Indigenous people make up only 5% of the world’s population, but are responsible for protecting 80% of global biodiversity.
With centuries of knowledge, Indigenous peoples contribute a huge amount to the world’s land management and food systems and are essential to tackling climate change. Yet, despite playing a central role in the climate fight, these guardians of the Earth are also one of the most impacted groups when it comes to the climate crisis. Native Americans, for example, who were forced into the most undesirable areas of the US by white settlers and governments, are now watching parts of their marginal land become uninhabitable.
What’s more, Indigenous communities rarely get the recognition they deserve, let alone a seat at the table when it comes to creating policies that would lead to social and environmental change.
Yet, a new generation of Indigenous youth are leading the way online and offline, demanding their own and their communities’ rights be respected and their voices included at all decision-making tables — and they’re seeing success too. From protecting Native American burial mounds from being dug up in Florida, US, to beating Big Oil in South Africa, victories are taking place all around the world.
As well as fighting to save the world, Indigenous activists are showing the world what it looks like to take pride in their cultural heritage, taking back the narrative of what it means to be Indigenous, and challenging stereotypes and misconceptions.
Here are seven Indigenous activists you should know.
1. Taily Terena, the Warrior Advocating for the Rights of Indigenous Women in Brazil.
Taily Terena is an Indigenous activist from the Terena nation of Brazil and is a passionate advocate for the environment.
Concerns about Brazil’s deteriorating environment generally revolve around the Amazon rainforest. As global warming intensifies, drought and wildfires follow. In fact, parts of the rainforest are at risk of becoming savanna. What’s more, floods, unpredictable seasons, and rising temperatures are directly affecting Indigenous peoples' food security.
Since a young age, Terena has been an advocate for the rights of Indigenous women in Brazil. She belongs to the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas (Continental Network of Indigenous Women of Americas) and has spoken at the United Nations Framework Convention several times. Follow her work on Instagram.
2. Michelle Chubb: the Indigenous Baddie Teaching Canadians About Cree Culture on TikTok.
Michelle Chubb (known to her 613,000 followers on TikTok as the Indigenous baddie) is an Indigenous activist and influencer who uses TikTok and Instagram to educate people about Indigenous life and issues by sharing her cultural traditions and injustices Indigenous people face. Chubb is from the Bunibonibee Cree Nation, north of Manitoba in Canada.
@indigenous_baddie 🛑Wear RED today (May 5) to support #mmiwawareness ‼️ #nativetiktok#mmiw#mmiwg♬ Eyabay - Jingle Dress
Human Rights Watch’s annual world report in 2023 revealed decades of “widespread abuses that persist across Canada” towards Indigenous people.
The report also noted Indigenous peoples’ inadequate access to safe drinking water and how this continues to be a major public health issue in many Indigenous communities.
As well as human rights’ violations, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis land and water defenders are routinely harassed, intimidated, and criminalized, often for protesting the expansion of gas or oil pipelines through their homelands, according to Amnesty International.
3. Shina Novalinga: the Activist Reviving Inuk Throat Singing.
Shina Novalinga is a 24-year-old Inuk (a member of the Inuit people) content creator, singer, and activist who lives in Montreal, Canada with her mother.
By day Novalinga is a college student, but on TikTok and Instagram she uses her online presence to share her Inuk culture, making the world aware of her Indigenous identity. An important part of that is throat singing with her mother, a tradition passed down from mothers to daughters.
@shinanova My grandparents are residential school survivors. My grandfather never had the chance to tell his story. We will never know what he had gone through in those horrific schools. During our healing journey, we throat sing. We share our stories through our songs. We must acknowledge the truth and keep using our voices for those who didn’t make it back home and for those who went through those horrific experiences. We use our voices for those who are suffering the inter-generational trauma that has and is continuously being passed down. Truth and Reconciliation is not only about hearing the stories of survivors but acknowledging what they’ve been through. My grandfather didn’t have to share his story for us to understand. Our heart goes to all. We hear without hearing. We are here for you. Giving a safe space, Artist Carey Newman created the Witness Blanket to make sure that history is never forgotten. The art piece contains hundreds of items reclaimed from residential schools, churches and more. These stories are painful, as it is important and informative. We need to know the truth to move forward. Now, you can access the digital Witness Blanket thanks to a partnership between Carey Newman, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and @telus ♬ original sound - Shina Nova
Inuit throat singing was banned by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century who saw it as satanic. The ban was only lifted in the 1980s, and now Novalinga and her mother are using social media to preserve and celebrate the traditional and sacred music. They’ve even created an album.
Novalinga also uses her online presence to educate and dispel harmful stereotypes of Indigenous Inuk people, as well as bringing awareness of issues within her community such as food insecurity, environmental issues, and violence against Indigenous women.
Both in Canada and other parts of the world, Inuit communities have lived off the land for millennia and the wildlife and environment around them are essential to their culture, well-being, and economy. But the climate crisis is causing permafrost to thaw and sea ice to disappear, disrupting their way of life and threatening the animals Inuit rely on.
4. Sumak Helena Gualinga: the Ecuadorian Environmental & Human Rights Activist Fighting for the Amazon Rainforest.
For 21-year-old Sumak Helena Gualinga’s family, the fight to protect the Amazon rainforest has spanned generations.
Gualinga grew up on climate change’s front lines as the daughter of Noemí Gualinga, the leader of the activist and Indigenous Kichwa Sarayaku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. From her first beginnings, Gualinga saw her community fighting for their rights; the year she was born, an oil company entered the Sarayaku community without their consent.
The main threat to Ecuador’s rainforest is deforestation and the resulting habitat loss. Western Ecuador, for instance, has lost 95% of its forests below 900m in the last 50 years. The main driver of deforestation in the lowlands of Ecuador is the large-scale agriculture for the cultivation of bananas, shrimp, sugar cane, and oil palms.
Gualinga has continued her family’s legacy of fighting for nature by co-founding the organization Polluters Out, a global coalition of youth that demand the removal of fossil fuels from Indigenous lands, world governments, banks, universities, and international policy.
“We value the forest as much as we value people,” she says, “because we believe it has a spirit.”
5. Yurshell Rodríguez: the Afro-Caribbean Native Fighting for Her Island Nation.
Yurshell Rodríguez is a 28-year-old Indigenous woman of the Raizal Afro-Caribbean Native ethnic group of the Archipelago of San Andrés, a Colombian island in the Caribbean. She is also an environmental engineer, climate activist, researcher, and plaintiff in the first guardianship of climate change and future generations lawsuit in Latin America.
Rodríguez has been involved in environmentalism since her childhood and wants to do everything she can to protect the island’s coral reef, which is the third-longest in the world. In 2018, she was part of a group of young activists that won a landmark case against the Colombian government for its failure to halt deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
In 2020, Rodríguez’s home, like many of her neighbors, was wiped out when Hurricane Iota struck the island, causing widespread damage to homes, schools, and sanitation facilities.
“Being part of an Indigenous community and living in an island nation makes us even more vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change,” Rodríguez says. “Our politicians and decision-makers must hold the climate polluters accountable for destroying the natural and ecological dynamics of our planet.”
Worldwide, coral reefs from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean have come under increasing threat as a result of rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change and other human-induced pressures including overfishing, pollution, and tourism. Coral are also at risk as oceans become more acidic as they absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
6. Archana Soreng: the Kharian Climate Activist Fighting for Environmental and Tribal Rights in India.
Archana Soreng is a 27-year-old climate activist who belongs to the Kharia Tribe in Odisha, India. She is a former member of the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Soreng also has experience in advocacy and research on the rights of Indigenous communities and climate action. Her activism work focuses on documenting, preserving, and promoting the traditional knowledge and cultural practices of Indigenous communities in the fight against climate change.
In Soreng’s family, activism and tribal ties run deep. Her mother, Usha Kerketta, is a teacher and women’s rights activist and her uncle, Nabor Soreng, is a tribal leader and Indigenous studies expert.
“Our ancestors have been protecting nature at the cost of their lives. We Indigenous youth are proud of our history, culture, and knowledge system and are willing to work together towards climate action. Ensure us a seat at the decisions making table. Include us, support us, and protect us.” says Soreng.
Living in one of India’s most important regions for coal, steel, and other mining, Soreng quickly became aware of how ecosystems are being damaged at an accelerated rate because of such activity. India has the fifth world’s largest coal reserves, with Soreng’s hometown Odisha holding over a quarter of those deposits.
Moreover, climate change, like everywhere else, is real and present in India and is showing up in various forms from floods and landslides to droughts and earthquakes.
7. Eric Marky: the DJ Activist Using Music to Bring Awareness to the Struggles of the Terena People of Brazil.
Eric Marky belongs to the Terena people — an Indigenous tribe in Brazil. He is a musician, DJ, artist, climate activist, and the co-founder of Mídia India, a decentralized Indigenous-run communication channel with more than 200 collaborators and over 185,000 followers. The network aims to center Indigenous voices in the first-person, allowing them to speak for themselves.
As a DJ, Marky is recognized for mixing traditional music with electronic beats. His tunes bring together talented Indigenous singers that recount the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Brazil.
8. Gift Parseen: the Indigenous Maasai Climate & Human Rights Activist.
Gift Parseen is an Indigenous youth from the Maasai tribe. The Maasai are an Indigenous people of semi-nomadic people settled across the Maasai Mara national reserve in Kenya.
But as the planet warms, this natural wonder — which also draws droves of binocular-wielding safari-goers in open-top jeeps every year — is under threat.
Erratic weather linked to climate change has brought more frequent and severe droughts and sporadic flooding to the Mara's fragile ecosystem, and forced many families into desperate situations of hunger. Girls as young as 12 are being given away as brides in exchange for cattle.
Parseen is a member of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, which brings together Indigenous youth from around the world to advocate and represent themselves before the international community, to participate in international decision-making processes which affect their lives, and to bring awareness to the issues affecting them on local, regional, national, and international levels.
He also volunteers for a non-governmental organization called Maasai Women for Education and Economic Development (MAWEED) as a youth representative, and is a member of the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders of Kenya (HRDK), an umbrella organization, which protects human rights defenders.