Theresa Braine
The 'anti-Beiber' Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 14-year-old indigenous rapper from Boulder, spoke at the People's Climate March kickoff event in New York City on September 19.

Indigenous Peoples Essential to Climate Movement, March Organizers Say

Theresa Braine

Environmentalists have descended upon the Big Apple for the weekend’s festivities, standing side by side with Indigenous Peoples to prepare for the People’s Climate March on September 21.

An opening event on Friday night September 19 featured founder Bill McKibben, Riverkeeper Alliance attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the singer Donovan and the “anti-Beiber,” indigenous 14-year-old rapper and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, among others. Jubilance reigned among several hundred audience members who whooped and cheered as leaders of the environmental movement, including Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, spoke of the ravages of climate change—from the effects on health, to the environmental damage being wrought, to the newly recognized force that is the role of Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous people have been in this fight since right from the beginning,” McKibben told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They’re the ones who first raised the Keystone pipeline fight that became the emblematic fight of this thing. So leaders like Clayton Thomas-Muller or Idle No More—they’re the people who are at the absolute forefront of all we do.”

Thomas-Muller, Mathais Colomb Cree Nation, is a co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute and an organizer with Defenders of the Land, among other environmental leadership roles.

RELATED: 10 Environmental Warriors You've Got to Meet

Such inclusivity is in keeping with the march’s motto, “To change everything, we need everyone.” And everyone is coming, it seems. More than 1,500 business, unions, faith groups, schools, social justice groups, environmental groups and others are all participating, according to the climate march’s website. Signs of support have cropped up all around the city, from the Society for Ethical Culture, to ABC Carpet and Home, which hosted the opening event. Tens of thousands are expected to march. Indigenous groups will lead them off.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Lubicon Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, said she sees Indigenous Peoples’ voices becoming more predominant in the environmental movement as mainstream organizers realize that Natives were in fact their predecessors.

RELATED: Lubicon Cree Member Details Alberta Oil Sands Pollution

“I see it changing because it has to change,” said Laboucan-Massimo, who has come to New York with other indigenous groups from the Alberta oil sands. “I think that the environmental movement doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I think that the mainstream white environmentalism are realizing that it can’t continue its type of campaigning without meaningfully working with indigenous communities, especially around the areas in the land that they campaign on, which is our traditional territory.”

Further, she said, organizers are realizing that they need not only to bring indigenous people in at the outset, but also must build relationships—something that reflects what Indigenous Peoples have long done with the Earth itself. 

“Indigenous peoples have always had a relationship with Mother Earth, and relationships with each other,” Laboucan-Massimo told ICTMN. “And that connectivity is so important—the reciprocity, the way that we engage with the world around us—it’s not a hierarchy, it’s an actual circle in the way that we work with each other, and that there’s no living being that’s above or below.”

Almost stealing the show was Martinez, who spoke in a lilting hip-hoppy voice of the connections that we all share, and of his optimism.

“My generation is going to be affected most by climate change, and future generations to come,” he pointed out to the standing-room-only crowd. “The adults had a party on the planet and left it for us kids to clean up. Metaphorically.”

RELATED: The Anti-Bieber: 13-Year-Old Activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez Will Address U.N.

But far from being a reason to waver, he said, “We have been presented with an opportunity, because what better time to be born than now? We exist at a perfect time, because this generation, these people in this room, the neighbors next to you—we have the opportunity to rewrite history, to change the fundamental beliefs of our entire society.”

Indigenous people, he told ICTMN afterward, are key to this process.

“Up until the last couple of years it’s been a white people’s movement to the extent that there haven’t been Latino communities involved, there haven’t been African-American communities involved, and the indigenous people have not been involved, and they have not been given a voice until now,” he said. “Indigenous peoples are a very, very powerful force to be reckoned with. We are rising up around the globe, around the country, and we are at the forefront of this movement.”

Indeed, he said, the affinity with Mother Earth is the very thing that unites disparate indigenous cultures across the board.

“It’s different in every indigenous culture, but we all respect and honor the sacred creator that has given us life, the Mother Earth that has given us life,” the 14-year-old activist said. “And we are rising. The indigenous people are bringing forth this rebirth. We are on the front lines along with the youth and along with our elders. And it’s going to be very powerful.”

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The TIME is NOW : Territorial Integrity of Mother Earth