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Tom B. K. Goldtooth at Indigenous Listening Sessions COP26

Listening to Our Real World Leaders: Tom B.K. Goldtooth

By Cyndi Fontyn

“The bathtub of the sky is overflowing with too much carbon, it’s overflowing with too many greenhouse gases.”

Tom B.K. Goldtooth is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, an environmental, climate, and economic justice activist, speaker, film producer, and an Indigenous rights leader within the climate and environmental justice and Indigenous movement.

Recently, at COP26 in Glasgow, UK, Tom was invited to speak at the Real World Leaders on Climate session organized by Lily Cole, Flourishing Diversity and Goals House. He had this to say:

“How do we express when we talk about rebuilding our communities after hundreds of years of impact of colonization? And how do we have a just transition that utilizes our traditional knowledge?

We recognize that from the beginning of time, the importance of the link between our women, our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, and the relationship to the Mother Earth. They’re one and the same.

We are definitely concerned, with our spiritual authorities from where I live, on the concepts of using nature as capital. [Indigenous spiritual leaders are] very concerned about the financialization of nature. Sometimes it has led to a violation of the sacred: to put a price to the air, carbon trading, or even a price to the biodiversity, in exchange for an extractive industry to offset its devastation.

We are applying an Indigenous base just transition: how we rebuild and develop our communities, not from a Eurocentric perspective?

You all were given teachings some time, long time ago. Your tribalism, your way of prayer and appreciation and thanksgiving for what you have been given every day, from the time the sun comes up to the time the sun goes down. So where are those teachings that have been passed on to you? Where are those knowledge holders here in Europe that once had that knowledge and those teachings of relationship?

In our presentation as indigenous people, to share our knowledge, that knowledge goes back thousands of years, passing on certain original instructions on how to exist and how to walk on the sacredness of our Mother Earth. And to understand the creative balance and the natural laws of creation and the relationship of Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth and Father Sky, Grandpa Sky.

The Paris Agreement is nothing but a trade agreement… why isn’t the Paris Agreement establishing a legally binding treaty requiring the governments of the world to reduce their fossil fuels? It is not that kind of a treaty agreement. It establishes voluntary pledges called national determined contributions.

What does this have to do with our indigenous knowledge? Because the main mechanism that has been developed in those hallways is around the financialization of nature, the commodification of the sacred, the privatization. Before you trade carbon in the trading market system, you’ve got to determine whose property right it is. It is becomes a property right issue…. Who owns the trees? It’s the polluters who are buying the carbon credits in the trees, so that the carbon in the trees become their trees. So they have little park reserves with their own little police systems to keep our people out of there now.

I’m concerned because industrialized countries of the North are continuing to be the problem. How do we get a movement of people to start to rise up and speak up? How do we do that? How do we start moving away from our dependency on a fossil fuel economy? How do we address the addiction? And how do we really develop an ethics system and a way of living of people throughout the world, of respecting the sacredness of the female creative principle of Mother Earth?”

Tom B. K. Goldtooth and His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales.
Tom B. K. Goldtooth with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (United Nations Special Rapporteur) and His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Photo by Finn Harries.

In response to Farhana Yamin’s question: “What is the one thing you want to see the COP do?”, Tom responded with:

“The communities that are experiencing disproportionate impacts, unpredictable weather events, whether it’s in the Pacific, whether it’s in the melting Arctic ice in the north, or whether it’s the great floods and drought conditions — the vulnerable populations. So those people should be here [at COP26], and they are not. So who holds this, the UN framework convention on climate change accountable? What are the mechanisms of accountability? In the UN system: we’re observers, we’re not involved in the negotiation process.

Traditional knowledge does not compromise. It does not make deals because we’re dealing with the natural laws of the Mother of the forests, the spiritual woman of the forest. She doesn’t negotiate. The Mother Earth is very firm. That guides us.”

Tom is active on local, national, and international levels as an advocate for building healthy and sustainable Indigenous communities based upon the foundation of Indigenous traditional knowledge. Tom is also the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) since 1996 after serving as a member of the IEN National Council since 1992.

Tom has been recognized for his achievements over the past 39 years as an activist for social change within the Indigenous, environmental and climate justice movements. With his leadership experience in his community, he has brought local issues of the environment, economy, energy, climate, water, food justice, Indigenous peoples and Mother Earth rights to national and international attention. In 2015, Tom received the Gandhi Peace Award and in 2016 he received the Sierra Club’s John Muir award. He has also been honored by both the NAACP and the Sierra Club as a “Green Hero of Color.”

Support the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Lily Cole recently spoke to Tom for her podcast bonus episode: What the Shell is Going On?

Tom is also featured on the podcast episode: New Year Ancient Wisdom: Indigenous Listening. Are we commodifying the sacred? Feat. indigenous leaders, activists, a Lord and a Prince.

Main image by Alice Aedy.

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