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In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference. In honor of Earth Day 2022, Yahoo Life speaks to Indigenous youth activists fighting for climate justice.
Trenton DeVore, of the Pueblo of Jemez tribe in New Mexico, remembers the precise moment he was called to the cause of climate justice. He was just 16, the now-20-year-old recalls, and had already been a youth organizer for a local social justice group when he was out on a coffee break and ran into some tribal elders.
"I was like, 'Hey, where are you guys going?' And the medicine man turned around and he says, 'We're going to war.' I didn't understand. And then they walked into court and that same day they walked out of court, and we had lost the claim to our traditional land of Valles Caldera," DeVore tells Yahoo Life, referring to a years-long legal battle in which a judge denied Jemez Pueblo's claim to the nearly 90,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains.
"We can't practice any of our cultural traditions there anymore. It's a National Forest now," DeVore says, explaining that the Valles Caldera had always been a vitally spiritual place for him. "So, it was definitely a very heartbreaking moment … and that's what really sparked my urge to be an environmental justice worker and an organizer. That was the moment I realized how important it is to express our inherent sovereignty."
For many Indigenous communities, the wellbeing of the land cannot be separated from that of its inhabitants. That's part of the guiding principles of Pueblo Action Alliance, where DeVore is now a youth organizer, and which calls for obtaining "land and water back," and also to “heal from cycles of trauma and oppression, and to heal the waters and lands,” which are seen as inseparable ideas.
“We are connected to this land. We are connected to these waters,” Pueblo Action Alliance Julia Bernal explained recently. “Violence against us is violence on the land, and violence on the land is violence on us."
DeVore says that the call for "land back, water back," coined by Pueblo Action Alliance "asserts our inherent Indigenous sovereignty by expressing that fight for these sacred elements. It goes beyond the understanding of the physical, and moves more into the spiritual, too with that connection to rematreation," he says, referring to the feminist Indigenous concept of going back to Mother Earth — of reclaiming ancestral spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources — as opposed to the more patriarchal "repatriation."
"It's a beautiful word," he says, and one with "an understanding that there is a connection to the land, to the water, to the air."
So when we're talking about fighting for the climate, he explains, "we're not talking about fighting for the climate. We're talking about fighting for ourselves. We're talking about fighting for our Earth Mother, Father Sky, all of these beautiful things, the four-legged. This is who we are as Indigenous people, and this is the foundation of who we are."
It's also at the root of why DeVore's latest focus — and that of many environmentalists in New Mexico at the moment — is the controversial Hydrogen Hub Act, recently resurrected as a massive project in partnership with nearby states Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said, “By incentivizing clean hydrogen development through this legislation, we are steering this emerging industry toward a lower-carbon future," and touted it as "New Mexico’s chance to reap the vast economic and environmental benefits of clean hydrogen.”
But in a legislative session that ended last month, four different hydrogen hub plans died, all of which were contentious because they relied on hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Indigenous, social justice, environmental and public health advocates opposed any proposal of hydrogen energy as a dangerous distraction to stopping the climate crisis — and simply a way to continue bringing in state revenue from fracking.
"While the governor has touted hydrogen as a 'green' energy solution," explained conservation group WildEarth Guardians, "96% of hydrogen production in the U.S. requires fossil fuels and burning hydrogen is worse for the environment than burning coal."
The call for "land back, water back," DeVore says, has a direct tie to this issue, and "inserts our Nations into the conversations aimed at commodifying our land, water and air." Those discussions, he adds, are known in Indigenous communities as "extractive colonialism," or "false solutions" coming from fossil fuel industries.
The hydrogen hub proposal "is really a cash grab," he says, calling the issue "especially significant" in New Mexico, which is so plagued by water scarcity that "we are actively seeing climate change," beyond temporary droughts. The latest proposal did not ask for opinions of the community, he says, noting that "hydrogen is not a clean energy, and is in fact resource intensive. It would use our sacred water and continue the lineage of extractive colonialism and personally," he stresses, "we can't afford to waste water resources."
Find all of Yahoo Life's Earth Day profiles here.
Video produced by Olivia Schneider:
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