What work do you do?
I am the executive director of Native Movement.
What does your organization do?
Native Movement is a collective of around 15 organizers who work on a myriad of projects focusing on youth leadership development, sustainability, protection of sacred sites, and social, political, economic, and environmental justice. We work mostly with Indigenous peoples in the Southwest and Alaska, although we consciously outreach to the non-Indigenous community as well.
We host vigils, marches, concerts, workshops, youth summits, and press conferences. We speak at conferences, write essays, make giant puppets for parades, support local environmental and Indigenous youth groups, and provide alternative education programs. On the Navajo and Hopi nations, we build natural homes from local materials, grow crops using traditional permaculture techniques, and run summer youth programs.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, we are going through a significant growth spurt with more projects and events than I have space to elaborate on here. Youth of the Peaks, a predominantly Indigenous youth group within the collective, is hosting a Southwest tribal youth summit this month to support developing chapters of their organization throughout the Navajo and Hopi nations. We plan to expand and develop our work in Alaska in the coming year. Our administrative capacity is also rapidly developing to support the groundswell of energy and projects.
How do you get to work?
I have an office within my home. On a typical morning, I will get out of bed, stretch, and walk through the living room in pajamas to start my computer. We also recently opened an administrative office about three miles from my house, so you’ll have to check back with me in a few months to see if I can manage to mostly ride my mountain bike or jog to the office when I need to be there.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was born an Indigenous person in North America, and as such had to decide how to deal with the impacts of several hundred years of exploitation, genocide, and ethnocide that continue in varying forms to this day. I went the high-school dropout and alcoholic path, but it didn’t work out for me. There was something inside of me that just couldn’t accept the situation I found my people, the earth, and myself facing.
I argued my way into college at 17 and four years later received a B.A. degree in Alaska Native studies with a minor in political science. While at school, I cofounded a statewide Native youth organization. I went on to administer a rural university campus in a Gwich’in village south of mine. A couple of years later I returned north to my village, Vashraii K’oo, and became a chief in my early 20s. I spent the next three years struggling to lead my people and learning the realities of being an Indigenous leader subject to the powers of the state and federal government. It doesn’t feel good being both exploited and controlled in your own homeland.
While still a chief, I cofounded Native Movement with my wife Enei Begaye, who is Navajo. I promised her grandfather that after our baby was born we would move to Navajo country so that the child could be closer to her mother’s people for a while. So I temporarily stepped down as a leader for my people, and we moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., and have been here for almost two years. I am now committed full time to Native Movement, and I’m also supporting a few other organizations in strategy and development.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I can’t remember feeling infuriated, but I know that I feel sadness about things, such as the impact to the earth, people, and animals from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
I enjoy hiking in the San Francisco Peaks. The trails start about a 10-minute bike ride from my house. I also enjoy walking, jogging, and spending time with my family.
What’s your favorite meal?
Caribou meat and rice.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I think I am a little too Indian to fit cleanly into an environmentalist stereotype.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
What are now called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. They are the traditional lands of my people and where we still live to this day.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I don’t watch TV. I think that The Fast Runner, Whale Rider, and Rabbit-Proof Fence are great films. I think that Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, an award-winning environmental-justice documentary on Indigenous peoples in North America, is important (and not because I’m featured in it).
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
If you are in a position to contribute to our work, please donate. Any amount is helpful.
Aside from making a contribution, I would ask that if you are in a position to support the growth of a young leader, choose one and make a long-term investment in that person.