I’m incredibly inspired by how Quannah leads. For today’s conversation, we interviewed this 18-year-old land protector on how the climate crisis is impacting Alaska, particularly Indigenous communities protecting their lands.
What’s your earliest memory of getting involved in climate justice?
Well, I grew up out on the land: hunting, fishing, dog mushing, living my way of life. And I noticed little changes in the weather and environment. My mom would explain to me what was happening. I grew up in the movement; my mom and my aunties are all engaged in local organizations and steering committees.
Every time they would come over. I would always sit at the table and listen to them talk about whatever’s going on, learning as I grew. They showed me their power through their advocacy work. Seeing that allowed me to become that as well.
The first action I took was when I was in seventh grade. In our school district here in Fairbanks, Alaska, they were having a public meeting to decide whether to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. I was the only person that showed up and advocated for it. An elder listening to it on the radio heard and came in halfway to back me up.
I was grateful for that. Being a little seventh grader sitting in front of all of these – to me at the time – big, important people were very intimidating. All of them were non-native, and I didn’t think they would understand. I remember just walking in there and speaking from my heart. They ended up changing it. I was really proud because if I didn’t show up that day, it would have never happened.
That’s powerful. One of the things I wanted to ask you is specifically about your work in Alaska. What is the urgency of protecting your lands in Alaska?
Yeah. So I did a lot of work over the last two years with Trump in office, trying to drill in our sacred lands in the Arctic Refuge. I was rallying against that, and emphasizing how it significantly contributes to climate change here in Alaska.
The climate crisis is affecting Alaska at twice the rate of anywhere else. It’s kind of crazy that not a lot of people know about that. It feels the focus is on other threats in the mainland U.S. But it’s the same, except worse, here in Alaska. We get fires every summer that burn down villages. Our fish tank almost got burned down this year.
Also, the ground is mostly permafrost, especially on the coast. Because of climate change, many of the villages and communities along the coast are collapsing into the ocean, and the water is rising, which is making these people who lived there for generations leave their ancestral homes. It’s dangerous.
Back when I was ten years old, we would get about 60 fish a day in our net or fish wheel. Now we only get, like, eight, and half of them aren’t good to eat because of how toxic the waters have become due to the oil and gas development up North, and the mining. Both are centered in areas where our fish lay eggs. So a lot is happening here. And it’s really frustrating because we get it just as bad if not worse, but nobody talks about it.
So that’s why I push for advocacy. I think sometimes I’m a rude awakening because not many people accept the fact that the climate crisis affects our way of life and our future generations. I’m afraid that our future generations won’t get the opportunity to learn hands-on, just from books and pictures. That’s what I fear.
Can you expand on that a little bit?
Yeah. My grandma tried her best to raise my mom and my uncle out on the land. My mom grew up on the trapline – dog mushing and hunting, fishing, living in relationship with the land. And my mom wanted that for us. She wanted us to learn and be exposed to that. So that’s all we know. When we came to the city, we hardly even knew what chips were. We felt so thankful for stuff. And it puts it in perspective for me because I think about what my ancestors went through – even two or three generations ago – and how much they endured. I’m so lucky to be here today.
In the future, I fear that we will still be here, but we won’t get to practice our ways of life if we keep continuing on this path, and the government doesn’t allow Indigenous people to protect our land as we have for millennia. 80% of the world’s biodiversity is protected by Indigenous people from all over the world. We need society to recognize that and let Indigenous people be a part of these conversations and sit at the table that makes those decisions. That’s why everyone was so excited about Deb Haaland being appointed as secretary. I remember waking up and hearing that news and feeling so relieved and hopeful. It felt like I could relax a little bit more. We have someone on our side now.
When we talk about future generations, I always say that I want my kids and my grandchildren to be able to hunt and go out on the land and feel as connected and as delighted as I do when I go out on the land. It’s a way of coping and healing for me. When you’re out there, I realize and recognize that this is where my people are from. This is where we have been for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. And we’re still here.
You mentioned the intersection of environmental racism or environmental justice and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic. Can you tell me more about that, and how it influences your work?
Yeah, environmental racism is definitely a big thing. Not a lot of people believe or understand it. But it really bugs me. My aunt was a victim of MMIW. She was killed out on the street. I can’t imagine that being my daughter. It was already such a loss to me. That was my auntie, someone that I grew up with, someone that taught me how to bead. It’s sad that she became a victim of that.
But a lot of these camps that were built for building pipelines, or for the oil and gas industry, are located on our sacred lands. This is happening everywhere; the Dakotas, the Amazon, and here in Alaska. They always choose these areas because they don’t want the people who profit from the extraction to suffer from its adverse effects. Indigenous people are the least to contribute to these things but feel the impact of it twice more than anyone else. We are the ones that are the frontline. These are our communities that they are in. This is the land that they’re stealing. This is who they’re stealing from.
This colonization allows for the mistreatment of the people here, too. And it breaks my heart because I’m afraid for my friends and their families. I feel like even in the cities, you can’t go outside. I never go anywhere alone, ever.
Yeah. There’s so much already being taken from the land, and then that added level of robbing people the right of feeling safe even to be outside. It’s awful. What have you learned most on your journey? Do you use the word activist for yourself?
I don’t *laughs*. Anyone can be an activist for anything, and I love it! Because if you’re passionate about something, be an advocate for it, go for it. But for me, it’s a little bit deeper. It’s literally about my way of life, about my people, and about my future generations. This is who I am, in my identity as an Indigenous person, and how much we’ve already lost. That’s why I say climate warrior, land protector, and storyteller.
I’ve learned a lot. Growing up, my mom always reminded me to “never forget who you are and where you come from,” and I stand by that. As I become part of this movement more and more, I realize how easy it is to get lost in it. It can be traumatizing because I’m constantly discussing how hurt people are because of this system. And people are often so unaware about the pain we’re experiencing, sometimes the pain they’re causing.
I grew up wanting to be a model, but I never saw an Indigenous model in a magazine or hardly in movies unless they were in a Western movie way back when. It felt bizarre because I saw everyone else except myself. That’s when you start forgetting who you are. Society is changing to be more inclusive and diverse. We’re starting to see more and more Indigenous people being uplifted. But it’s going to take time.
And through it, you have to be okay with yourself. I’ve learned that you can’t ignore how you’re feeling. I’m starting to open up more about my experience with mental health. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depressive disorder last year, but I’ve been struggling with it since elementary school and just never talked about it. I never felt like my feelings were valid. And so that’s why I always constantly remind myself, “never forget who you are and where you come from,” because it reminds me how lucky I am even to be here.
Yeah, absolutely. What is bringing you joy right now?
I love hot Cheetos and pickles. I don’t know. It’s kind of a res girl thing.
Together, at the same time? I’ve never tried this!
Separate or together, either way. It’s so good. I eat it all the time. It’s probably not very healthy *laughs*. I’ve also been resting a lot more than usual, and I think it’s because I was burning myself out for a little bit. I’m trying to get into a healthier schedule, so I don’t overwork myself. I’ve been snowboarding, so that’s what’s been making me happy lately.
Quannah ChasingHorse, age 18, is from the Han Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota tribes and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. She is an Indigenous land protector for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protecting those sacred lands from oil development and fighting for climate justice. Quannah’s deep connection to the lands and her people’s way of life guides and informs everything she does and stands for. Quannah sits on the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Climate Justice Task Force, which was created as a result of a climate emergency resolution she and her friends wrote and passed at the AFN Annual Conference in 2019. She is passionate about Indigenous rights, MMIWG, and representation. She is an avid snowboarder, guitar player, and is apprenticing as a traditional Indigenous tattoo artist. Quannah was honored to make the 2020 list of Teen Vogue’s “Top 21 under 21.” She is an IMG Fashion Model and Actress.
What do you hope your future generations can experience during their time on the planet?
What do you know about your ancestors, and their relationship to the land? How may their experiences differ from your relationship to the land today?