In November 2015, Janet MacGillivray was invited to the Lacandon jungle in southern Mexico to attend a ceremony in which Indigenous Lacandon people came together with members of the Kogi people –– from present-day Columbia –– along with Aztecs and Guatemalans, to honor the Earth and find collective strategies for moving forward in a moment of climate crisis. After four days of ceremony, MacGillivray was presented with an offering. The Kogi, who survived colonization in Columbia by taking refuge in the sacred Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, told MacGillivray that the Mother had presented her with an offering, a seed of sorts. She was told that she must decide whether or not she would accept the offering and the responsibilities such a gift represented.
“At the time,” MacGillivray said over the phone from her home in New York, “I didn’t understand the form the seed would take. But I did know I had a lifelong commitment to protect the Mother and all beings.”
One year after her trip to the Lacandon jungle, MacGillivray went to Standing Rock in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. There, she mentored and supported youth organizers at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. She was inspired by Chief Arvol Looking Horse’s calls for individuals to take the spirit of Standing Rock back to their communities after the camp had disbanded. MacGillivray wanted to continue organizing with young people to create space for their voices and work on behalf of the Earth and Indigenous communities. She saw the partnerships that were born at Standing Rock as an opportunity to fulfill the commitment she had made a year earlier, to accept the seed offered to her by the Kogi and to amplify Indigenous voices in order to protect tribal, personal, cultural, and environmental sovereignty. Upon her return to New York, she founded Seeding Sovereignty.
MacGillivray describes Seeding Sovereignty as a collective of Indigenous womxn working to create change within the ways people think about their relationships to one another and to the planet. Dismayed and discouraged by the lack of systemic change that occurs when environmental organizations act primarily in a reactionary way to environmental injustice, MacGillivray explained how the organizers of Seeding Sovereignty believe that to really see change “we need to look beyond reacting,” and to generate and build new systems collectively, from within communities, instead.
Born as an intentional effort to listen to and learn from Indigenous voices about how to support efforts for sovereignty, Seeding Sovereignty strives to help individuals feel more directly involved in protecting their communities and the environment and to “de-expert” and diversify the environmental movement as a whole.
The Earth Island Project leads and supports various Indigenous-led environmental and climate justice movements through initiatives such as SHIFT, or Seeding the Hill with Indigenous FreeThinkers, a political engagement program empowering Indigenous voices and leadership; Land Resilience, a program working to combat the negative effects of corporate agriculture by increasing awareness of Indigenous farming and land-use techniques; and Land & Body Sovereignty, which points to the connections between environmental and bodily violence against Indigenous communities and seeks to raise awareness about the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Trans, Two-Spirits, and Relatives.
In response to the Covid-19 crisis, Seeding Sovereignty launched an Indigenous Impact Rapid Response Initiative in early April to provide aid to Native communities where residents already face health disadvantages due to systemic injustices. Many Native communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — the Navajo Nation, for example, has one of the highest per capita coronavirus infection rate in the country.
In the second phase of the initiative, last month Seeding Sovereignty mobilized an Indigenous Impact Community Care Initiative, partnering with Apache, Navajo, and 19 Pueblo nations, to provide relief to Indigenous communities in New Mexico, as well as to Paiute, Lakota, Dakota, and Ojibwe communities in other parts of the country. The organization is distributing face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), delivering healthy food to elders and families, sending Indigenous-authored books to families in quarantine, and fundraising to provide essential aid to those caring for unsheltered community members and LGBTQIA+Two Spirit individuals.
“We pivoted our priorities to meet the immediate needs of those who would be most underserved” amid the pandemic, said MacGillivray. These needs, she noted, “are not unfamiliar” to many Indigenous communities, but are “extreme and immediate” now given the current global health crisis.
Seeding Sovereignty’s rapid response initiative is aimed at identifying and responding to the vast discrepancies between different communities’ access to resources, work, and money, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for strict hand-washing and sanitization, for example, assume and require access to certain resources, but for some Native communities, complying with strict hand-washing is impossible because they lack running water. Chronic underfunding of Indian Health Services facilities and food scarcity in communities without grocery stores are other examples of the “layers upon layers” of hurdles that, as MacGillivray said, many Native people face daily and that have been exposed in a new light as a result of the pandemic. “You cannot un-see the injustice, once you understand how tangible it is –– when you are trying to protect your community and family, and you don’t have the resources you need,” she said.
In addition to distributing resources, the organization is also working to address the high rates of suicide and extreme poverty faced by many Indigenous communities in the US by providing youth mental health services and increasing access to support networks for elders who are most vulnerable to Covid-19. MacGillivray noted that, rather than being built solely to address the current moment of crisis, these community-based solutions are intended to support generations to come.
As individuals are confronted with their own vulnerabilities and personal health, the pandemic has created an opportunity for introspection, she said. And as people reckon with questions such as, “Who are essential workers during a pandemic?” and, “Who is on the frontlines?” MacGillivray hopes individuals and communities will reevaluate what is considered essential.
“There must be something new that grows from this,” she said, referencing both the pandemic and ongoing protests in response to systemic racism, police brutality, and the recent murders of George Floyd and other people of color. “People cannot go back to feeling like it is okay to stay silent, to be wilfully blind, to be okay with violence against the people who carry every community, on every frontline.”
Seeding Sovereignty envisions a new path for environmental justice, beyond the fundamentally broken systems that were built to oppress Indigenous people and other people of color. At a time when the world is facing the multiple threats, including the climate crisis, pandemic, poverty, and brutality condoned and committed by systems of authority, Seeding Sovereignty seeks to build a positive future grown from creativity, connectivity, and reciprocity.
Learn more about Seeding Sovereignty’s work at seedingsovereignty.org.
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