Be That Voice

By: Joanna Levitt, WEA Advocacy Delegate, Director, International Accountability Project (IAP)


There are obvious, striking similarities between the issues being faced on the Navajo Nation and the community struggles IAP supports in Asia and Latin America for development justice. IAP aims to increasingly facilitate exchange between our Global South colleagues and grassroots counterparts in other regions who are doing groundbreaking work to develop “just transitions” to clean energy and green-economy-building.

October 1st, 2010

The sunset today found the seven of us perched on some low, weather-worn bleachers, watching the first dance at the Navajo Fair of Shiprock, New Mexico.

Our neighbors were a group of young men, sitting in a circle of chairs beside us, several wearing backwards baseball hats, most with t-shirts of punk bands or sports teams, and a few with various piercings.

As the dance concluded, our group wanted to stay for more, but we knew a long ride back to our hotel in Kayenta was ahead of us. We started to gather up our things. The announcer’s voice over the megaphones declared that there would be a break in the dancing, because the entry-road to the fair parking lot was all backed up, and several dancers had called him to say they were stuck in traffic, and to please wait.

The announcer added that, in the interim, singers were welcome to starting warming up.

As I stepped down off the bleachers, in the same instant that my foot touched the dusty earth, the circle of young men who had been sitting beside us suddenly burst into startling cries of soul-stirring, profoundly beautiful traditional song.


I felt frozen in place. I closed my eyes. Their unified voices rose and fell, their drumbeats thundering. Waves of goosebumps washed over my skin.

What was so powerful about that burst of song in that moment was not only its fierce beauty: As I opened my eyes to take in the singers, the power was also in the fusion of these ancient-sounding song-cries, emitting from these young men whose style was totally hip, artful and cutting-edge.

That seems to be an emerging lesson of this trip: There is a unique and disarming power when people bring together an ability to navigate new ways forward in our complex modern world, with a courageous expression of time-honored beliefs and ways of being.


Dine college

Our day began with a 9am meeting at the Diné College, to learn about the visionary work of the Diné Environmental Institute, led by Marnie Carroll. Pushing her long white hair behind her ear, looking at each of us with her bright, quick eyes, Marnie emphatically conveyed to us the aims of Diné College—and of their Institute in particular:

delegates talk

“Our aim is to foster the development of Native American scientists. That doesn’t mean just another scientist like a regular college produces. That means a teaching process that reinforces our traditional beliefs—all the sacred ways and teachings, the language, the sacred elements—and seeing how these are consistent with principles of ecology and science, how they add to them.”

As Marnie shared with us about their programs, she effortlessly jumped from topics as diverse as the latest climate change modeling and projections for rainfall and temperature in the Southwest, to the behavioral ecology of ants, to the hydraulics of groundwater flow in the uranium-contaminated water tables of the Navajo Nation, to new technologies for using native vegetation as remediation and filtration systems for polluted water.

And throughout it all, she wove in mention of the spiritual and cultural significance of these phenomena. “The elders have always told the Navajo people that certain kinds of weather are not supposed to happen in the land between our four sacred mountains—that we are protected from these kinds of weather. The fact that we have started to have phenomena like tornados is unprecedented, and very alarming for people. We know this is not supposed to happen, that things are out of balance. We have started to work with a circle of medicine people who are trying to do ceremonies to protect against these weather phenomena. This close cooperation is so important, because medicine people are the first to notice things.”

Dine Colleges

Until that point, Rita White, a young woman who serves as assistant coordinator to the Institute, had been quiet. Marnie asked her to say a few words about the work and research she was involved in.

Rita spoke softly as she reported on her research with plant-based remediation projects, her role in single-handedly founding and securing official status and funding for the first Environmental Club of Diné College (via a competitive federal grant process). Under RITA’s leadership, the Club immediately set up recycling at the college via placing bins and signs in all the buildings (the contents of which Rita drives herself to the off-reservation recycling center in Farmington, New Mexico).

She shared about her participation in a conference on traditional ecology in New York, attended by leading environmental scientists as well as native elders and activists from the U.S., Canada and Latin America. She said how moving it had been for her to see “how much all these people with PhDs” were learning from Mayan and Mohawk and Navajo participants—how surprised they were at the complexity of their indigenous knowledge systems, analysis and management techniques.

woman speaking

“You know, being there, it really showed you how, if you’re one with the earth, if you love the earth, then you’re very observant. You see the little changes. I like to sit with the elders, like my grandma, and she points out all these little changes—like the sun is setting differently than it used to, the melons don’t grow as big as they did before, the corn is different. And tornados—that is not supposed to happen within the four sacred mountains. Our people see it; we know the world is changing.

“Our response to it is, you know, ceremonies. We have to respect the earth. We have to respect the air and wind. The water, we have to respect that. The sacred fire. All these things, it’s affecting everyone—all living things on earth. In my work, I want to speak for those living beings. I want to, you know, be that voice.”

The room was silent for a moment after Rita concluded.

I was so humbled by Rita’s presence and words. And I was inspired by her bravery. Because I do believe it takes bravery to speak of the spiritual and the sacred and one’s own grandmother and the need to give voice to the many living beings sharing our earth. It takes bravery for anyone to do that. I recognize it takes a unique resolve when one’s spirituality and culture has, over the course of history, been in turn brutally attacked by colonial and U.S. government forces, targeted for erasing and assimilation during most of the 20th century, and then, most recently, fetishized and offensively over-simplified—particularly in the realm of Native American views about the environment.

And yet Rita—and so many of the extraordinary people with whom we have been honored to speak on this trip—has boldly done just that.

Before we left Diné College, Rita and Marnie’s colleague, Cliff Johns, told us about the in-progress plan for the growing campus to consist entirely of green, LEEDS-certified buildings, to plant native-vegetation and demonstration gardens, to power much of the campus by solar and wind installations, and to use locally-sourced building materials. He also pointed out to us how the bird’s-eye-view layout of the campus is structured “like a traditional home of a woman—of a grandma.” Like the traditional hogon homes, he explained, each side of the campus—north, east, south, west—was intentionally placed in that direction, with its purpose matching the attributes and spirit of that direction.


He told us how, for the founding of the College, a circle of elders and medicine people had prepared a basket of sacred items, which was to remind and guide the College’s leaders of the institution’s sacred purpose for the Navajo people. Cliff mentioned how, when they pull that basket out at meetings with bureaucrats from the Navajo Nation tribal government, it makes the government folks uncomfortable, and some of them scoff at the College for being so focused on the old ways. “But we do it anyway. We make it clear that’s who we are. And at the same time we have our top experts that the Navajo Nation—and the federal government—depend on for policy decisions, so they have to respect us.”

We saw the same bravery in Tony Skrelunas of Grand Canyon Trust, who explained to us the inner workings of a green energy initiative that constitutes one of the most technologically and economically innovative transformations of a brown-field site in the country—which he helped design. And in the same breath he shared with us about how his upbringing by his grandparents, and learning the songs that must be sung to the corn as it’s planted—has everything to do with what it means to build a green economy on Navajo Nation.

We saw the same bravery this afternoon, at a community meeting on uranium-related health impacts and compensation owed by the federal government. In front of a federal congressman—Representative Lujan from New Mexico, who arrived unexpectedly at the Shiprock Chapter House—multiple people stood up to speak about the endless circles of paperwork and bureaucracy and disqualifying restrictions that one most overcome simply to get compensation. Several people added on to the end of their comments the simple statement that a continuation of uranium mining would be a desecration to Mother Earth.


Today, and every day on this Advocacy Delegation, I have seen that when a person seamlessly blends technical prowess and expertise, with bold reverence to the sacred and to ancient, intuitive teachings about what it means to live with honor and integrity on the earth—it can be like the unexpected song-cry in the evening air that stopped me in my tracks tonight. That singing coming from those young men blew apart my assumptions and limited understanding about who they were, what they were doing and what they were capable of.

We must do the same for what people believe is possible for our planet. This is our fundamental task as advocates at this time on earth: to tell our stories in a way that blends contemporary technology and rock-solid solutions with long-held wisdom, into a combination that blows open the doors of what people are able to acknowledge and imagine as possible.

As advocates from many different backgrounds, what does this mean in practice?

This does not mean spouting new-age-y rhetoric or appropriating a cultural heritage that is not our own, to the detriment of our movements’ aims and the people in them. It can mean—as Rita said—taking note of what we observe as individuals who are motivated to be at that negotiating table by our love for this earth, and speaking frankly about what we observe—whether that is literally the land around where we grew up, or a community of people we are working with, or in the atmosphere that we are monitoring.

It means ensuring that our proposals are fact-checked, water-tight, and far more innovative and effective than the status quo—and that we ground them in a call to action coming directly from who we are as a person/people, and from the deepest knowing we have in us of what we are doing to the earth. Like Cliff, it is our job—in our own way—to put that basket in the center of the negotiating table.

medicine wheel

Next week, I will be in Washington D.C. for the annual meetings of the World Bank, to join in lobbying efforts to strengthen the social and environmental safeguard policies that the Bank must apply in its lending. The sterile cement-and-marble halls of the Bank are going to feel a long way away from the sagebrush flats and red rock of this corner of the Navajo Nation. But I will keep close to me the model I have been privileged to witness this week, exemplified by so many leading change-makers here on the Navajo Nation: When the moment is right, when the words you must say are clear, and with great humility, let yourself be that voice.


The International Accountability Project (IAP) partners with community groups in the Global South to challenge destructive projects receiving international financing—from open-pit coal mines in Bangladesh, to agro-fuel plantations in Brazil. We enable front-line communities to be a leading force in shifting global capital flows toward social and environmental accountability. By following the money on these projects, IAP and our community partners pressure international investors to stop bankrolling destruction, and change the rules of finance to respect local voices, human rights, and our planet’s health.

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