On December 9th, the Canadian Mountain Network (CMN) and Mountain Sentinels Alliancehosted the dialogue, Women Move Mountains, on United Nations International Mountain Day (IMD) 2022. Around the world, women play a key role in the stewardship, conservation, economic development, and management of mountains, including the keeping and sharing of traditional knowledge. IMD 2022 focuses on the need to empower women as farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs, community leaders, mothers, and mountain women and girls, so that they can more effectively participate in decision-making and resource management.
Women have unique gifts to be celebrated, and this panel brought together a diverse group of women from across Turtle Island – North America – who are “moving mountains.” The impact of each of their work reaches far beyond mountains and elevates the path forward for us all. Panelists include Ataya Cesspooch (Northern Ute, Assiniboine, and Lakota), doctoral student, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, University of California, Berkeley; Coralee McGuire-Cyrette, Executive Director, Ontario Native Women’s Association; Kim McMullen, Founder, Girl in the Wild; and Louise Misztal, Executive Director, Sky Island Alliance. Closing remarks were provided by Monique Dubé, Executive Director, CMN, and Julia Klein, Professor, Department of Ecosystem Science & Sustainability, Colorado State University, and Director of the Mountain Sentinels Alliance.
Ava Hamilton provided the spiritual opening for this dialogue. She is an Arapahoe filmmaker, author, historian, public speaker, and water protector. She is active with many groups and issues, including People of the Sacred Land and Rising Voices: Climate Resilience through Indigenous and Earth Sciences. Ava stressed that right now, Mother Earth is in danger, and therefore we are also in danger. She reflected on the pressing need to work to better together and take concrete actions using all of our different knowledges to protect Mother Earth.
The first panelist, Coralee McGuire-Cyrette, discussed her focus on reclaiming Indigenous women’s leadership by addressing systemic discrimination and creating innovative solutions to key safety issues that Indigenous women face. The Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) takes cultural teachings into practice, addressing system change that needs to happen in society on individual and community levels.
She spoke about how Indigenous women have been moving mountains, and the link between the violence against Mother Earth and the violence against Indigenous women. Like CMN, ONWA uses a two-eyed seeing approach, which takes both traditional practices, Indigenous knowledge beliefs and systems as well as Western healing practices. Her work with the ONWA aims to strengthen the resilience of Indigenous women, reconnecting them to their land, families and culture, keeping in mind that the actions we do today support our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
The second panelist, Louise Misztal, joined from Tucson, Arizona, where she is Executive Director of Sky Island Alliance, a non-profit organization which aims to protect and restore the diversity of life and lands in the Madrean Sky Island region across southern Arizona and northern Mexico. In this region, forested “sky island’ mountains rise up to ten thousand feet out of desert and grassland. There are a total of 55 individual mountains, which offer habitat for a plethora of endemic species that could not survive in the lowland desert environment. The Sky Island region is the only place in the world where black bears and jaguars are found together, in addition to an amazing diversity of reptiles, tropical birds and more.
A team of women at Sky Island Alliance is protecting the diversity of life and habitat by focusing on water and connected open space. The Sky Island region has been disturbed by the militarized border wall between the US and Mexico that is impassable to wildlife and negatively affects numerous Indigenous nations who have called the area home for centuries. Important wildlife migration corridors and the mountains themselves have been destroyed, cut off, or even blown up to build this border wall. The Sky Island Alliance connects different communities across borders to protect this vulnerable ecosystem, and works with women in Mexico to empower their voices as advocates and agents of change.
Ataya Cesspooch then discussed her research and work as a PhD student at University of California Berkeley. Before her PhD studies, she worked as an environmental protection specialist on her reservation (Ute Tribe). The Ute Tribe’s main source of revenue is derived from il and gas exploration on their lands. Since the Ute peoples were forcibly removed from their original homeland in the Rocky Mountains, the connection to the reservation land is not as deep or meaningful in that area as it is in their ancestral lands. She says her tribe has less of a connection to the land because the reservation is not located in their homelands, which are in the Rocky Mountains, where they were forcibly removed.
One issue Ataya discussed was that many federal government agencies have jurisdiction over their reservation and tribal members are often not consulted on important decisions. Seventy percent of the land has been taken out of tribal control and sold to private landowners, who are not subject to these federal regulations. This jurisdiction has important impacts on land use. For example, two species of Sclerocactus cactus are endemic to the reservation, and endangered and protected through the endangered species act, which prevents oil development on tribal lands but not private lands and gives private landowners an advantage. The Ute language is also considered endangered, which has led some to believe that the “federal government cares more about cactus than the Ute people.” We need to have an approach that protects and cares for ALL inhabitants.
Our next guest was Kim McMullen, Founder, Girl in the Wild (GITW), which provides free confidence-building camps in open spaces to struggling teenage girls, including trans and queer girls, and teens who identify as girls.
GITW aims to eradicate self-loathing for good and connect youth to each other and the land through adventure and vulnerability in wild spaces. The program helps young people find their worth in themselves through their time in the mountains together.
Kim shared a touching story about how the camp impacted one troubled LGBTQ+ teen with bipolar disorder, who completely transformed their life thanks to their experience with GITW, through self-acceptance, finding their creative outlet and connecting with the land, themself and others.
Ava Hamilton closed the panel by saying that her work is everyone’s work, as all life is in jeopardy on our planet, and we need to work harder and better together as human beings. In order to really learn about protecting life and moving mountains, we need to listen to the Earth and do a better job.
According to Ava, about 74% of Indigenous people in the US live in urban areas away from their land. However, urban Indigenous communities are very active, organizing pow wows, ceremonies and singing and dancing together. Ava also does not live on her lands but resides in a suburban area, but every weekend she is attending events with her Indigenous community. She is dedicated to promoting a wider sense of belonging and awareness for all people through her role as a community connector for the City of Boulder, her involvement with various non-profit organizations, and her experience as a filmmaker.
The panel then took questions from participants addressing concrete actions that everyone can take to protect life on Earth and connect with the land.
The panelists were asked to consider, “Since everyone here is at a different place in their path, with some just starting out and others in leadership position. What can we each do now, as individuals and as part of our communities?”
Here are ideas that were discussed and put forward:
Supporting or participating in internship programs
Seeking out mentors and being a mentor yourself. As women, we can support each other.
Valuing and empowering women as givers of life
Creating camps like GITW across the country for youth to connect with the Earth and disconnect with technology
Listening better to the Earth and the land
Experiencing spaces like mountains, which provide us with a spiritual connection and the space to come to new realizations and perspectives
Helping our young people to love this life, this Earth
Coming together to create safe spaces, connections and communications
Connecting with your Indigenous/ancestral heritage, or elders in your community
Funding and supporting Indigenous-led and co-led land-based research (like the Canadian Mountain Network)
Braiding knowledge to truly influence decision making in Canada, working with partners across borders
Donating to organizations like GITW to support youth as leaders of tomorrow and to build a better understanding of the land through experiences on the land.
After the thoughtful discussion, CMN Executive Director Monique Dube and Mountain Sentinels Alliance lead Julia Klein wrapped up the virtual event with gratitude for the insights and stories shared, enthusiasm for the potential for positive change, and a challenge to all participants to take some small action toward the change you want to see.
Thank you again to the panelists, production team, and audience. Keep moving mountains in your life!