"This is Zero Hour" Puts Indigenous Rights on the Frontline of Climate Change and Gender Equality

At the “This is Zero Hour” Miami Summit, the youth-led climate movement brought to the attention of the audience the intricate connections between climate change and its effects on indigenous people, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.

(From left to right) Indigenous youth activists Tokata Iron Eyes, Jasilyn Charger, Nina Berglund and Alethea Phillips speak on the panel “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”.  Photo: Ludovica Martella

(From left to right) Indigenous youth activists Tokata Iron Eyes, Jasilyn Charger, Nina Berglund and Alethea Phillips speak on the panel “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines”.

Photo: Ludovica Martella

Jamie Margolin, co-founder of This is Zero Hour, addresses the audience at the Miami Climate Summit.  Photo: Paula Mitre

Jamie Margolin, co-founder of This is Zero Hour, addresses the audience at the Miami Climate Summit.

Photo: Paula Mitre

On the weekend of Friday, July 12, the youth-led organization This is Zero Hour ran a climate-awareness summit in Miami, Florida, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center. This is Zero Hour (also referenced to as “Zero Hour”) is the pioneer youth organization in the US advocating for climate action, with sister chapters all around the world. As co-founder Jamie Margolin explained in an interview with me , the goal of the summit was to bring awareness of the risks of climate change through workshop activities and panels by people working on the frontline of the issue. Some of the speakers included Greta Thunberg and Nathan Phillips (the indigenous leader who was infamously bullied by a young Trump supporter in a video that went viral in January 2019,) his daughter Aletha Phillips and a group of young indigenous women activists, such as Nina Berglund, Jasilyn Charger, and Tokata Iron Eyes. Their presence was crucial to highlight the very close ties between climate change and its repercussions on minority groups such as women, indigenous peoples and members of the LGBTQ+ community. If you didn’t think these issues could be related, then this article is for you.

Many people think that the climate crisis was initiated by the Industrial Revolution due to the peak increase of burning of fossil fuels used to kick start and maintain rapid rates of industrialization. In reality, the principles of insatiable extractions of natural resources, which characterized this period of time, always trace back to colonization and its roots. “With colonialism came the extreme extraction of the Earth, and the genocide and silencing of the indigenous wisdom of the peoples that have been keeping this Earth alive for centuries” Margolin explained. “With colonialism came the idea that everything on this Earth is made for our extraction, and that everything is to be bought and sold.” These principles of extraction move against the way of life of indigenous people, who are connected to the Earth through their beliefs of simultaneous harmony and relations with all that is living. “We were raised from a very young age being taught that the land and the waters are part of us, that they are relatives” Tokata Iron Eyes, a young indigenous activist from the Standing Rock #NODAPL movement, explained during the women-led panel “Indigenous Stories from the Frontlines” which was part of the conference. “Therefore, when we talk about climate change, we are talking about an assault on our lives, an assault on our bodies and our future. Our entire way of life depends on the land and the water and the ways they work together with us. We got an entire system of balance.” That system of balance is overthrown when big extraction companies dig close to indigenous conservations or build pipelines across them. The spills of gas or oil cause severe pollution of the water system, essential to the “system of balance” that Tokata referenced to.

It is also important to note that, unfortunately, this rhetoric of historic oppression doesn’t only apply to indigenous people, but to people of color as well. “Colonialism never went away, it just evolved,” Margolin commented. “There is compelling evidence that increasing social inequality is linked to environmental degradation and that the health of people of color and those living in poverty is negatively impacted by being exposed to higher levels of environmental pollution than their white counterparts or people not in poverty.” One of the most famous American examples of this is the led-filled water in Flint, Michigan, where 40% of families live in poverty and 57% are black. “This the next system of oppression that is very much intertwined with colonialism: racism” Margolin commented.

Jasilyn Charger, a Standing Rock activist, engaging in a conversation on water protection, gender rights and colonialism.  Photo: Paula Mitre

Jasilyn Charger, a Standing Rock activist, engaging in a conversation on water protection, gender rights and colonialism.

Photo: Paula Mitre

So how does all of this relate to gender equality? Colonization not only forced exploitive ways to threat the Earth upon locals, but it also exported a patriarchal system (mainly homophobic) to the indigenous communities, which were historically matriarchal. This means that women were the leaders of the tribes, being the ones between the two sexes who cultivate the seed of life. “Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is hard,” said Jasilyn Charger, also a Standing Rock water activist and 7thDefender Project co-founder, who identified during the panel as “consigned bisexual”. The LGBTQ+ culture “has been completely wiped out from our culture by boarding schools and colonization. When the colonizers first came to our camps, those were the first people that were thrown out because they were thought to be crazy”. And with those, women were harassed, raped, and slowly taken away from their leadership positions within the tribes. Men, at the same time, were forced into boarding schools, where they were taught to re-asses their thinking around what they always knew to be true, that the Earth, just as women, are the only things that constantly give life, and therefore should be protected and respected. Unfortunately, this is why, nowadays, indigenous men are struggling to let women into positions of power and reassess to a more gender-balanced society. “It’s really hard for us on the frontlines because when you are advocating, people look a you and all they see it’s a woman. And women in our culture just don’t do that anymore. We have to fight extra hard to get heard, to be listened to and be taken seriously. We should be respected at the highest levels because we are the carriers of our next generation, we carry the sacred life, we give birth to the children in this world,” Charger commented. Tokata Iron Eyes made a speak to this purpose, a speech which left the room speechless:

“No one really understands how tied women are to the Earth, the land and the waters, because we are the carries of life. The only other thing that has the power to do that is the Earth. The Earth is the only thing that continues to give us life over and over again. That interdependent connection between women and Earth is what keeps us alive. All women in this room are goddesses and you have to remember that, because that’s where the power comes from and that’s the power that this movement will need to continue to stay alive, and this is the power we need to continue to create change because it is now” – Tokata Iron Eyes

Tokata Iron Eyes, a young activist from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe speaks at the Zero Hour Miami Summit.  Photo: Paula Mitre

Tokata Iron Eyes, a young activist from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe speaks at the Zero Hour Miami Summit.

Photo: Paula Mitre

The connection between women and nature continued to be a major topic within the conference, which saw the participation of over 350 participants, speakers, and panelists from across the world. It’s extremely important to be aware of how these issues are deeply connected so to have a complete vision of the climate issue. Once the problem is clear, it will be even easier to take action, whether it is through demanding climate action from our politicians, or volunteering at your local community. The key is to inform yourself, especially because these are issues that are often not portrayed in the media. As Tokata explained, “the majority of the population is severely disinformed on indigenous people. We live in a world where everyone of us was colonized in some ways. If you look far enough, every single one of us has an indigenous person in our lineage because everyone was indigenous at some point.”

If you’d like to know more about This is Zero Hour and get involved, you can visit their website and find out if they have a sister chapter in your area. If not, you have the option of creating a sister chapter yourself. Margolin confirmed that even though the information is still confidential, there will be actions around the September 20th climate strikes and the Earth day 50th anniversary. Follow them on their social to find out more.