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Native American panel discusses environment and civic engagement

Pennie Opal Plants, Melinida Micco, Patricia St. Onge, and Esther Yizzle-Lewis at Women Ensuring the Future of the Next Seven Generations on Nov. 13 (Anna Torres)

A panel hosted by the Ethnic Studies department, Women Ensuring the Future of The Next Seven Generations, was held in the Rothwell Student Union on Nov. 13 to discuss the importance of civic engagement in the global community.

Melinda Micco, Ethnic Studies professor, organized the event. Panelists Patricia St. Onge, Pennie Opal Plant, and Esther Yizzie-Lewis are three activists for Native American rights who each shared their personal anecdotes about how they have become involved within their own communities.

Each of their stories touched on the idea that the culture of consumerism is negatively affecting the environment, and therefore negatively effecting health around the world.

Plant is of Yaqui, Choctaw and Cherokee descent and is the owner of Gathering Tribes, a Native American gallery store in Albany, CA.

Plant has been an activist for over 30 years and continues to advocate for Native American rights. During the panel, she highlighted the importance of rising up and reversing the negative effects of climate change.

“Everything is related. Everything is connected. What we do to our environment, we do to us,”    she said.

Plant discussed the impact on what of the Tar Sands Blockade, which is the effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone XL Pipeline extends from Alberta, Canada transporting oil to the American Gulf Coast.

According to Plant, the pipeline is detrimental to the health of the communities in the surrounding area because it contaminates the water, practices eminent domain without proper compensation, and releases an excess amount of carbon into the air.

“It’s imperative that we rise up,” Plant said. “For me personally, it’s important that we rise up with joy.”

Yizzie-Lewis works as a the only official Navajo Court Interpreter for the United States District Court in Albuqurque, New Mexico. She grew up on a Navajo reservation south of Farmington, New Mexico. She said circumstances of her upbringing informed her traditional values.

“I’m old school. I’m not a high-technology person,” she said. “Navajo people have been without electricity and running water. Those people have lived according to how the natural cycle of life happens. They live and sustain themselves that way.”

Yizzie-Lewis learned about the issues Navajo people were facing while on the job. She was asked to transcribe tapes of interviews of Navajo people and listened to them speak on their personal experiences with uranium mining.

According to Yizzie-Lewis, the Navajo people in Albuqurque, New Mexico saw uranium mining as a viable form of employment. They were unaware of the negative effects exposure to uranium had on their health. She said the miners were never given head gear, masks, or oxygen tanks to keep them safe while they work.

“They took their lunch down there, they drank the water that was running down into these big tunnels [without] realizing they were contaminating themselves,” she said.

St. Onge is the founder of Seven Generations Consulting and Coaching is of Haudenosaune and Quebecois descent.

St. Onge encouraged the audience to make a positive change in their community and said that there is an easy way to figure out how they can do so.

“What makes you come alive?” she asked, and prompted everyone to turn to each other and answer the question.  According to St. Onge, the answer to that question informs how a person can positively engage in his or her community and help make it better.

She told the audience about  asking her family this same question and shared their answers, her youngest daughter and her husband said, “Growing weed.” As the audience laughed in awe, St. Onge explained that this spurred a better understanding of the medicinal qualities of cannibus, and in turn, the natural medicinal qualities in other herbs. Eventually, their plot of land grew into an acre and that is how “Nafsi ya Jamii” came alive. “Nafsi ya Jamii” is Swahili for “The Soul Community.” “Nafsi ya Jamii” is also an urban farm and renewal center at her home in East Oakland, where she lives with her family.

“Authenticity, reciprocity, wellness, fun, discernment, wisdom, and love of learning,” St. Onge said. “Everything that we do, we try to do with those values as a basis for what we’re doing.”

The Mills students that attended the event found it to be both informative and inspiring.

“I feel like it opened up perspectives for me that I don’t really hear about,” Maya Weeks, a second year grad student, said. “It made me think about how I could potentially do sustainable things in my life and it made me feel included without necessarily belonging to an indigenous group.”