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An interview with Amelia Marchand: “I continue this good work for those yet to come”

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By Praveen Gupta

· 14 min read

I recently spoke to Amelia Marchand about the impact of climate change on Indigenous Peoples. A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, she is a leader in Indigenous-led conservation through the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation. With a background in anthropology and environmental law, she's dedicated over 25 years to cultural and natural resource fields. Her lineage includes Okanogan, Lakes, Moses-Columbia, Palus, Chief Joseph Band of Wal’wama Nimiipuu, and European, deeply influencing her advocacy for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. Drawing from personal experiences and family history, she champions socially equitable solutions for climate change that address intergenerational trauma and colonialism.

Praveen Gupta: Kindly tell me about your work towards elevating community-led climate action and environmental justice.

Amelia Marchand: There are several different ways that I try to elevate not just climate justice, but Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives on climate justice. One of them is through my volunteer work with the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation. Sometimes that looks like writing public comment letters, sometimes that looks like bringing people together at different events and sharing ideas about topics like rights of nature or advancing Indigenous conservation of native plants and pollinators.

Other times through my formal work, it also looks like bringing people together for training and meetings to learn and share about community and nation-building work. Those all provide opportunities for Tribes to advance their climate initiatives, like investing and initiating food security or energy sovereignty work.

PG: What are the challenges native communities face when responding to climate change?

AM: It’s very difficult to identify just one or two climate impacts affecting Indigenous Peoples because there are so many. The approach that I try to take is to look at identifying the baseline, of where Indigenous Peoples are right now. In many different demographics and studies, you’ll see that today – in 2024 – American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians in the United States have significantly higher health risks than the rest of the population. They have significant challenges to higher education access and economic opportunities compared to other demographics. As a result of those disparities in access to health, access to education, and diverse economic opportunities, that makes those communities all the more vulnerable to climate impacts.

Those may be vulnerabilities resulting from direct climate impacts, like health impacts from wildland smoke, which is difficult for elders, youth, and those populations with asthma or respiratory conditions. Vulnerabilities can also look like reduced abilities to perpetuate cultural identity and traditional cultural practices. As an example, that could be loss of biodiversity which impacts ceremonial, subsistence, and medicinal foods important for survival in Indigenous communities; especially in rural areas where there are food and water security issues.

All the impacts that the rest of the population is experiencing are also being experienced by Indigenous Peoples. However, the lack of economic parity and direct access to resources exacerbates climate impacts in Indigenous communities.

PG: Are Indigenous women/girls more vulnerable to climate breakdown than their male counterparts?

AM: I have heard, again and again, that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier.’ That means that the living conditions and quality of life from the richest to the poorest will be vulnerable to climate impacts, but that those climate impacts will be exacerbated – felt most extremely – by those on the margins of power, equality, and access to resources. 

Unfortunately, the patriarchal systems of many colonial and capitalistic governments, as experienced in the United States where class and racial inequalities are still perpetuated, are structured in favor of benefiting men and boys. Some people may believe this subject is uncomfortable or unrelated to climate and the environment. But that belief is precisely why the topic must be discussed.

Just as Indigenous Peoples have fought for their human rights, so too have women, girls, and those with identities which do not conform to Westernized colonial concepts of gender. Those in the marginalized and fringe sectors of American society will always be more vulnerable – and for Indigenous women/girls and two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. (2SLBGTQ+) peoples, a significant portion of the climate issues they experience may be the disruption in access to and availability of health and medical care.

For example, when temperatures rise, there is a correlation to increases in domestic violence. Most often, victims of domestic violence are women and children. When a flood, fire, or other natural disaster displaces people from their homes and communities, how well is the continuity of care for prenatal, postpartum, and menstruating women and girls? Will the evacuation centers be places of safety, security and inclusion where access to birth control and menstruation medical needs are freely available and abundant? Will sexual, reproductive, and behavioral health accommodations be safe and secure to prevent sexual harassment? When wages are lost and food, water, and necessities are scarce; who will ensure that sexual harassment, rape, prostitution, and human trafficking are not used as devices of control, submission, and power? 

“We don’t need climate change impacts to highlight the humanitarian disaster happening in conflict zones far away, domestic abuse occurring in residences down the road, or discrimination impacting youth in the nearby school.”

These are things unpleasant to consider, but we must. I share these words as an Indigenous woman who has experienced harassment and discrimination throughout my life in many different ways: for being Indigenous. For being part-white. For choosing to end a relationship. For being a woman. For my age. For having an education. For being a mother. For being me.

The acronym “MMIWP” stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People. I also share these words as a niece who lost her aunt to domestic violence before I ever had an opportunity to hear her voice. My aunt’s untimely death traumatized my family so much, and her loss so painful, that I was well into my teens before the story of her life and death was even shared with me.

We don’t need climate change impacts to highlight the humanitarian disaster happening in conflict zones far away, domestic abuse occurring in residences down the road, or discrimination impacting youth in nearby schools. We need changes to the way conflict is addressed. Imagine if political leaders made decisions centered and based on protecting the human rights of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQ+ peoples. 

Imagine if every U.S. state and every country had a task force established to not just understand and address the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and peoples – but to end it. Imagine if research and development for women’s sexual and maternal health were equal to men’s. Imagine if women’s reproductive systems were their own to control and if our jobs were secured with mandatory paid maternity leave in an economy that cared for us.

This is my challenge and charge: If you truly love and care for your wife, sister, daughter, mother, niece, grandmother, aunt, God-mother…Then swear to uphold her inherent rights to exist free from harm, as she sees fit, and to experience full body autonomy – for she is a reflection of all of creation: Mother Earth. And what happens to her, ultimately is the fate of us all.

PG: Any thoughts on rights of nature, Indigenous and advocacy perspectives?

AM: Indigenous Peoples understand that humans are not apart from nature and that nature, in and of itself, has a right to exist, an inherent right to not be bound, contained, and extracted from. Rights of Nature (RON) is a legal concept under the division of Earth law, an evolving Westernized legal concept that has some really great elements.

Throughout different parts of the world, and also in some areas of the United States, there’s this movement to bring RON forward and enact laws and policies which will truly protect rivers, waterways, watersheds, landscapes and also species–specific rights of species – to exist. This RON advocacy does not put humans as the ‘end all, be all’; but instead recognizes that our ecosystem is interconnected to us. Humanity is dependent upon a functioning ecosystem for existence.

One of the initiatives that I’m really in support of, an initiative with the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation is identifying pathways for RON for the Columbia River. The Columbia River is a transboundary watershed, between the United States and Canada, the most hydroelectrically developed river in North America. There have been critical, negative impacts resulting from the construction of those hydropower dams on the land of several Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the United States, as well as non-Native populations in the Columbia River Watershed. RON is a new concept to the Western legal system, but protecting those waters, lands, environments, and species that enrich us and give us life – there is nothing new about that to Indigenous Peoples.

“We have so many relatives, large and small, and sometimes I find it a bit difficult to describe this perspective to those outside of my community.”

PG: How did cultural teachings shape your professional perspectives and relationships with Water and our non-human relatives?

AM: We have so many relatives, large and small, and sometimes I find it a bit difficult to describe this perspective to those outside of my Indigenous community. There are Cultural Teachings that I’ve had since I was young from my family. As an example, one is that water is akin to a cleanser or purifier. It’s hard to describe, but as an example, if you have a bad dream, the first thing you do when you wake up is drink water and it will help cleanse that bad dream out of your mind.

Today, nearly everyone recognizes that water helps cleanse your body, internally and externally. But my teachings are that water cleanses your spirit too, it isn’t just to benefit your physical health. Thus, water is important, but not just your body’s physical need for water – it benefits your spiritual health as well. That might be the very first lesson that I learned, which is definitely a Cultural Teaching separate from going to school. This was Teachings from my culture, spending time with my Tuptup (great-grandmother), all my grandmothers, and the elders of my community. There’s ceremonies where water is first, the first thing that you partake of at a meal, in ceremony with others, and you also end those same ceremonies and meals with water. In some ceremonies, we literally drink from the same cup.

The cleanliness of the water, and the health of those in ceremony, it all extends to the relationship we have with one another and with the land. What is the health and quality of the water when we obtain it? Where does it come from? Does it derive from the ice on lakes in the wintertime? Was it snow on faraway mountaintops which melted? Was it fog which condensed and traveled down the leaves and pine needles? There are so many different ways of water to exist, to be. There are so many ways in which we can experience and to consider our relationship with it.

One of my shifting thoughts is how everyone, everywhere, all around the globe, interacts with water and the place I live now… I don’t have snow-capped mountains in winter. I don’t have any icy lake to ice fish on with my family. There aren’t even very many rivers or streams where I live now, which is so different from the place where I call home. But there’s an ocean. And I remember that all of us are connected through water. I think that’s one of the things that can keep us connected despite our distance over space and time: Recognizing that the same water that we are drinking now, at one point, was consumed by the dinosaurs. This is a cycle. And everything that happens here is contained in that water cycle. That memory. It is refreshing to think of it in that way.

“So, we don’t just have a responsibility to do good work because it seems like the right thing, or it is popular. There is an ancestral line that came before me”.

PG: How do you recognize the gift and responsibility of being a good relative for present and future generations?

AM: I was at a meeting just over a year ago, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Winter Convention. The NCAI President Fawn Sharp commented on how, currently, our generation today – are ancestors. Ancestors of generations coming. That is one of the values that I truly feel. In my core, I didn’t have words for it when I was a young woman. But now, more and more people are starting to understand and connect with this perspective.

There is this line of men and women that came before me: my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. I am here because they survived, I am not here because of my own accord – my ancestors saw the moment of future opportunity. So, we don’t just have a responsibility to do good work because it seems like the right thing, or it is popular. There is an ancestral line which came before me. I continue this good work for those yet to come, and in that way, it’s the best action. It isn’t a burden, but a gift. The opportunity to make changes now.

PG: How do you leverage Indigenous leadership to advance climate action?

AM: Fortunately, there are many, many forms of Indigenous leadership advancing climate action. Some of them are through very formalized means within their Tribal governments: Tribal elected leaders and officials, making big, broad, bold strokes for their citizens, lands, and resources. There is also a surge in Indigenous leadership coming from grassroots entities and organizations like Indigenous-led nonprofits that are making a difference in their home communities and working with allies to support Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities. There is also leadership coming from Natives in academia doing research which advances Indigenous Knowledge and cultural heritage protections, advancing Indigenous research to benefit Tribal communities.

Being responsive to Tribal youth that are wanting to see change and climate action in their own communities – those are some of the things that keep me going every day, looking at the beautiful, hard, uplifting and challenging work that comes from this diverse group of leaders, officials, academics, community organizers; not just from the U.S., but other countries as well. It’s so inspiring and I try to elevate those Indigenous actions and voices as much as I can. I try to connect with people as much as I can and continue to share those perspectives, priorities, and values with anyone willing to listen and learn.

“There’s so many different ways to approach climate action through adaptation and mitigation activities, but for me, what it always comes down to is food and water.”

PG: Your thoughts on integrating climate justice and permaculture ethics into adaptive and holistic management?

AM: Around 2016 or 2017, I had started to take a permaculture certificate course through Oregon State University. Unfortunately, we experienced a family emergency and I had to withdraw from the course before I completed it. But in just that short amount of time, I was very inspired by what I was learning about permaculture principles and ethics. Part of that is because they aligned so much with what I already knew, what I already felt and experienced through the Cultural Teachings I obtained from my family, elders, and community.

There are so many different ways to approach climate action through adaptation and mitigation activities, but for me, what it always comes down to is food and water. Access to clean, healthy, uncompromised water and access to nutritious, wholesome food. Those two things, if done correctly, can heal and soothe the body and the mind. Take, for instance, that you might want to plan an event – any event: birthday party, book club meeting, anniversary party. At any of those types of events, if you have good food and good water, your joy camaraderie and laughter will flow and grow.

Another Teaching I’ve learned is that when we meet with another person for the first time, we don’t just bring ourselves for a meeting of minds, but we come prepared with a gift. Maybe that gift is a blessing. Maybe that gift is a prayer, but oftentimes that gift is also food. And for Indigenous Peoples, it is a gift or a blessing of their own traditional foods, which are important to them. Oftentimes those foods are even sacred to them, centered in their own creation stories and so, bringing back those values and traditions in a way which humbly honors the opening of a meeting.

All of these opportunities to change can be done in a way that is sustainable and based on many Tribal beliefs, which I believe are sustainable as well. It is a beautiful thing to integrate into many aspects of our day-to-day business operations: Land use planning, community development, permit review, economic development. We all want healthy, thriving communities now and seven generations into the future, and that always will start and end with access to clean water and healthy, nutritious foods. That ideal doesn’t separate Indigenous Peoples from anyone else. It only continues to unite us.

PG: I am so grateful for your candid insights on the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples, their wisdom and practices, Amelia. My best wishes for your fantastic work.

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This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022, and the third most read in climate change during 2023. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he researches, writes, and speaks on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of the work.

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