just the opposite: coal miners, coke oven operators, steel manufacturers. These contrasts define me. They also mean, no matter what space I’m in, at least part of my whole feels like a complete outsider.

I studied engineering in Cleveland, home of a racist mascot. How people treated me always depended on how they stereotyped me. A co-worker once told me, “A minority and a woman? Must be nice having everything for free.”

I believe cultural immersion is central to any work within a tribal community, whether as a contracted consultant or on a team with Engineers Without Borders. When I took a job with the Navajo tribal government, I began a degree at the Navajo tribal college, learning as much about the culture, language, and philosophy to become a better public servant. I challenged the ways in which I think and worked to decolonize my own perspectives.

At COP, I continued my commitment to cultural immersion. I prioritized marginalized and indigenous voices not typically heard. I became friends with Moroccan film-maker and activist Nadir Bouhmouch, who connected me with many Amazigh who have been affected by mining, pollution, and water overuse in the Moroccan desert. Yet despite this immersion and my delegation’s intentional efforts to elevate silenced stories, we were confronted with the exclusionary nature of COP spaces. We wanted to find people with personal stories who could speak about Standing Rock, the Navajo uranium legacy, etc., but we came up short.

Before long I was confronted with another complicated layer: myself. I didn’t want to become that “token” Native, speaking on panels because I’m a minority, a woman, but I also didn’t want to pass on opportunities that would otherwise be filled by white, European men. I didn’t want to be seen as a representative to indigenous communities given the complexity of my own background, transplanted into another community, with the risk of someone misconstruing something I said as representing the views and experiences of someone else.

This self consciousness even manifested in what I wore. “Shimá” Carol Davis, who works for Diné C.A.R.E. (Citizens Against Ruining the Environment), wanted me to share at COP22 the knowledge I had gained, including the energy dependency issues on the Navajo Nation. Perhaps one of the kindest women I know, Carol has supported me endlessly in my work, encouraging me to learn about her people, and guiding my actions. She even lent me her hogan for a night as part of a class project where I proved the intelligence of Navajo traditional design. She also lent me her traditional clothes.

She asked me to dress traditionally at COP22, and I was overwhelmed with apprehension. I couldn’t just walk into that space wearing another culture’s attire! Yet a voice in the back of my head told me: You should be honored by her ask and respect someone who has always been there for you in this way. Although I felt ashamed for questioning an elder’s ask, I hesitantly accepted Carol’s offer on the condition that I would explain who I was and whose clothes I was wearing.

Before I left for Morocco, Carol taught me how to tie my hair in a tsiiyéeł and had me try on traditional dresses and her daughter’s moccasins. Then on my drive to the Phoenix Airport, my car ran out of gas on I-40 and Carol met me to fill my tank. “Can you bring me back some spices?” was her only request. She pulled out a small bag from her and her husband. Inside the bag were several strands of their turquoise and some earrings.

I knew I only made it to COP22 because of Carol. The moments I chose to wear her clothes were filled with anxiety—but also obligation. I constantly battled with journalists who don’t understand how to properly report on tribal membership, explaining where I’m enrolled is not the same as where I live. To this day, I still question if I made the right choice. As a way of giving back, I have presented at colleges, advertised on Navajo Nation radio, and helped youth with their applications, praying someone would make the cut and infiltrate the privileged COP space. And don’t worry—I got lost for 6 hours in the Souks to find those spices Carol wanted.

Michael’s Story…

Growing up off of my family’s reservation brought many different experiences than those of my indigenous relatives. Before I started school, my family moved to Colorado, away from our family on the Navajo reservation. This disconnected many of my cultural experiences from my daily life. I went to school in a predominantly-white community and represented the entire American Indian demographic with my siblings. When vacations came around, we would return to the reservation to our grandma’s frybread, blue corn mush, the red landscape and a different daily routine. Although I always wish I had more time on my family’s land, growing up off the reservation prepared me to navigate the colonial education system. After high school, I attended Cornell University, where I developed my passion for serving indigenous communities and found my way into the climate justice movement.

At Cornell, I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to live in Akwe:kon (“all of us”—Mohawk), the U.S.’s first university residence hall established to celebrate American Indian culture. My first friends on campus shared indigenous identities and similar struggles on campus. This network continued to grow from one campus to communities around North America through my involvement with the American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES). Learning from and living with indigenous peers and mentors brought me a sense of family across the country. Calling indigenous communities family keeps me motivated to fight against colonialism by celebrating indigenous culture and traditional knowledge in spaces of education and decision-making.

This November I will attend the UN Climate talks with the SustainUS delegation, and I will carry the lessons and stories that I have accumulated through my experiences within indigenous communities. However, I also acknowledge that 1) I am entering an international space dominated by the power of the U.S., as a U.S. citizen, and that 2) as an indigenous person, I do not represent a culture that is experienced in the same way by all indigenous peoples across the planet. I recognize that I do not even share the same cultural experience with every other Navajo citizen and that the voice that I bring to COP carries my own privilege and bias. I pray that the wisdom of elders close to me guides me with humility to bring a strong voice that reflects love for Mother Earth and all of our relatives on this planet—including future generations. I will always prioritize time to listen to the words of those around me, raising especially the marginalized voices in the spaces of power and privilege that I can access. By grounding myself in who I am, where I come from, and all of the people who have helped me get where I am today, I will do everything I can to advocate for demands that protect and amplify underrepresented voices, which I can only represent through my limited shared experiences.

We, as activists, have a responsibility to bring justice to spaces like COP. We also have a responsibility to acknowledge the power dynamics in spaces of privilege and to take ownership of how we navigate those spaces. Reflecting on identity and representation is critical to creating an inclusive environmental movement.

In November 2015, Kayla and Michael were the two students honored by AISES staff as the sponsored female and male Sequoyah Fellow (lifetime membership) inductees. This sponsorship recognized their ongoing efforts to combine culture and STEM in community-based projects at the national level.

Kayla DeVault

Kayla is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee, living on the Navajo reservation. Her focus is combining traditional knowledge with STEM for conservation and climate change mitigation. Much of Kayla’s inspiration comes from her upbringing in coal mining communities in Appalachia where she was an active youth in Sportsman clubs and Environmental programs that garner an appreciation for the natural world while actively working to preserve it. She currently works as a research assistant/engineer. Kayla is pursuing an A.A. in Diné studies in Tsaile and a master’s in American Indian studies in Phoenix before starting a Ph.D. program in tribal energy policy. A SustainUS COP22 delegate and co-leader for the organization's first World Bank Delegation, Kayla is also a Generation Indigenous Youth Ambassador and a 2017 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Student Leader at Arizona State University.

Michael Charles

Hailing from the Southwest, Michael’s family is from both the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona and also northern Colorado, where his parents currently live. Out of high school, Michael moved to Ithaca, New York to attend Cornell University, studying chemical engineering with a minor in music. At Cornell, he developed a strong sense of his own cultural identity, a passion for serving underrepresented students in the STEM fields, and began questioning how sustainability issues affect different communities. Currently, Michael is a chemical engineering Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. His research explores how ecological systems can be included into technological design to expand the boundaries of traditional engineering and find innovative solutions that promote sustainability without jeopardizing economic competitiveness. This research interest is a result of searching for an intersection between indigenous cultures and engineering. For the past five years, he has worked with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and has organized multiple conferences, many with themes based on sustainability. Michael hopes to use his research and organizational actions to increase indigenous representation within the climate justice movement as well as within higher education. He is extremely excited to work with SustainUS and bring his story to COP23.

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