‘Don’t Take Our Voices Away’ – A Role Play on the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change

By Tim Swinehart, Julie Treick O'Neill

Illustrator: Henrik Drescher

Illustration: Henrik Drescher

On the Dec. 8 broadcast of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman asked her guest, 15-year-old Mohamed Axam Maumoon, youth ambassador from the Maldives Islands to the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, for a message to young people everywhere about what climate change meant to him. Without hesitation, Axam turned to the camera and asked, “Would you commit murder . . . even while we are begging for mercy and begging for you to stop what you’re doing, change your ways, and let our children see the future that we want to build for them?”

What does it mean to take Axam’s question seriously? For many of us in the wealthy and so-called “developed” countries of the world, it means learning about the very real and life-threatening ways that climate change is affecting some of the world’s poorest populations. From the rapidly submerging islands of the Maldives, Kirabati, and Tuvalu, to the melting permafrost in native lands across the Arctic, indigenous peoples around the world are confronting some of the worst effects of the climate crisis, despite having done so little to cause it. Axam’s question prompts us to confront the injustice of a situation in which the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population has been responsible for over 60 percent of global warming emissions.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Climate Summit role play grew out of the Portland Area Rethinking Schools Earth in Crisis Curriculum Workgroup and the Oregon Writing Project. It was designed to introduce students to the broad injustice of the climate crisis and to familiarize them with some of the specific issues faced by different indigenous groups around the world as they confront climate change. The role play was inspired by the actual Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change, held in Anchorage, Alaska, in April 2009, when representatives from around the world exchanged experiences and observations from the front lines of climate change and agreed on a unified strategy for leading a worldwide campaign. The Anchorage Summit highlighted how indigenous peoples are combining traditional knowledge with new practices to adapt to climatic changes, and the important role that indigenous perspectives can play as the rest of the world attempts to respond and adapt to the realities of a quickly changing climate.

We wanted to give our global studies students—9th graders at Lincoln High School, a large public school serving Portland’s predominantly white, relatively prosperous west side—the opportunity to educate one another about how indigenous peoples are confronting the effects of climate change. (Although we were not team teaching, we met daily to plan the unit and to share student responses.) Following the example of the Anchorage Summit, we wanted to model a collaborative decision-making process and give voice to the concerns and solutions of groups who are often left out of international climate talks. (Even the name of the most prominent climate monitoring organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, marginalizes indigenous peoples, who rarely have their own national governments.) So we developed a role play in which students are divided into small groups, each of which represents an indigenous group that attended the Anchorage Summit. We wrote a profile sheet for each group that details how they are being affected by climate change. The groups have an opportunity to discuss their own situation, teach and learn from the other groups, and, finally, agree on a common list of demands.

The role play includes six groups: the Dine (Navajo), Alaska Native (including the Yup’ik and the Iñupiaq), the Bambara of sub-Saharan Africa, and indigenous groups from Kiribati (central Pacific islands), the Caribbean, and the Amazon—peoples most of our students knew nothing about. In each of the roles, indigenous people, as farmers or hunter-gatherers with intimate ties to the land, are validated and honored as legitimate observers to climate change.

Many nature shows, environmental groups, and even our own Oregon Zoo have highlighted the plight of the polar bear; and, like a word-association test, when we first brought up the issue of climate change in class, it was inevitably followed by “those poor bears” comments from our students. We built on that association by putting it in a larger perspective, with an exploration of the overall environmental consequences of climate change and the impact of these changes on the survival of peoples and cultures. For example, the Alaskan Native role includes the following passage:

The permafrost is dying and that means your way of life is threatened. You depend on hunting and trapping on the tundra for polar bears, walrus, seals, caribou, and reindeer, and harvesting fish from the sea. Less snowfall is making sled and snowmobile transportation more difficult. Creeks are freezing later, and the ice is too thin to carry heavy loads. Lakes are drying up. In 10 years, the number of caribou in one part of Alaska has dropped from 178,000 to 129,000. Calves drown when they try to cross rivers that are usually frozen. Your elders remember vast numbers of caribou moving in waves near their villages during spring and summer. No more. The environment is in chaos. The hunters find it harder and harder to find the caribou that feed your people.

In Portland we, too, deal with climate change issues. The glaciers on Mt. Hood are receding, threatening water supplies in the Hood River Valley and the apples, pears, and cherries the region provides. Like climate change itself, this feels abstract to many of our students, for whom food comes from the store, and climate change happens somewhere else. The situations presented in the roles confront students with people for whom climate change is much more pressing; we want students to recognize the urgency and intimacy of climate change for many of the world’s people. As the Bambara role, from sub-Saharan Africa, illustrates:

The Sahara Desert is growing—you know, because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Some measurements show the desert growing by up to 30 miles per year, taking over grasslands and trees in its path. It’s starting to feel like you might be next. Your ancestors have lived near the desert for hundreds of years, farming special varieties of maize, millet, and sorghum adapted to the warm temperatures and dry climate of your homeland. But as temperatures all over sub-Saharan Africa get warmer, farming that was already difficult to begin with has gotten much worse . . .

Learning to Empathize

As we distributed the roles to our students, we asked them to read each role carefully, highlighting information they felt was vital to understanding the particular climate challenges presented by their characters. The roles are packed with information, so we asked students to read them aloud in small groups and then discuss the situations confronting their groups.

“This sucks—we are dying!” Jeyonna announced to the rest of the Bambara convened around her. The discussion questions we distributed to the six groups centered on two points: First, what did the group need the rest of the world to know about how climate change is affecting their region? Second, what actions—in order of priority—would they like to see the world take to address the problems facing indigenous peoples as a result of climate change?

“What we need is nuclear power!” Quinn announced confidently to no one in particular, as the class settled into their task.

“If you want it so bad, you go work in the mines,” Amanda countered as a Dine. “If there are nuclear reactors,” she explained, “you have to live with the waste.”

The roles deal not only with how climate change affects indigenous peoples but also with the impact of supposed alternatives—what’s called “mitigation” in climate change jargon. For example, as the Dine role explains to students:

Farming is not the only way that the Dine are connected to climate change. As energy companies look for ways to make electricity that release lower greenhouse gas emissions, some people are talking about nuclear power as a perfect solution to our climate problems. They say that nuclear power can produce all the electricity we need, and not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But where is the uranium that fuels the nuclear power plants mined? From your land. While Dine people are some of the poorest in the United States, the Dine land is rich with uranium resources. You grew up hearing stories of the Dine men who worked in the “yellowcake” uranium mines, from the 1940s to the 1980s. You want others to hear these stories about family and friends who came home each day with clothes covered in yellow uranium dust. The companies that ran the mines told workers not to worry about the dust—that it was safe—but people now know that the mines exposed workers and their families to high levels of radiation. . . . So indigenous peoples need to speak with one voice and say that not only do we have to support real solutions to climate change, we have to oppose false solutions—like nuclear power that just leads to more poisoning of indigenous people.

Finding “One Voice”

Finding this “one voice” was the impetus for the actual Anchorage summit. We wanted students to simulate the knowledge-exchange and solidarity-building that took place at that summit. Given the enormity of the climate crisis, it was important to us that our students encounter activists who were not defeated by these problems, but were knitting together alliances to address them.

So, for our next step, we explained to the students that they needed to find out about the situations of other groups, learn from their expertise, and look for commonalities, allies, and possible shared strategies for action. We asked students to choose half their group (generally three students) to move around the room as rovers/information-sharers. The other half would serve as stationary representatives, receiving the groups moving around the room. In this way, in a class of 30 to 36 students, each group had the opportunity to interact with the other five groups in three rotations.

In their meetings with other groups, we asked students to focus first on the specific ways they were experiencing climate change in their homelands and how these changes were making life more difficult. (We provided graphic organizers so they could keep track of what they learned.) Many discovered common themes. “You have too much water and we don’t have any,” Jeyonna observed as a member of the Bambara. “Too bad we can’t just take your excess.”

“We can’t hunt; the ice is receding,” Jake added, speaking as an Alaska Native. “People are going hungry.”

“Us too! It’s food. We can’t grow it in the desert.”

Once they understood the problems faced by the other groups, we asked them to take notes on the actions the other groups proposed to deal with those issues: “We need to stop burning fossil fuels—50 percent within five years, 100 percent within 10.” “We need to mandate zero-emission power plants in all major cities.” “We need to stop cutting trees in the Amazon.” “We need to create more local economies.”

Representing indigenous cultures freed students from their own perspectives and their own limited experiences with climate change. It allowed them to suggest radical solutions, to envision a much different world than one ruled by the mighty dollar—because the true bottom line, for many of the roles, is that people and cultures are dying. As Usaia, reflecting on his role as a resident of Kirabati, wrote, “It affects a part of your body to see that the place you were born is going under water.”

Once they returned to their original groups, the students compared notes with other group members to prepare for the full summit by deciding on their top two priorities for action.

Building Consensus

To get the larger summit conversation started, we asked each group to propose one of their top two priorities. We wrote these on the board and the groups began negotiations. Students in each group had an opportunity to make the case for their respective priority and then the class discussed its merit. We explained and instituted a consensus model for decision-making; this encouraged the kids to really evaluate the issues, looking for commonalities and opportunities for compromise. To infuse some tension in the deliberations and to make sure that students didn’t simply produce a laundry list of possible strategies, we asked them to agree on the three most important action points. While students struggled a little with the consensus approach, it encouraged them to think beyond their individual groups.

The most discussion centered on whether to pursue long-term or immediate actions. “People are starving right now!” Kristi reminded the summit, speaking as a Bambara. “People need to know that—it has to be a priority!”

“That’s true,” Helene agreed, as a member of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, “but we also want a voice in the future. We need to be included and valued.” Back and forth the discussion went as students suggested combining certain points, clarifying others, and eliminating a few.

Mary and Keegan, speaking as Dine representatives, made a convincing plea for moving toward more local economies. “We keep fighting with big mining companies who don’t seem to care about us at all. All they want is our uranium, but my whole family is sick from mining,” Mary argued.

“Yeah, that’s why we need to let the rest of the world know that nuclear power is not a good solution to fossil fuels,” Keegan added. “We should control what happens on Dine land, not some big company. We want to keep building solar panels on our land, not make more uranium mines.”

Even if their arguments were simplistic at times, we were impressed that, within the first weeks of school, our 9th graders semed fully invested in a multiday discussion that ranged from emissions reduction plans to limiting deforestation to funding programs to meet the needs of climate refugees.

In the end, most classes decided on a top action priority that combined the demands of some groups for wealthy countries to begin immediate and drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions with other groups’ focus on proactive measures to help with a global transition to renewable sources of energy. You could almost see the light bulb go off above Sami’s head when she raised her hand to suggest, “Why don’t we combine the first three suggestions: stop using fossil fuels, cut emissions, and create more alternative energy? They all work toward the same goal, so we can see them as one action item. We can all support that, right?”

The Anchorage Declaration

After two days of intense conversation, we drew the summit to a close. Then we read the action items listed in the Anchorage Declaration from the actual Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change. Because students had invested so much energy in our own classroom discussions, they seemed eager to read the declaration from the real summit. For homework, we asked them to compare their list and the actual list, and to reflect on the similarities and differences.

In our discussion the next day, Keegan offered, “I think we did pretty well. I mean, our first action item is almost exactly the same as what they came up with at the real conference.” When we asked about anything that we might have missed in our discussion, Sonya pointed out that “number three of the Anchorage Declaration talks about the historical debt that wealthy nations owe because they have burned fossil fuels for the last 100 years. Even though this means we wouldn’t be as wealthy, it seems fair since fossil fuels have made our lives so much better.”

Another item from the Anchorage Declaration that didn’t make it into our action items was a plan to send representatives from the Indigenous Summit to the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen. The stated goals in the Anchorage Declaration are to recognize the importance of traditional knowledge, to include indigenous peoples’ observations of climate change alongside those of scientists, and to fully include indigenous voices in international negotiations to create global climate change policy.

On the day President Obama was to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, a coalition of North American indigenous groups marched on the U.S. embassy in Copenhagen. Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Canadian-based Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign had this to say:

So we’re here in Copenhagen at the United Nations international climate negotiations . . . to say we want a just and clean future, a new economic paradigm that doesn’t sacrifice our communities at the altar of irresponsible policies for the economic benefit of the select few who pull the economic strings.

As it turned out, the Copenhagen climate talks relied on a particularly exclusive, undemocratic process to produce the weak and unenforceable “accord” heralded as progress by Obama and the leaders of a handful of nations.

But even if indigenous voices were not given a prominent official role in the U.N. climate talks, they did play a crucial role in the protests in the streets of Copenhagen and the incredible gathering of thousands of civil society groups that came to Denmark to advocate for a fair and just climate treaty. By December, our classes had moved on to new topics, but as we took time out to watch some of the coverage of the Copenhagen talks on Democracy Now!, students recalled their connections to the indigenous leaders they saw on the screen—the real people on whom their roles had been based.

“My name is Johnson Cerda. I am a Quechua Indian from the Ecuadorian Amazon, and I grew up in the rainforest.”

“That’s me!” Helene shouted as Cerda continued:

We are here because we understand that . . . in the climate negotiation, we need at least to put our voice first. Second, we want to insert some safeguards for indigenous peoples. And the third thing is that we need also to say here that we have knowledge, and we can share our knowledge.

As we were watching the indigenous activists, I (Julie) leaned over and whispered to Amanda Henderson, who is a member of the Warm Springs tribe of Central Oregon, “That might be you up there one day.” As we smiled at each other, I knew it was worth taking a day away from our current unit to watch the Copenhagen coverage. But I was unprepared when she came to class the next day and handed me this poem:

The quietest voices
Have the loudest meaning
Every word said is like
An earthquake.
It sends a big movement
It moves the biggest barriers down
It can open a new state of mind.
The quietest voices
Can join and become
A million voices.
For what we say can
Be pushed aside
Forgot about.
But when we come together,
We are heard
We do count
We are ready to stand up
We won’t take no for an answer
We will speak until
Everyone hears us
We will not be quiet anymore
We are important
We do count.
Don’t take our voices away.

Julie Treick O’Neill and Tim Swinehart teach social studies at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. O’Neill wrote “Our Dignity Can Defeat Anyone” (Summer 2008). Swinehart wrote “Got a Little More than Milk?” (Summer 2006). Dianne Leahy and Bill Bigelow also contributed to writing the Indigenous Peoples’ Climate Summit role play.