For indigenous environmental activist Tokata Iron Eyes, climate solutions are all about indigenous rights and culture. When Iron Eyes met Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg a couple of weeks ago and realized Thunberg felt the same way, she invited Thunberg to her ancestral homelands. The two 16-year-olds forged a friendship—not much different, I imagine, from the girlfriends I made when I was a young woman.
For these teens, however, the stakes are much higher.
Thunberg arrived in the U.S. in August and has since toured the country and Canada. On Sunday, she joined Iron Eyes on a panel on the climate crisis hosted by the Lakota People’s Law Project at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where Iron Eyes lives. Thunberg will be speaking on another panel Tuesday at Standing Rock in North Dakota, the site of a seminal 2016 protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Welcoming a blue-eyed European to lands that many Native Americans in the region consider sacred is no little thing. These lands were pillaged and destroyed by people who looked like Thunberg, and there’s a long history of continued racism perpetrated on tribes by white Americans. Few white folks are received with such love and gratitude as what Thunberg has seen.
Her invitation to these lands sends a clear message to her critics: She’s one of us. Some people on the left have criticized both the media for giving Thunberg so much attention and Thunberg herself for taking up space that some believe should go to young activists of color that have been doing this work for years.
Frontline communities like Standing Rock and youth from these communities like Iron Eyes have seen what climate change looks like, so they’ve been sounding the alarm on climate change long before climate strikes were a thing. The fossil fuel extraction that drives the crisis happens on their lands. The pollution as a result of that extraction ends up in their waterways. And all the while, these tribal nations have little to no say on whether such projects should continue or even be built in the first place. For many, it’s not just an infringement to their basic human rights, but also a legal violation of treaty rights established with the U.S. government.
Iron Eyes knows firsthand what that’s like; she was born in the Standing Rock Reservation and lived there at the time of the mass protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Youth played a central role in the fight against the 1,172-mile crude oil pipeline, making interstate runs to deliver petitions and producing a video campaign called Rezpect Our Water to raise awareness of the pipeline. And raise awareness they did: Standing Rock exploded into a textbook example of what climate mobilization can look like when frontline communities lead.
Iron Eyes was speaking out about environmental injustices long before Standing Rock, telling the crowd at Pine Ridge on Sunday that she spoke out about uranium mining at age 9.
For communities who face environmental threat on the regular, their history runs deep. Thunberg, on the other hand, only began speaking out about climate change a year ago when she began her Fridays for Future school strikes outside the Swedish parliament. She’s still relatively new to the world of climate activism, and she’s faced some criticism over it. I get the criticism, but I find it, quite frankly, unfair. And Iron Eyes ain’t down with it, either.
“I think that it’s not a problem of who’s in the spotlight,” Iron Eyes told Earther. “I think it’s a problem of the U.S. media, especially, wanting to only cover a white narrative. It’s not somebody’s personal fault for being valued more in a system that values only them.”
Truth! First of all, Thunberg is a child. And homegirl is out here doing more than plenty of adults in the climate space. She’s a kid willing to say whatever she wants to whomever she wants (such as calling out the elite at the World Economic Forum for their role in the climate crisis in January 2019). Thunberg can get away with such bold statements, in part, because she’s this seemingly innocent-looking, blue-eyed white girl. But the teen has been clear about using her privilege to provide support and allyship to her fellow youth of color who are not media darlings.
In regards to the landmark international climate complaint she and 15 other young people launched last month, Thunberg has been clear that it’s not about her but about all of them. During the press conference, she kept urging the press to ask other youth questions. At a march and rally against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Monday, Thunberg urged leaders to listen to indigenous voices, according to Rapid City Journal.
During the Sunday panel, Iron Eyes didn’t shy away from addressing some of the criticism Thunberg has received from others in the movement.
“We have to realize that we’re all on the same team, and we’re all fighting for the same thing, so no matter who is in the spotlight, no matter who is getting the most camera time, we have to be able to come together as one under the same set of values and be able to speak to each other on this level of human being and talking about the same things and how we can make real change together without any forms of jealousy,” she said during the conversation.
And jealousy can come quite easily when you’re a teenager, so it says a lot that this is coming from a 16-year-old. It also says a lot about the moment we’re in that Thunberg is at Standing Rock. We each have our own unique contributions to bring to the table when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. Indigenous people have so much knowledge and wisdom to offer. Thunberg speaks with an urgency that the world needs—and a privilege that many of her peers don’t have.