By Kendall Cook
After traveling thirty hours, from visiting family in Mexico to landing in France, I convene with environmental activists whose homes are dispersed throughout the globe. Homes that are keeping the remaining parts of their hearts safe for them, as they separate momentarily from the soil that raised them, to protect that same mother that birthed them.
Here, I will spend two weeks under the adoption of my Parisian comrades’ home, and leave behind a part of my heart in one of the many places I consider home: the Columbia River Gorge in the Northern Oregon. We sacrifice time with our homeland and its inhabitants, to fight for the continuity and strength of our earth’s heartbeat, as we know it. I crossed the Sierra Madres, Rocky Mountains, every canyon, desert, prairie, forest, and ocean in between, and have ended up planting my feet into the lush green grasses of Bois de Vincennes, cherishing the distinct heartbeat of Paris’s historic park.
But I am certainly not alone. I have been granted the privilege of joining the Otomi Toltec Nation’s 800o Drum Ceremony in a Global North setting. The Otomi Elder Sages, traveling from Temoaya, Mexico, lead us to “to unify ourselves and rediscover all the seeds of the Four Directions in order to reactivate cosmic energy, heal historical wounds and heal Mother Earth by respecting life, liberty and the dignity of our Peoples.” Many of the people involved, had little knowledge of the ritual methodology involved, myself included, which in historic cases has been extremely damaging to say the least. Thankfully, the energy brought to that space was that of respect, care, and humility. The trust required to invite outsiders into this ceremony was a test of love that we all must demonstrate, especially world leaders, when responding to climate and civil terrorism and the human displacement caused by them.
The following Tuesday was North American Indigenous day at the 21st Conference Of the Parties (COP21). One presentation in the Indigenous People’s Pavilion was particularly compelling as it brought tangible solutions to indigenous challenges, rather than perpetrating the stereotype of Native American helplessness, a grave mistake that many non-native academics and good-doers have made. Responses to Climate Action: Best Practices from North American Indigenous Peoples involved indigenous leaders who, with passion and eloquence, spoke of the struggles their tribes face when adapting to climate change and the strategies used to overcome the exploitative legal agreements that the United States have been (and are still) forcing time and time again. Attached below is an example of a testimony presented through video, which is not nearly as powerful as Wahleah Johns’ presence in person:
There was one speaker that especially evoked empathy and to the extent that it is possible for me to empathize with their cause without experiencing life as an indigenous person. He was Don Sampson of the Umatilla Tribe speaking for the Affiliated Tribes of NorthWest Indians (Oregon, USA).
Don spoke about the Columbia River, a meeting place for many rivers rushing with glacier snow melt from the Cascade mountain range into the shallow points of the Columbia Gorge. The Columbia River flows from British Columbia down to Oregon’s Northern Coast. It’s also where my family settled ten years ago with a small farming cooperative. As you can imagine, this network of water is extremely important for all freshwater wildlife. It is also the habitat for salmon, trout, and sturgeon, all of which are vital for the culture, economy, and alimentation of the regional indigenous communities. Any artificial blockage of this water system is absolutely detrimental to these fishes’ ability to migrate, and ultimately reproduce.
Unfortunately, big industries have lobbied for the construction of massive dams all across the Columbia River, reducing fish populations immensely. Many native tribes have had their livelihoods destroyed due to the construction of dams. The Affiliated Tribes of NorthWest Indians are already struggling to survive off of limited fish populations, not to mention the other recent wildfires that have plagued their forests. Not only has climate change affected the most vulnerable constituencies of my home, but it is affecting everyone now. Over the past three summers, we have had raging forest fires that exceed the norm and create more damage to the ecosystems than nutrients to the soil. Last August, for an entire two weeks, the air in my region was too smokey for extended respiration. Which meant that all were highly advised to not spend more than an hour outdoors per day. The thing about the environmental issues of salmon reduction in the Columbia River and out-of-control wildfires in the Cascade forests is that they are both products of unharnessed corporate greed to extract natural resources for capital.
Indigenous peoples have already recognized this, as it has been a reoccurring obstruction in their day-to-day lives since colonialism. The majority of tribes are now feeling these repercussions, and we need to listen and collaborate with the caretakers of this land that us migrants have infiltrated. Time has passed and this land has now become home, our hearts have been sewn into this soil, joining the omnipresent, unified beat of mother earth and her ancient stewards. I cannot stress more the urgency of bringing indigenous voices into international climate politics, not just for moral reasons, but because we need their wisdom. It is time for the farce of our governmental puppet show formally known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to wake up, walk outside, and feel the earth’s heartbeat.