Tonya Gonnella Frichner: ‘Mother Earth Is a Relative, Not a Resource’

At an Earth Day event at the United Nations, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, spoke passionately about the restoration & long-term protection of Mother Earth.

At an Earth Day event at the United Nations, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, a celebrated advocate for Indigenous Peoples human rights in the international arena, gave a passionate speech for the restoration and long term protection of Mother Earth.

Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga) is the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance and former North American Regional Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. On April 22 – International Mother Earth Day – she was invited by the International Indian Treaty Council to be a presenter during the opening ceremony of the 4th Interactive Dialogue of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature. This year’s theme was: “The promotion of a balanced integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development through Harmony with Nature.” While her presentation represented diverse elements of civil society – gender, youth, people with disabilities – her perspective was emphatically indigenous.

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Gonnella Frichner applauded the 4th Interactive Dialogue goals of linking economic development to sustainability and using a more ethical basis for the relationship between humanity and the natural world. “Harmony with Nature, for Indigenous Peoples, has been our worldview goal and the basis of our existence. We have always served as stewards of Mother Earth and we share with humanity these beliefs, which serve as the basis of our life ways,” she said. “We submit that humanity and the natural world are best served by the full and equal participation of Indigenous Peoples, Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities and recognizing their inherent right to self-determination and the principle of free, prior and informed consent in the United Nations development agenda post-2015.”

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A recurring mantra throughout the speech was the affirmation that “Mother Earth is a relative, not a resource.” Part of the challenge in changing the way people treat the natural world is that many non-indigenous people think the expression “Mother Earth” is a metaphor, but “it’s not,” Gonnella Frichner told Indian Country Today Media Network.

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“I believe that if the rest of civil society and government and industry and their children and their grandchildren understood and got the concept that Mother Earth is just like your mother who you treasure. She’s the most important thing in your life and you wouldn’t as a child want to hurt her,” she said. “And if you carry that through life and see Mother Earth through those lenses then it isn’t logical to not do what you’re supposed to do – to not litter, to not scar the Earth, to not extract everything and turn everything into a contaminated wasteland and let toxins and chemicals run rampant throughout our water and our land.”

Business-as-usual is not the solution; it’s the problem, Gonnella Frichner said.

“Recognizing that current economic models have failed to address some of the most pressing global issues, including global poverty; and recognizing that the current economic models have not leveled the playing field for Indigenous Peoples and other communities at risk, it is clear current economic models are not sustainable and should not be continually repeated and relied upon by all sectors of society. We note that environmental economists attempt to assign market values to the natural world in direct contrast to the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples,” she said in her speech. If natural resources continue to be based on market value, humanity will cease to exist, she said. “We need to start with that premise.”

John Ashe, the president of the General Assembly, warned that the current global population is consuming 50 percent more resources than the planet can provide. "Nature is more than an economic resource," he said, and human beings "cannot indefinitely extract infinite growth from a finite planet… It is through nature that we are most connected with powerful and interwoven binds, through the air we breathe, the water that sustains life on this earth and the Ozone Layer which protects our biosphere. The sustainability of current and future generations depend on our living in harmony with each other and with nature."

Gonnella Frichner told ICTMN that she’s hopeful that the degradation of the land, water and air can be slowed down ‘with a huge commitment from humanity,” but it has to be immediate and for that to happen people have to accept the best science that shows climate change is real, it’s happening and it’s accelerating and that we’ve passed the tipping point. “The idea that somehow you have control over how the natural law is going to function and somehow you’re going to fix it is a pretty false hope. It doesn’t work that way. Mother Earth can just shake us off like fleas on a dog – she doesn’t need us – we need her.”

One of the most urgent tasks is to begin restoring the lands and waters contaminated and left behind by industry and government and Indigenous Peoples have an important role to play, according to Gonnella Frichner. “I think Indigenous Peoples need to lead that fight, need to lead by the example of how we’re going to restore our territory – our lands and our waters.”

But industry and government leaders need to step up. “They need to think in terms of the seven generations,” Gonnella Frichner said. “You all have children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews who are dear to you and you want to protect them. When do you start acting like a parent, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, looking out for them and protecting them? Isn’t that your responsibility?”