“If the Land Goes, Our Identity Goes”

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NDN Collective’s Jade Begay on Climate Justice, Cultural Organizing, and Indigenous Visibility

Interview by Kimi Eisele

Jade Begay is the Climate Justice Campaign Director for NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization working to build Indigenous power through organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building and narrative change. Diné and Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico, Jade has worked as a multimedia producer, filmmaker and communications professional for non-profit and Indigenous organizations. She has a bachelor’s degree in film and video and a master’s degree in environmental leadership. We spoke at the end of 2020 about climate justice work and the importance of creating more visibility for Indigenous people. At the time of our interview, Jade was awaiting word about the appointment of U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland, (D-NM) as head of the nation’s Department of the Interior. The following day, President Joe Biden made the recommendation. Haaland became the first Native American woman to hold a Cabinet position.

What led you to cultural organizing, communications, and climate work?

I was born an Indigenous person during a 10-year drought. From a very young age, I remember the messages of being really careful with and protective of water, being super grateful for that resource. And just growing up in the desert, you know, it’s always in the background, that discipline around water, because water is sacred and also scarce. Pueblo people have always lived in farming communities, so we have a lot of ceremonies or rituals oriented around the seasons. As a community, we clean the ditches together every spring, for example. Growing up I was just super conscious of the seasons and the gifts they bring. Rainfall, snowfall, all of these things.

A black and white photo of Jade Begay.

Both of my parents are artists. My dad is a sculptor and a painter, and my mom does pottery right now. When I was a young child my babysitter’s mother was a leader in our community, also a potter. She was famous for making little rain gods, which are a Tesuque trademark. I remember her talking about rainfall and its impact on the clay, as the reason the clay exists. I would think, “Oh, I hope it rains,” because that would mean we’d get to go harvest the clay.

My mom is currently a potter and also making rain gods and pots. Growing up she worked at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) as the Special Exhibits Curator then transitioned to the IAIA campus. She also worked with SWAIA, which puts on the annual Indian Market. Until 2020, because of the pandemic, I had been to every single Indian market. My dad has shown there ever since I was a child. So I grew up in this culturally rich environment. In the museum where my mom worked, I was constantly seeing images and hearing messages from native artists–everyone from TC Cannon to others in the contemporary Indian art movement—about sovereignty, survival, and resistance. By the time I was a teenager, I was pretty informed about what mattered to me and who I was. I was lucky to grow up in an environment that affirmed that being Native was a strong suit.

Regarding my path to film and social/climate justice, I picked up photography in high school and from there I evolved into video. My undergraduate degree is in film and documentary. Grad school is where I really honed my understanding of the importance of storytelling in the context of social justice movements. I was talking to a bunch of nonprofits and organizing groups in Colorado at the time for my research during grad school, and every single one of them was like, “We need help storytelling. We don’t have that capacity.” They didn’t really have a sense of how to share their story and garner support through all the various storytelling tools or social media. That’s still a big gap for a lot of our grassroots organizations and smaller nonprofits. I see story and narrative as a baseline for culture. I don’t think we’re going to make much change without changing culture. And to change culture, you have to shift narrative. It’s really about intervention. That’s really what my role is in narrative shift work–to figure out interventions and ways to interrupt the status quo, whether it’s with culture or narrative.

When you say intervention, what are some of those narratives that you think need to be intervened upon, even in this particular moment? What are some of the narratives that you’re working to shift?

When I think of intervening in order to change narratives about native people, I think of intervening at literally every level. Native people need representation everywhere. The biggest issue we deal with, whether in politics or climate or anywhere, is invisibility. That’s the greatest barrier. People not knowing that we’re alive or have rights and sovereignty. That we’re beyond these stereotypical images of what a native or Indigenous person looks like. When we’re working on campaigns and storytelling work, especially in climate spaces, I try to insert this at the very beginning of our design: How can people respect or honor or fight for Indigenous rights if they don’t even know we exist? And unfortunately, the data gathered by Illuminative and the First Peoples Fund and their Reclaiming Native Truth Report shows that a lot of Americans don’t know that native people exist. I have to remind myself that all the time because I work in the left progressive bubble. Oftentimes it feels like, Okay, people are moving along. But really, no, we still have so much work to do.

There are really cool interventions happening right now, like in Hollywood. Ava duVernay just announced that she’s going to produce a native drama on NBC. This really matters when we’re talking about the average family in America understanding that native people are contemporary, they’re, you know, doing TikTok and watching Netflix, just like everyone else while at the same time navigating modern day colonization and erasure.

The visibility thing is just one of our biggest hurdles, and so I try to think about that every step of the way, whether I’m designing art or multimedia creative work or producing a film or designing a campaign.

Let’s talk about this news that you’re waiting to hear, about Deb Haaland, and what that means for invisibility and also climate justice. If the Secretary of Interior were to be an Indigenous woman.

Ever since election day, with Joe Biden’s win, my job has gotten a lot easier, in the sense that we are dealing with an administration that believes in climate change. And with Deb, I was just reflecting on this. I just shared a tweet an hour ago that said, “To be honest, as a Pueblo kid, I never thought I would see another Pueblo woman be elected into Congress, let alone vetted to lead the Department of Interior. It just never crossed my mind. That’s how deep internalized oppression can be. Deb for Interior has the potential to break these cycles for our young ones.”

That cuts to the root of how we see ourselves and why we don’t see ourselves in these positions. Despite all the support and affirmation I received as a child and a young person, there are still times where I’m like, am I really qualified to be here? That imposter syndrome and that kind of internalized oppression comes from the project of literally trying to exterminate native people from this land. Which continues. There’s a constant push to remove native people from places of power. So that white supremacy and the mentality of colonization can prevail. Even with Deb’s nomination. The reason we’ve been fighting for like three weeks, really consistently going at it every day is because her very own colleagues have undermined and questioned her ability to hold this role. Even at that level, even if you’re a skilled lawyer, even if you’re an approved bi-partisan policy maker who passed the most bill than any other freshman Congress person, you’re still going to be questioned and you’re still going to be thrown under the bus by your male counterparts and maybe even other colleagues too, women colleagues. So it’s a big deal, and I can only hope that we continue to see our people in these roles. It’s affirmation to younger native kids who, oftentimes face very harsh reality when it comes to poverty and historical trauma—despite all that you can still be in these be in these places, and it’s absolutely your right to be in these places.

Can you talk about the relationship between Indigeneity and climate justice? Why is climate justice so critical for native people?

Eighty percent of the biodiversity that’s left on planet Earth is within or near Indigenous territories and managed by Indigenous peoples. If you look at a map of all the biodiversity and all the living forests that serve as our biggest carbon sequestering forests—the Amazon, the boreal, the forests in Australia, old growth forests in the American South, like in the Louisiana bayou, or the old growth in the Tongass National Forest–that’s all Indigenous land. Everywhere else, in cities and urban areas, all those forests have been slaughtered in the name of expansion and capitalism. So that just goes to show that Indigenous peoples have been able to care-take these places and protect them as our ancestral homes, or in some cases as our new home because of forced relocation. We have knowledge to share about relationship to land, about our interdependence with land and water. In some ways, it’s corny, like, Indigenous people, they love their land. But it’s true. And I’ve seen it expressed and embodied in Indigenous communities and peoples across the world. It’s extremely profound and beautiful the way people have maintained relationship and kinship with the land. If the land dies, I die. If the land goes, our identity goes. You see that everywhere in tribes and communities from the Amazon to the Arctic.

Because it’s a relationship. It’s not a resource.

Exactly. Right now, we’re in this major moment with the outgoing administration trying to sell off what they can of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The way I’ve seen the Gwich’in people talk about their land, it’s so deep. Like so many other communities and cultures, their entire cosmology is connected with the land. Not only that, their food, their main source of food, the porcupine caribou herd, relies on the coastal plain. It’s where their calving grounds are. The Gwich’in don’t even go to the coastal plain. They say, “Too sacred, we don’t go there. We let our caribou relative go there and have that sacred space to themselves. We leave it alone.” So the fact that they’re trying to extract from this land and sell it right now is mind blowing. It’s not even relatable to be in that mindset of destroying this place.

I’m always thinking about something my colleague, Julian Brave NoiseCat, writes about, which is so relevant to the pandemic and climate change, and that is: Indigenous people have already survived the apocalypse. We have survived termination acts, the US Army destroying 60 million buffalo, smallpox, germ warfare. We’ve been through these apocalypses that really were meant to terminate our people. You know, “Kill the buffalo, kill an Indian”. From that perspective, I think we have a lot of knowledge. People say resilience, but I really refrain from the language of resilience.

We have this intuitive and inherited sense of survival and how to be strong and brave and courageous in the face of the worst things. I think that characteristic is something our entire world is going to be needing very soon. We’re going to do as much as we can in the next four years to get back on track and do the best we can with climate change. But we’re really in for a lot of shifts. And our people have a lot to offer–not just our human qualities and characteristics, but also actual solutions and models. Agriculture, for instance. I know farmers out in Navajo who’ve grown in the most beautiful corn in the most dry, thin dirt. So, on many levels we hold the solutions. We need to be invested in; we need to be resourced; we need to be at the forefront of decision making.

Resilence. I’ve used that word a lot in this ClimateLore series, looking at the ways Indigenous communities practice adaptation and resilience. Can you talk about why it’s problematic, why you refrain from using it?

The best way I can explain it is by explaining this thread that one of my friends, who’s a comedian, sent me. His name is Tre Vasquez, he works with Movement Generation doing climate work. The message was this: “I feel like resilience was meant for getting through the winter not dealing with generational oppression”. And then I said: “Resilience was meant for when I hit my leg on the corner of the bed and pretend like I’m okay” or “Resilience is for when you rip your pants, tie sweatshirt around your waist”. You get the picture. 

For me, resilience is definitely being able to bounce back, to get through it. But it’s like I don’t want to keep going through these traumas, I don’t want to have to bounce back all the time. I want to think beyond resilience to thriving. I feel like resilience kind of bypasses the trauma that’s involved in being brought down and bouncing back. I don’t think our people have bounced back, actually. I just feel like there’s better adjectives and better language to talk about the ways we have survived and endured.

You’ve just been named NDN Collective’s Climate Justice Director. What can you tell us about your primary climate justice strategy?

At the moment, our climate justice work has been mostly centered around mobilizing an Indigenous Green New Deal and doing storytelling and narrative work around that. In my new position, I now have the honor of building a campaign from scratch and really investigating how NDN can add value to climate work that is already in motion and that’s addressing the real needs of our people. I think a big mis-step within the nonprofit sector is that too often when NGOs build a campaign, they think “Oh, we’re going to design this fancy new thing to mobilize all these people.” These campaigns reflect saviorism, when what really needs to be asked is, “Where are the solutions that need more investment, that need to be resourced? Where are the places where climate justice is in practice, not just theory? Where it is working, and how do we scale that up?” That’s what I intend to do with this campaign. 

What’s more is, I can build on the work that we have been involved in like anti-fossil fuel resistances such as the fight against KXL, DAPL, and Line 3. We have a few grant programs that support communities with building renewable energy projects and building models for self-determination, all of which are very much connected to climate justice. 

I’m thinking a lot about power. Personal power, cultural power, political power, and then in terms of energy and climate. The climate justice movement is very literally about reclaiming power and the sources of power. And when it comes to Indigenous communities, it’s often about acknowledging the legacy of power that was taken away, but also, as you talk about survival and endurance, the power that, of course, never left.

Malcolm X said something like, land is the basis for all power. In the Black liberation movement, and in the Indigenous sovereignty self-determination movement, we know that is not meant as power over, it’s power with. When it comes to energy, we’re always put in this situation, put between a rock and a hard place, I see these communities who want harmony with the land, want clean water, want these things that are like in alignment with cultural and spiritual values, yet they’re put in this position where they have to keep their job at the coal plant, because that’s the only job literally in a 100-mile radius. We’re held as economic hostages, not just the community members but our tribal governments. We’ve been grappling with that dynamic for so long. That’s why at NDN Collective we’re rescousing and investing in our communities to create new economic and energy models. We’re here to remove that idea of being stuck. And to remove the idea of scarcity, which has been chipping away at our sense of power for so long.

Where do you draw power?

Good question. Definitely community. I have such a strong community, and that’s been the case for a long time. Also animal/non-human community, I work with horses and that is huge medicine for cultivating power and strength. Communing with ancestors, whether they’re family or movement ancestors. I was brought up not just in my traditional Indigenous culture, but also was introduced to Buddhist contemplative practice as a young adult. I’ve been conscious of what it means to have an inner dialogue, to reflect, to commit to contemplation, and a practice where you’re cultivating and connecting with intuition. That has helped me stay on track and kept me guided and accountable.

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