International Unitarian Universalism

Indigenous Heritage Month and COP26

By Amanda Newlove

In honor of those whose land and lives have been stolen, the UUA holds space to reflect on the atrocities of colonization, and affirms our solidarity with those who continue to fight for Indigenous sovereignty. We honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. We uplift Indigenous climate activists recently arrested in the United States and call for political leaders to recognize their demands and needs for the sake of our Earth. As we close Indigenous Heritage Month, reflect on the COP26, and approach the Thanksgiving season, we shine a light on two Indigenous youth climate activists as they fight to protect their land and our planet.

Quannah Chasinghorse

Teenage climate activist, model, and land protector Quannah Chasinghorse of the Han Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota tribes in Alaska is using her platform to call the world to action. From engaging with Congress and big banks, to retail leaders such as The North Face and Fjällräven, she uses her voice in the fight for her people’s land any chance she gets. Chasinghorse was recently signed as an IMG model and speaks often about the importance of representation in the media. In an interview with InStyle, she explained, “Through my advocacy and modeling, I’ve gained a platform that can create change. When I walk into the world of fashion, whether it be a photo shoot or a runway show, I always share as much as I can about how important representation is, as it helps my community gain more eyes and ears that are willing to listen and learn.” Voted as one ofTeen Vogue’s 21 under 21s in 2020, here is one of the causes closest to Chasinghorse’s heart:

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Embed from Getty Images

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home of Chasinghorse’s family for millennia, spans 19 million acres across northeastern Alaska. It is also suffering the effects of climate change more rapidly than any other place on the planet. Warming nearly twice as fast as anywhere else in the world, the refuge was under attack during the Trump administration after plans were announced to open up 82% of the refuge for gas and oil leasing. Chasinghorse fought back - by sharing her story with financial executives in New York City, she convinced five of the United States’ largest banks to back down from supporting Arctic oil drilling projects.

That fight, as Chasinghorse described, was healing for her, and was unequivocally rooted in the love for her ancestors. In an interview with The Grist, she said: “The more I fought, the more I healed. Know you have power. It is connected to the land and ancestors. We’re all fighting the same fight.” Today, the Biden administration has halted the leasing of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This step is not enough, as the decision made by the Trump administration in 2017 will continue to have lasting impacts until Congress repeals the entire program through budget reconciliation.

Autumn Peltier

17-year-old environmental activist and water protector Autumn Peltier of the Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario first became curious about the inequalities of clean water access when she was 8-years old. After learning what a “boil water advisory” was, her childhood would soon be shaped by the fight for Indigenous communities who had been without clean water for decades. By the time she was 12-years old in 2016, Peltier had confronted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his harm to Indigenous communities, in a moment captured by television cameras. In 2015, Trudeau had promised to end all boil water advisories before March of 2021. “I’m very unhappy with the choices you made and broken promises to my people...,” she told the Prime Minister. He assured her that he would “protect the water.” Unfortunately, he has not lived up to that promise and Canada still has nearly 60 active boil water advisories in place.

After Indigenous leaders saw Peltier’s act of courage on television, they asked her to become the chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation. She has raised her unwavering voice to address the UN General Assembly in New York City, was a keynote speaker on UN World Water Day, and has been the recipient of a variety of awards due to her bravery and commitment to advocating for Indigenous communities across Canada. Peltier uses social media to amplify the issues that she cares about to her 120,000+ followers.

Indigenous Voices and COP26

There is motion in this current movement due to the passion and fight of youth Indigenous climate activists.  Land acknowledgement statements are important but are not nearly enough. It is critical to join the fight for policies that will protect Indigenous land, water, and lives. Unfortunately, the recent COP26 UN Climate Change Conference saw widespread criticisms surrounding the lack of inclusiveness for Indigenous peoples and concerns. COP26 brought world leaders together to “kick-start a decade of accelerated climate action.” This could have been an opportunity to spotlight the expertise of those who are protecting 80% of the entire world’s biodiversity. During COP21 in 2015, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform was created to recognize those often excluded from the COP process. However, many argue that these voices continue to be ignored by negotiators and the media and are overshadowed by shallow promises and fossil fuel representatives. The lack of accessibility to the conference for Indigenous populations was apparent in Glasgow: From difficult accreditation processes, Covid regulations, visa restrictions, and the shear cost of attending, there was a notable lack of representation at a conference that touted itself on being diverse.

One outcome of COP26 was a $1.7 billion commitment from several world leaders and funders to Indigenous peoples and local communities to continue their fight in restoring forests by 2030. Many Indigenous activists are concerned that this commitment only skims the surface of what world leaders should be doing to protect the livelihoods of future generations. Paired with the deal to restore the regulated global carbon trading market– called a “death sentence” by Indigenous climate activists – there is a concerning lack of accountability for exploitation. Indigenous communities are being given very little support to address the impacts caused by leading carbon emitters. Though the sacrifices these communities have been forced to make due to the destruction of the planet have been many, their voices are still going unheard. The women of the Kichwa Indigenous People of Sarayaku, located in Ecuador, declared a state of emergency due to the COP26’s lack of action against fossil fuels: “Indigenous peoples resist the extraction of natural resources with our bodies, with our lives. Our contribution to tackling climate change must be recognized. Our solutions must be heard.”


Resources for Unitarian Universalists to engage with Indigenous rights:

  • Action of Immediate Witness 2020: Adopted in 2020 as a proclamation for addressing 400 years of White Supremacist colonialism, this Action of Immediate Witness gives UU congregations guidance on recognizing the harm done to Indigenous communities, advocates for the just treatment of Indigenous activists unlawfully imprisoned, and calls for decolonizing public policy in their communities, state, and country.
  • Indigenous Peoples History of the US: The Common Read for the 2019-2020 year, An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2015) and An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States for Young People, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. These books dive into the history of the United States through the lens of Indigenous peoples.
  • Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered: As Thanksgiving approaches, this is a business resolution adopted in 2016 which challenges members of the UU community to confront the atrocities of the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday, and to reflect on and give special attention to “the suffering, indignity, and loss that native peoples have suffered since the early 1600s...”
  • Create Climate Justice:  The Create Climate Justice initiative is an online platform that provides a powerful set of networking, resource-sharing and communication tools for Unitarian Universalists and coalition partners. This initiative was created by the UU Ministry of Earth, UU@UN, and the UUA Green Sanctuary Program to:
    1. Strengthening Unitarian Universalist communications and mutual support networks for Climate Justice
    2. Mobilizing UUs in solidarity with Indigenous front-line communities
    3. Supporting the Just Transition to an ecological civilization through partnerships and civic engagement

About the Author

Amanda Newlove

Amanda Newlove was an intern at the UUA Office at the UN during the 2021-2022 school year. Amanda is attending New York University pursuing her Master’s in Social Work. She is interested in child safeguarding, international education, and racial justice.


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