For the next four years, three Native women will be volunteering their time to be part of the climate justice fight alongside the White House.
Native women from Arizona, Alaska and South Dakota, who have all devoted their lives to protecting the environment, will serve on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to provide recommendations to the Council on Environmental Quality and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council on how to fight the climate crisis.
Jade Begay represents South Dakota, Carletta Tilousi from Arizona, and Vi Waghiyi out of Alaska sit on the 26-member committee that will also follow through on President Joe Biden’s executive order on the climate crisis.
Part of their job, Begay says, is to ensure that the executive order is “realistic” and that “it really meets the needs of the people that we, that we, you know, are hoping to impact and create environmental justice for.”
Begay, Diné and citizen of Tesuque Pueblo, recently began the new role of climate justice director for the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group. She has always been engaged in environmental issues.
“I grew up in my traditional ways connected to that culture, connected to ceremony and that's really why I do this,” Begay said. “So that my people and all Indigenous peoples can continue having that connection, that deep connection to land and water and and sky and living in a safe place.”
Tilousi is a Havasupai tribal council member and has been fighting for protection of the Grand Canyon, home to the tribal nation. She has fought for land and social issues for more than 25 years.
"Our voices are finally being heard in the White House,” Tilousi told Arizona Public Media. "We have international companies that are staking claim in poor communities, coming into Native American backyards. Their contamination seeping directly into our water and directly into the air. I want to hear that these companies are going to be held responsible.”
Yupik grandmother Waghiyi is a citizen of the Native Village of Savoonga on Sivuqaq, also known as St. Lawrence Island.
Waghiyi is the environmental and justice program director for the Alaska Community Action on Toxics and has worked for it since 2002, according to The Cordova Times. She also serves on the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council for the National Institutes of Health.
The White House council already had its first meeting, which was public, and focused on the structures and processes that will exist in the council, according to Begay.
With a seat at the table, Begay is going to make sure “Indigenous issues or issues that are facing Indigenous peoples, especially the ones that are impacting the people” are “really heard” and “really elevated.”
How will the council know the work is being done? They are working on a tool that will measure the progress.
“As we all know when people say let's take climate action, that can feel very vague,” Begay said. The tool will measure how impact is being made in communities, how to collect data, find the gaps, what needs to be filled, and “how exactly is climate impacting different communities and what are the economic challenges?”