5 Indigenous And Native Activists Who Made An Impact In 2019

Thanksgiving should be a time to reflect on the work of indigenous communities and Native people around the world. Here are their stories.

Thanksgiving: A time for extravagant home-cooked meals, gratitude lists and a stark reminder of the United State’s complicated history with ― and devastating effect on ― America’s Native people. 

However, there has been a renaissance in Native and Indigenous activism. In the U.S., more people are educating themselves on the true roots of the Thanksgiving tradition while Native people across the globe feel increasingly empowered to speak truth to power and reclaim their indigenous rights and ways of life. 

This holiday season, meet five Indigenous and Native activists who have had a powerful influence this year on their communities and in the world.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland

This year, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) became one of the first Native American women to be sworn into Congress, alongside Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.). 

Haaland has made big strides on Capitol Hill. She received a round of applause from both sides of the aisle for being the first Native woman to preside over the House during a debate over voting rights and campaign finance.

In May, she introduced a slew of bills aimed at addressing violent crimes in tribal communities, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and boosting protections for Native women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Nemonte Nenquimo

Nemonte Nenquimo, a member of the Waorani nation in Ecuador, led a lawsuit this year against the Ecuadorian government to protect Wairabu ancestral territory in the Amazon rainforest against oil drilling.

Judges ruled in favor of Nenquimo and the Waorani in April, blocking an auction of their land to oil companies and setting a precedent that could protect other Ecuadorian communities within the Amazon. The Waorani’s legal win may also inspire other Amazon tribes in neighboring countries to organize and fight to protect their own lands.

“Today, the courts recognize that the Waorani people, and all indigenous peoples, have rights over our territories that must be respected,” Nenquimo said after the historic ruling, according to Al Jazeera. “The government’s interests in oil is not more valuable than our rights, our forests, our lives.”

Nenquimo is the first woman to lead the Waorani Organization of Pastaza Province, known in Ecuador as CONCONAWEP.

Autumn Peltier

At just 15 years old, Autumn Peltier of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation has become one of the most prominent voices in Canada fighting for access to clean water.

Peltier has spent years traveling the world in an effort to raise awareness of how countries fail to protect water from pollution and industrialization, and how those threats cut off water access for First Nation people and Indigenous communities around the globe.

In 2017, she came face to face with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and denounced the leader over his support of pipeline projects across Canada.

Speaking this year at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, Peltier called on international leaders to turn to indigenous traditions to protect the Earth’s natural resources.

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: We can’t eat money or drink oil,” she said. 

“Maybe, we need to have more elders and youth together sitting at the decision table when people make decisions about our lands and waters.”

Pualani Case, aka Auntie Pua

For years, Native Hawaiian activists have halted construction on the international Thirty Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian Islands and one of the most sacred sites to Hawaiians. 

Pualani Case, known locally as Auntie Pua, has been at the forefront of the movement, which has gained the support of celebrities including actor Jason Mamoa and singers Janet Jackson and Jhene Aiko.

Case has spent years testifying before state and county leaders and assisting in the legal battle over the construction ― all in an effort to protect the mountain from what activists believe is an ecological hazard and desecration. She remains instrumental in the months-long demonstration at the mountain that has forced the state, once again, to reevaluate the project.

“There are native people everywhere around the world standing for their mountaintops, for their waters, for their land bases, their oceans and their life ways,” Auntie Pua told Democracy Now this summer. “We are no different than them.”

Paulo Paulino Guajajara 

Paulo Paulino Guajajara was a leader of the Guajajara indigenous group in Brazil who had made it his life’s work to protect the Amazon from logging and development. The 26-year-old died this year, allegedly killed by illegal loggers, while patrolling the last stretch of untouched rainforest in the Maranhao state.

Paulino spoke frequently about his fear of loggers who wanted him dead but continued protecting the Amazon, The Washington Post reported.

“It made him so angry, that here was this illegal logging camp, and there was trash everywhere, and they were going to profit from this while his people were going to suffer,” Sarah Shenker, a Brazil researcher who came to know Paulino told the Post. 

Shenker described a time he had expressed both his fear and determination.

“I’m doing this and I’m putting my life at risk,” she recalled him as saying. “But I see no other way.”