Turtle Island, like the rest of the planet, is beset with environmental damage that at this point threatens humanity’s very survival. Tribal citizens, sung and unsung, are at the forefront of attempts to mitigate climate change and other adverse effects of the wanton extraction of resources, the gluttonous use of fossil fuels and the habitat destruction that is spreading worldwide.
Here we highlight 10 Native Champions who truly work for the good of our Mother Earth. These 10 Native Defenders of the Environment hail from all corners of Indian Country, from Canada, the continental United States and Alaska.
These defenders fight, and have fought, against a plethora of environmental concerns, including nuclear waste, the Alberta oil sands, uranium mining and so much more. Without further ado, here are 10 Native Defenders of the Environment, taken from the book of the same name.
Melina Laboucan-Massimo (Lubicon Lake Band of Cree)
Born in Peace River Alberta in 1981, Melina Laboucan-Massimo is a Lubicon Lake Band Cree who works tirelessly as a tar sands campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. Growing up in Canada’s oil-sands region, she has seen the effects of industrialized oil extraction on her people. After traveling all over the world to learn about indigenous cultures, Melina eventually returned to study in Canada and eventually earned a Master’s Degree in environmental studies.
Battling the onset of illness in her own family, Melina works every day against the plight she calls environmental racism.
Winona LaDuke (White Earth Band of Ojibwe)
A former Green Party vice presidential candidate and the founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Winona LaDuke has won the Reebok Human Rights Award and been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, New York. She was also named one of Time magazine’s 50 Most Promising Leaders Under 40 in 1994.
For decades LaDuke has fought environmental injustices ranging from unfair uranium mining practices, to the battle for food sustainability in Indian country, and the dangerous practices of chemical companies such as Monsanto, to name but a few. Currently she is fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Clayton Thomas-Muller (Mathais Colomb Cree Nation)
Clayton Thomas-Muller is a co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute and an organizer with Defenders of the Land. He serves on the boards of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, the Global Justice Ecology Project and Bioneers. He is also a steering committee member of the Tar Sands Solutions Network and a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network who was hailed as a “climate hero” by Yes! magazine in 2009. A former leader of organizations such as the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Youth Alliance, Thomas-Muller is also a hip-hop artist who travels the world sharing leadership skills with youth and encouraging them to succeed.
Ben Powless (Six Nations Mohawk)
Ben Powless is a young world traveler and environmentalist concerned about the welfare of Indigenous Peoples worldwide. As a community organizer for Ecology Ottawa, he has also worked for several organizations, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Next Eco-Warriors and many more. As an avid photographer he also contributes to news organizations worldwide, documenting the struggles of Indigenous Peoples.
Tom Goldtooth (Navajo and Dakota)
Tom B.K. Goldtooth is the executive director of one of the leading Native earth-defending organizations, the Indigenous Environmental Network. The IEN is a Native-based nongovernmental organization focused on environmental economic justice, working with local and global communities to protect and defend sacred sites and the Earth.
Goldtooth represents an organization that was formed out of a “love for Mother Earth and our connection to all of creation,” states the Indigenous Environmental Network website. It grew out of the need to heal “the wounds inflicted upon the Earth from the collective greed of humanity.”
The Late Grace Thorpe (Sac and Fox)
As the well-known daughter of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, Grace Thorpe was an activist for Native rights beginning in the late 1960s. Having spent much of her childhood at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School—among the first Native residential schools in the U.S.—Thorpe was also a WWII veteran, having served as a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps.
Grace Thorpe, who was present at the occupation of Alcatraz Island, was also known for her fearless advocating to keep Indian reservations from becoming nuclear waste dumps. In fact she was so outspoken that she was once forced from a protest in which it took four guards to remove her, each guard holding one of Grace’s limbs.
Sarah James (Gwich’in)
Growing up in one of the most isolated communities of Indian Country, Sarah James was raised in the Arctic village of Alaska. Having lived completely off the land as a child with her trapper father and craftsperson mother, James is today the spokesperson and a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council. She has successfully stifled a considerable amount of oil drilling in Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge—a refuge covering more than 19 million acres.
Enei Begaye (Navajo) and Evon Peter (Gwich’in)
Though they grew up thousands of miles apart, the husband-and-wife team of Enei Begaye and Evon Peter share a devotion to environmental stewardship within their own communities. In a truly environmental love story, Enei and Evon had met several times over the years fighting for the cause all over the world, eventually marrying. Among their first efforts was founding an organization called Native Movement, which supports young indigenous leaders.
Currently they work as part of the Gwanzhii company, which combines professional expertise with indigenous knowledge to support a healthy and sustainable way of life.
Klee Benally (Navajo)
Born on the Navajo Nation, Klee Benally is an award-winning musician and former lead singer of Blackfire who has worked his entire life as an activist for indigenous rights. From serving as project coordinator for Indigenous Action Media to producing the documentary The Snowbowl Effect, which chronicled the controversy over spraying reclaimed sewage onto the sacred San Francisco peaks to create artificial snow for a ski resort, Benally is a fearless protestor who is known for chaining himself to machinery or standing firm on the steps of government buildings to make his point.
Teague Allston (Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia)
His father is a lawyer and his mother is Chief of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, so it was no surprise that Teague Allston went straight from high school and college to working for environmental justice as part of the National Wildlife Federation Tribal Lands Program.
Not wanting to stop his education, Allston plans to pursue a law degree as a way to block unsustainable environmental development in Indian country. He hopes to influence future policies to protect diversity by pushing for stricter regulations of the gas, mining and oil industries.
Native Defenders of the Environment (Native Voices Books, 2012), one of the imprint’s Trailblazers series, has won several awards and accolades to include a 2012 American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award, a 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Multicultural Non-Fiction and Science/Nature/Environment Finalist and a 2011 ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award Finalist in Juvenile Nonfiction.