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OPINIONĀteaDecember 1, 2021

Being an Indigenous woman at Cop26

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Amplifying our voices in spaces made to keep us quiet.

“So, how was Cop26? What’s it like?” These are questions that I’ve been asked multiple times since the climate conference finished, and I still find it hard to put into words. This year was my first time attending a Cop summit. Every day was filled with the mania of on-the-go learning of the ins and outs of climate policies, as well as protests and interviews, all while staying safe in a pandemic. It’s an easy place to lose yourself in.

I was warned of the colonial and wayward ways still ingrained within the UN space. That it was a confronting environment because although we can be seen our voices aren’t necessarily heard. Our small team of Māori and Pacific youth from Aotearoa had opportunities to meet with government negotiators in small meeting rooms within the venue. I remember sitting at the table hearing them say they wanted to collaborate with young Indigenous Peoples – but only if it aligned with their agenda, of course. I often listened to policy experts spinning jargon and doing my best to understand their climate strategies and read between the lines of their proposals. Among all of this, I began to ask myself a confronting question: is my voice worthy enough to be here? I heard other Indigenous women attending Cop26 asking themselves the same thing.

It’s a question that Indigenous women are sadly too familiar with, being constantly undermined in a world largely ruled by white men wearing white collars at white tables.

Cop26 was no different. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently released information showing there is still a general over-representation in the space by male delegates, who also dominate speaking times. 

Don’t get me wrong though, it didn’t mean we stayed quiet. I met Indigenous women who have been navigating this space for many years and have pushed through the barriers trying to keep us out. You may even recognise some of them from their consistent campaigning for our planet which has provided them with a (long-overdue) platform at Cop from which their voices have finally been heard by the world.

These women are sharing their stories so that others who come to a Cop can embrace the strength in their voice and find the courage to amplify their stories in spaces made to keep us quiet.

Brianna Fruean

(Toamua, Sāmoa)

I remember seeing Brianna and the team of Pacific Climate Warriors marching in unity while holding every Pacific nation’s flag through one of the biggest street protests at Cop26. Their presence in creating space for Pacific people that couldn’t attend this year is something the whole world has been able to witness.

Raised in Sāmoa, Brianna first learned about climate change in primary school when her teacher told her that one day her beautiful home could be underwater. At 11 years old she was awarded a chance to attend a UN climate summit and has been navigating the space ever since, campaigning for climate justice for the South Pacific.

This was her fifth year at Cop.

Brianna Fruean (Image: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC)

Brianna says: “There are difficulties – racism, sexism – that I feel like most women of colour have experienced at Cop, a predominantly white male space. If men are making assumptions about me and why I should be here or why I should be speaking, or giving me the cold shoulder for taking up space, I overcome it by remembering that I did the work to get here. That pushes the imposter syndrome out of my head. I am an expert in this field, I have been in this work for more than 10 years, I am more than worthy to be in this space.

“Growing up around strong Sāmoan women, we’ve always understood the relationship we have with nature. And, for me, there’s something so maternal about nature and our connection to it. Fanua is the Sāmoan word for placenta and it is the same word we use for land and we bury the placenta in the land. So, I’ve learned wherever you are you can connect to nature through your belly button because the womb mirrors the earth. It’s a connection I really appreciate because, being in Cop feels like anything but nature. That helps me to remember that as a woman I am still connected to nature, even if I’m not surrounded by it. All these lessons I have learned from women and it has kept me centred in this work.”

Kailea Frederick

(Tahltan, Kaska and Black American ancestry)

I first met Kailea at an Indigenous youth gathering the first week of Cop26. She is a climate justice organiser with the Indigenous-led activism organisation NDN collective and a Climate Action Commissioner for the city of Petaluma, where she is raising her son.

Kailea initially came into climate justice through the food sovereignty movement on the island of Maui where she grew up. Now based in California, Kailea has had to relocate her family, including her three-year-old son, out of their home for the past two years because of the States’ destructive wildfires. 

This was Kailea’s third time at Cop.

Kailea Frederick (Image: If Not Us Then Who)

Kailea says: “I have learned at this point in time how to discern in myself if I’m feeling imposter syndrome in a space or if I’m actually feeling unwelcome. A lot of the spaces that I navigate now are spaces that were not designed for me. They were not designed for a lot of the perspectives that I bring in or even what I’ve been trained to do. My training from my parents and my childhood was not geared towards being in a conversation with the federal government.

“I dealt with some near debilitating imposter syndrome that almost got the better of me and I nearly left the movement space after I gave birth to my son. I didn’t feel smart enough especially because I didn’t go to university. At Cop, I was in a space where it seemed everyone knew everything about everything, and it was overwhelming. But, I realised that black, Indigenous women, fem and queer people coming into Cop or any movement space all carry different ways of knowing, and other knowledge systems. There’s not one right way to be in this space, because climate change is the most intersectional crisis so that means we need the brilliance of many types of minds coming together all at once.

“I still definitely deal with getting talked down to. But, as I’ve become older it’s something I have less patience for. Being a parent now has changed me, because there’s this understanding that every time I’m away from my son to be doing something for work, it’s a compromise that is being asked of me. So, I know I have to keep showing up even when I don’t feel welcomed.”

Tiana Jakicevich

(Ngāti Kahungungu ki Te Wairoa, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Pahauwera,Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tuhoe and Croatian heritage)

I met Tiana for the first time in person the day our group flew out to Scotland. She is our teams’ young tuakana, a born and bred east coaster.

She is guided by the Māori proverb: ko te taiao ko au, ko au ko te taiao. I am the environment and the environment is me. “It’s understanding that we are all an extension of the earth,” she says.

This year was Tiana’s second time attending Cop, but as an active kaitiaki (guardian) of her whenua (land) she is no stranger to the schemes of climate politics and dismantling colonial spaces head on.

Tiana Jakicevich (Image: Kahu Kutia)

Tiana says: “Being an Indigenous woman in the international arena is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s heart-warming because we can connect with our whanaunga (relative, inclusive of non-blood relations) from all parts of the earth. We come from our whenua, our land, mothers and grandmother’s womb. We are the givers and sustainers of life and can stand united in our safeguarding and stewardship of the environment.

“It’s equally heartbreaking to be an Indigenous woman because you’re up against corporations and states that don’t believe in what you are standing for and want to put profit above the earth and our existence. It’s quite hard to see your country, who you think are going to be champions of the environment or something as simple as the rights of Indigenous Peoples, not put their money where their mouth is.

“I always knew I had the kaha, the strength and courage, of my grandmother. And, I bring my tīpuna here, so I would be able to withstand the turbulence that this space created. But I’ve really learned the grit and how I can communicate and translate the stories of my home in a way that is heard and listened to by a world that doesn’t understand my people. In this space, empathy and compassion can go a long way in remembering someone’s humanity. Even if sometimes my actions are conducted from a place of fire, from a place standing in the ahi of hope, I still try to do it in a way that is compassionate and that can create ripples for other Indigenous Peoples to come in.”   

Tishiko (Tish) King

(Kulkalgal Nation, Torres Strait Islands)

Tish and I were part of an Indigenous group that met with negotiators from the Australian government. Confined in walls not created by our ancestors, I watched Tish open the meeting for us with a Kulkalgal prayer and later show a video to negotiators of her picking up ancestral remains near her family home on Masig Island. They had been exposed by extreme weather patterns and eroding shorelines.

This year’s Cop was a first for Tish, but as the campaigns director at Seed-Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network, she is an expert in mobilising youth through the climate space.

Tishiko King (Image: Bala Joe/ Pacific climate Warriors)

Tish says: “Cop26 is a very colonial space and it feels like a trade show. It should feel like we are here to talk about how we can shift the way we operate and change systems that have continued to oppress our people. Unfortunately, the Australian pavilion at Cop is filled with fossil fuel CEO’s and banks that are investing in their projects, while our people have been advocating that that is not the way to care for our planet.

“I know decolonising space is not what you want to do because it does take you away from what you really want to do, which is to campaign and help amplify the rights of our people. As exhausting and overwhelming and stretched as this space can be, I remind myself that it’s our future that this will impact as well as those futures that aren’t even born yet. Protecting our planet is an inherited responsibility that we don’t necessarily want, but are born with, and are proud to uphold.”

So, what was Cop26 like? These stories of Indigenous women share some of the realities of what happens on the ground, behind the grand-headline grabbing speeches you see in the media. And, that confronting question I asked myself like so many others? The answer is, yes, I belonged there. Climate change is a human issue therefore every voice is critical in this conversation. The resilience of Indigenous Peoples to push through barriers over 26 years of Cop has meant inclusivity is changing in this space. But it feels as though if we don’t continue to speak out and tell our stories ,those strides will be written off without anyone looking back. 

Keep going!