Climate Change

How Indigenous Youth are the Key to Climate Change

October 9, 2023  • Center for Native American Youth

Climate change is an urgent issue, affecting every corner of the world and requiring collective efforts and solutions. However so far, many standard western practices used to fight climate change have not shown the progress or rallied the level of effort needed to move the needle. An approach that brings more local stewards of the land — especially Indigenous people — is needed.

The Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth is putting Indigenous voices front and center in the conversation around climate change. Vice Chair Charity Ropati, Advisory Board Director Sally Jewell, and Executive Director Nikki Santos sat down together to share their personal experiences and insights, highlighting the importance of empowering Indigenous communities — especially Native youth — in the fight against climate change. Here’s what they had to say:

Indigenous voices are important in the climate conversation

Native communities have a unique and valuable perspective on nature and its conservation, grounded in generations of wisdom and stewardship. Indigenous peoples see themselves as an integral part of the natural world, viewing land, water, and air as relatives rather than resources to exploit. 

As a result, Native communities across the globe have a historically-proven track record of acting as a safeguard to our Earth, maintaining a clear and effective vision for sustainability. A wider adoption of this perspective could catalyze transformation in western solutions for climate change. 

Indigenous people are less than 5% of the population; however, we protect and preserve over 80% of our world’s biodiversity. It’s because our ways of being in relation with the land, water, and all of our animal relatives — it’s not extractive. We treat this land and the air like our relatives.” – Nikki Santos

The role of Native youth

The younger generation of Indigenous youth are at the forefront of movements advocating for clean water, environmental justice, and political action. Their unique perspectives and dedication to preserving traditional ideologies make their voices indispensable in shaping the future. 

The conversation included inspiring examples of young people making a difference in their communities. For example, Jewell shared a story of Indigenous youth using their voices to protest against the placement of the Dakota Access Pipeline. These youths showed remarkable dedication to nature by journeying from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to present their own petitions and bring awareness on a global level. Their ancestral knowledge and zeal for safeguarding their future is a potent combination, and one that leaders would be wise to listen to and draw from. 

The importance of ecological education

Ecological education connects us to the world by teaching us about our environment. In Indigenous culture, ecological education is essential and foundational to identity. Putting efforts towards normalizing ecological education throughout western society could promote systematic global transformation, as a basis for all to feel the same connection and responsibility. 

I couldn’t think of not seeing the world through a traditional/Indigenous lens. It’s embedded in our DNA. Everything that connects us as Natives is through nature.” – Nikki Santos

Barriers faced by Native youth in the fight against climate change

Santos pointed out that despite their potential power to affect change, Native youth face many barriers when it comes to advocacy. Challenges like limited resources, geographic isolation, economic disparities, and mental health disparities are common obstacles. The Center for Native Youth seeks to uplift Native youth and equip them to effect change through an empowerment model that’s rooted in Indigenous culture. Recognition, inspiration and leadership among youth, as well as research, advocacy, and policy change, are key components of all program initiatives. The Center for Native Youth’s Growing into Wowachinyepi and Calm Before the Storm leadership programs are examples of initiatives that encompass these elements.

“When we start normalizing young Natives leading with culture and using that as a protective factor, we will start being able to break those barriers.” – Nikki Santos

How governmental institutions can help support Native youth

Jewell noted a growing awareness among major institutions when it comes to engaging with Native youth. More than ever, institutions are recognizing the value of Indigenous voices and are seeking their inclusion. 

“The time is now; for those who have money and resources, I encourage them to support this work and engage with their local tribal communities.” – Sally Jewell

The Center for Native Youth loves, honors, and respects Indigenous youth, accepting them as they are and uplifting their growth into valued members of society. Governmental and advocacy institutions working toward inclusion should accept that Indigenous values might not look the same as what the predominantly-white society thinks values are supposed to look like. 

“When you invest in Native youth dreams, that is rooted in climate justice.” – Charity Ropati

We can’t get where we are trying to go without my generation supporting the youth into getting us where we need to go.” – Sally Jewell

Watch the full conversation below.