Temperatures are climbing. Sea levels are rising. Severe climate-related disasters are happening more frequently. As a result, Indigenous peoples around the world are quickly becoming the generation that can no longer swim in the water, fish in the river, hunt traditional foods or pick age old medicines. In response to the crisis, tribal leaders and environmental activists have called for a unified front to fight environmental and genocidal racism.

One such effort was the 17th Protecting Mother Earth Conference (PME), sponsored by the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Indigenous Climate Action. From June 28 to July 1, the PME brought together hundreds to share lessons, celebrate victories and build unity. Even the location of the gathering was meaningful: It took place at Frank’s Landing, a Washington State area where the Nisqually tribe used nonviolent, direct action to defend their inherent rights to hunt, fish, and gather under the Treaty of Medicine Creek of December 1854. Here are reflections from folks who were there.

Ayşe Gürsöz is a multimedia producer working at the intersection of climate change, human rights and corporate accountability. She currently works with the Climate and Energy team at Rainforest Action Network and volunteers with Indigenous Rising Media, an Indigenous-led media initiative of the Indigenous Environmental Network. In the past, Ayşe has worked with Al Jazeera’s AJ+, Public Advocates and was a 2017 Media Consortium fellow of the New Economies Reporting Project

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    Hanford McCloud (Nisqually Tribal Council) opened up the 17th PME by lighting a sacred fire that included coals from the first conference in 1990. “We Native people will always be on the frontlines [of the] fight for self-determination and environmental justice,” he said.

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    PME made me emotional because it’s one of the first large gatherings I’ve been to since leaving Standing Rock,” said Eryn Wise (Jicarilla Apache/Laguna Pueblo) the youth voice amplifier of Seeding Sovereignty and a director of the International Indigenous Youth Council. “You can tell we’re all tired from continuous work, but the fire burning behind our eyes is still just as bright as it was when we met in camp.”

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    The Nisqually tribe has fished for millennia in the waters that flow from the foot of Mount Rainier into the Puget Sound. In the 1960s and ’70s activists led “fish-ins”  to assert the tribe’s fishing and land rights. “We watched our elders get beat up right here,” recalled Don McCloud Jr. (Nisqually), whose father was a leader of what are known as the Fish Wars. “We suffered many things. But we’re not here to complain. The struggle still goes on.”

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    “We can’t keep living like nothing is wrong,” said Kendra Pinto (Diné), a community leader from Twin Pines, New Mexico, who fights hydraulic fracturing. “My life now is going into meetings [to explain] to my community that there are real dangers to fracking. [Fracking chemicals] go right near our water. We live in the desert. If we have no water, then there is no us. Plain and simple.”

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    Since fracking began on the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma’s reservation, the well water is too toxic to drink. And Oklahoma, a state that was essentially earthquake-free, is now an epicenter. “They need to understand that what they call ‘resources,’ we call ‘life sources,’” said Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma), an elder, tribal councilwoman and Emmy-winning actress. She estimates that one tribe member dies per week from fracking-related autoimmune diseases or cancers. 

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    “The U.S. and Canada are making decisions that move us further away from a climate-stable future by investing in dirty energy projects and not adhering to international climate commitments,” said Eriel Deranger (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation), executive director of Indigenous Climate Action and a PME panelist. “This is an indication that we the people, Indigenous peoples, must be prepared to take real action and be the leaders for the protection of Mother Earth.”

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    Adrienne Blatchford (Inupiaq), an organizer with Native Movement, said climate change is transforming her community’s landscape. There are fewer moose, beavers and salmon—traditional food sources. Due to starvation, wolves are now attacking dogs and people. A rapidly melting permafrost is causing trees to fall down. Even flowers that are supposed to be pink and blue are turning up white. “Indigenous people are connected to the food and to the land. Without it we get sick,” said Blatchford. 

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    PME participants hung up a banner signed by hundreds representing tribes all over the world. It reads: “Protect and Defend Indigenous Peoples Rights and Burial Rights.”

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    Ninawa Huni Kui, the chief and president of the Federation of the Huni Kui tribe of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, traveled to PME speak out against carbon trading mechanisms. “Carbon trading is the same colonialism we’ve been fighting for centuries. They used to kill us with bullets; now they create laws and policies,” he said.

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    “It was important that the [PME conference] introduced a new generation of organizers to its base and history,” reflected Jihan Gearon (Diné and African American), executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition and a PME panelist. “Our allies from other POC communities participated in our work through the lens of Indigenous peoples. And it was a strategic place to create much-needed discussions about topics such as Indigenous feminism.”

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    “In the world of media, representation has a huge role in how we envision ourselves in the future,” said Jade Begay (Diné and Tesuque Pueblo), a self-described futurist and communications director of the Indigenous Environmental Network and Indigenous Rising Media. “We are [often] shown as relics of a lost past. We need to challenge that by placing Indigenous peoples in the here and now in the news, and in films, sitcoms, editorial fashion spreads, Hollywood, and so on.”

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    Participants of the 17th PME assemble.