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In the tradition of Naomi Miguel’s people, the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, all people were created from the land. The land is the mother and the giver of life. “So I think that also goes to show that some of our traditions, just in the community in general, really focused on taking care of women, and focusing on making sure women are…at the forefront of a lot of these movements,” she said.
Miguel, who serves as staff for the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, joined a breakout session at the Rural Assembly Everywhere to talk about the role of women in building climate resilience in rural and tribal communities. She said a rapid progression of climate change is leading women to take an even more active role in protecting their communities.
Other presenters were Gabrielle Roesch-McNally with the American Farmland Trust, Andrea Malmberg, a rancher and a member of the Women in Ranching Network, Danielle Antelope with FAST Blackfeet, and moderator Caitlin Joseph, also with the American Farmland Trust
“There Are Hands Who Know the Earth”
Danielle Antelope, a member of Amskapi Piikani, or Blackfeet Nation, from Browning, Montana, studies sustainable food systems at Montana State University. Antelope’s inspiration for her study came partially from the realization that the traditional knowledge and practices of her tribe are ideal blueprints for developing more universal sustainable practices.
“As I’ve been on this journey, I noticed that it’s women, it’s grandmothers, that are just begging us at this age to take this information and start making change, to hold on to it because they know that they can’t share it with as many people as we can share it throughout our lifetime right now,” Antelope said.
She recalled road trips of her youth, with many cars caravanning around the reservation and stopping to learn about herbs and plants. Grandmothers taught them to harvest responsibly, to show respect to the plant and the land, both in action – to harvest no more than you need – and in thought.
“‘Don’t speak bad or think bad when you’re picking or the plants will hide from you.’ All of these things that I didn’t question when I was growing up because it came from grandma’s mouth. So it’s true,” Antelope said.
She teaches younger generations now herself, as part of her work for FAST Blackfeet, a nonprofit she co-chairs that addresses food insecurity on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Preserving the knowledge and passing it along is almost like a militant act for her. “I try to stress this to my little guy and to the other kids that I teach, that it was an act of resilience for them to keep that information for us.”
“To Coax Fragile Life Out of the Land”
Women have always taught their communities about sustainability and land stewardship, and they continue in that role today, according to Andrea Malmberg, a rancher based in Northeastern Oregon and a member of the Women in Ranching network. Today, more women are interested in learning climate-resilient strategies as well, she said.
“I’m teaching a holistic financial planning course, and the majority of the people that are doing it are women. And I just kind of think that there is something happening…women are just like, we got to get stuff together and we cannot depend on infrastructure, which tends to be pretty patriarchal to make that happen,” Malmberg said during the panel.
She knows first-hand that access to financial tools and technical support for women is a very real issue. “So if it’s hard for me as a white woman to get financing, married to a white man, I just can’t even imagine how difficult it is for people that have one been displaced from their land,” Malberg said.
Gabrielle Roesch-McNally with the American Farmland Trust, also based in Oregon, noticed that as the Covid-19 shutdown went into effect in her state, it was mostly women farmers who kept her fridge and pantry full.
“It felt very clear to me that women were leading the way in terms of securing food security for their communities,” Roesch-McNally said. “And I know from the peer review literature, from time immemorial, women have sort of been the keepers of local food for the family. And in many places I studied in Zambia and Ethiopia and many places in Africa and other parts of the world, women grow the garden for the family…and I think that’s very true in the U.S. in lots of ways in terms of production of agriculture.”
“Women for the Land”
In her work on Capitol Hill, Miguel has seen and heard the testimony of tribal leaders from Alaska to Arizona in front of her Congressional Committee describing destruction and dangers, rising seas, and decade-long draughts, either already present or looming over the horizon.
Miguel’s home state is experiencing an unprecedented rise in temperatures, which in turn will lead to a drop in crop yields on which many communities rely. Antelope’s tribe in Montana has been experiencing shorter harvesting seasons and harsher winters, which in turn affect animal behavior and harm the tribe’s ability to forage, harvest traditional plants and medicines, and remain self-sufficient.
All the panelists agreed that the solutions have to be a mix of legislation, hands-on work, and education.
For Antelope, that means putting women in charge of organizations large and small. From Miguel’s perspective in Congress, that representation needs to reach the highest domains of power. Miguel said that there are true allies of tribes in Congress, but “It’s very different to see yourself represented,” she said, visibly touched about the recent election of the first two Native women – Sharice Davids from Kansas and Deb Haaland from New Mexico – to the House of Representatives.
With tribal advocates in power, legislation like H.R.5986 – Environmental Justice For All Act and H.R.5435 – American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act from Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and A. Donald McEachin of Virginia stand a chance of becoming a law and protecting the most vulnerable communities at the frontlines of climate change.