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Indigenous and Pacific Islander environmental activism must be centered

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

On Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, I joined UC Berkeley’s Indigenous and Native Coalition, or INC-RRC, a bridges recruitment and retention center, in the Rise For Climate March in San Francisco. The estimated 30,000-participant march in San Francisco was one of the 800 global events that took place in 91 countries and all 50 of our states on Sept. 8. And some of the groups participating were indigenous-led. While marching, I was approached by a reporter from The Daily Californian who asked if I thought marches like these were effective. As quoted in a previous Daily Cal article, I replied, “Our peoples are the ones who are basically suffering from it. … I think this march shows that we care, and we’re here, and we’re not going to go away, and this is something that everyone needs to get behind.” I’d like to take this opportunity to further explain what I meant by that statement.

My people come from the ocean — the Pacific Ocean, specifically. My mother, in whose culture I was raised, is Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), and my father is an immigrant from the island of Palawan in the Philippines. My parents come from beautiful islands that tourists flock to. I, on the other hand, was born and raised on the island of Sacramento, California. The only people flocking to my hometown are politicians, protestors, “Lady Bird” enthusiasts and people escaping the skyrocketing prices of Bay Area living.

This may come as a shock for some, but Native Hawaiians do exist. I don’t mean those who are from the state of Hawaii. I mean the descendants of the first inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands who canoed there from Oceania in 400 A.D. Yes, we were voyagers and wayfinders, as (and I hate to make the reference) depicted in the Disney movie “Moana.” “Moana” means ocean in many Polynesian languages. Also, take Khal Drogo/Aquaman for instance (or not, if you didn’t like the “Justice League” movie). Jason Momoa is also part-Native Hawaiian. Native Hawaiians and their descendants exist, just as Native Americans and other indigenous peoples do. American society has a way of erasing indigenous peoples of this country from existence. This is reflected in UC Berkeley’s lack of acknowledgement of the Ohlone peoples and their descendants, whose ancestral lands our campus is built upon, and the unawareness that not all Native Americans live on reservations. There are an estimated 140,000 urban Natives living in the Bay Area today. And we showed up Saturday, Sept. 8.

Indigenous peoples have a strong tradition of reverence for Earth’s natural resources, culturally and spiritually. In Native Hawaiian culture, we are taught that what we take from the Earth we must replenish. The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, known as Iroquois, states the Seventh Generation Principle, a principle similar to those of many indigenous cultures — that present-day people are just stewards of the earth for the generations that will come after. This responsibility and legacy is sacred to indigenous peoples. Our connection to the land and water is expressed in our cultural practices, but it is also tied to our survival.

Water is life! This has been the cry for action for the protection of natural resources that Native activists have been shouting for years. This is evident in the indigenous resistance to the building of dams in North and South America and the Native American protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017. Native American activists at Standing Rock were supported by global indigenous solidarity, including from the Maori of the Pacific. The activists’ fear of the pipeline breaking and poisoning their land and water was proven valid when a section of the pipe broke in South Dakota, leaking 210,000 gallons of oil. That was a major indigenous “I told you so.”

This Sunday, Sept. 16, the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s canoe Hikianalia ported in San Francisco’s Aquatic Cove after a 28-day expedition from Hawaii that was completed using ancient wayfinding techniques and solar panels. Sent as an ambassador to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, the captain of Hikianalia, Lehua Kamalu, spoke of the toxic connection between the man-made pollution in our oceans and climate change. The society collects water samples from the ocean to monitor its health. In this recent journey, it collected samples from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which floats between Hawaii and California and is larger than Texas. Images and videos of how mankind has laid waste to our oceans have gone viral this summer with footage of a British diver swimming through a sea of plastic in tourist haven Bali and waves of rubbish crashing onto the beaches of the Dominican Republic. The footage showed the destruction and pollution of our environment as a result of poor environmental policies and practices.

While some people may not believe that pollution in our air and water contributes to climate change, we need to be honest about the degradation of our environment. Ignoring the global impacts of climate change while also continuing harmful environmental practices, will only lead to the destruction of Earth. We can’t mask this crisis with a Snapchat or Instagram filter. We all need to be aware and involved, as everyone is impacted by climate change. It’s time to listen to what Native and indigenous communities have been saying all along. We have to protect the land and the water for ourselves and for the future generations.

Bria Puanani Tennyson is a History major with an Education minor at UC Berkeley.

SEPTEMBER 24, 2018