Illustration by Jesse Zhang
Temperature Check is a podcast at the intersection of climate and justice. Season Two features climate leaders and their mentors in a series of intimate, insightful conversations about what it takes to find purpose, passion, and even enjoyment in the fight for a better planet. Listen to all the episodes now, right here (or wherever you get your podcasts).
Jess Stahl: Welcome to Temperature Check, a podcast about climate, justice, and the people making a difference. I’m Jess Stahl, editor for creative storytelling at Fix. And this season of Temperature Check, we’re turning over the reins to climate and justice leaders to talk about mentorship. For each episode, we asked one changemaker to tell us who inspires them, who supports them, and then we brought them together.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Our friendship has been forged in these fires of mobilization and movement spaces.
Jade Begay: Your spirit is doing so much. It’s trying to protect you. It’s trying to guide you to say and do the right things. It’s so important to have people to laugh it off, cry it off.
Josué Rivas: There is like a blueprint for how things could be, right? That’s what our ancestors did. And they dreamed about us being here.
Jess Stahl: This conversation is with Jade Begay and Eriel Tchekwie Deranger. Jade is Climate Justice Campaign Director at NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization focusing on justice and equity. She’s also one of our 2021 Grist 50 Fixers. And for this conversation, Jade invited Eriel, her friend and mentor, and the executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, to talk about their shared mission, and how their relationships with each other, and other Indigenous activists, sustains their work. And now I’ll hand it over to them.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Jade is one of the most badass, hardworking, creative individuals that I’ve met. They’re from the south of the medicine line. I’m from north of the medicine line, but we’re both Dene people.
Jade Begay: Eriel is a total badass and the driver or owner of a really cool… like, wagon. It’s like a little cool place to take glamping. So, yeah, Eriel’s a glamper.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: I’ve actually upgraded into a bigger RV, but, yeah.
Jade Begay: Woo!
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Edlanat’e, Dënësųłinë́ t’a Eriel Tchekwie husye. Deranger betsį ?ane hesłį. My name is Eriel Tchekwie Deranger. I’m a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, and I’m based in Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, also known as Edmonton, in Treaty Six territory in so-called Alberta and so-called Canada.
Jade Begay: Hello, my name is Jade Begay. I am Diné and Tesuque Pueblo, I’m based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Currently, I’m streaming in from Glasgow, UK, and I’m the Climate Justice Campaign Director at NDN Collective.
I know when I first was introduced to your work and became aware of you as a person in this movement, and that was the first-ever Bioneers, the conference. It was a moment for me where I was like, “Oh my God, who is this person?”
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: That was when I did the keynote in 2015.
Jade Begay: Yeah. When I attended that, I was just working with a nonprofit communications firm, and was just really starting to get into movement work. And of course, I felt rallied by your story and your words to join the fight against the tar sands and against pipelines. But I think, on a more personal or deeper level, it was just really impactful to see a native, Indigenous person take up this space, and you really just claiming that space. And I hadn’t seen a ton of that. I mean, my mom is a really strong Indigenous woman, kind of a boss in her own right. But definitely someone closer to my age speaking with such gusto and fierceness. It was something I hadn’t been exposed to a whole lot. So, yeah, it just made me feel, like, affirmed. I believe at the time you were working as a communications director for your tribe. There were so many things that were clicking in that moment. Like, I’m a communications person. You can use storytelling in all of these ways. And you can fight for your people, and the land, and the climate. And it just started to make sense.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: For me, the Bioneers speech was very stressful. And I’ve had a few people say that it was a really powerful speech. But for me, it’s always so strange because I feel like I go into this meditative space. Everything just disappears. And I honestly feel like, for myself, I have to do this thing where I put my feet on the ground, my bare feet on the ground, when I do those types of speeches to ground myself, because I’m not doing that stuff for myself. I’m doing it for the community. It’s really nice to hear because I get a lot of accolades from like white, hippie environmentalists, being like, “Oh my God, that’s so powerful.” And while that’s nice, I actually find it more affirming when other Indigenous folks are moved by the things that I say or do, because those are the communities that I’m really trying to speak to, to demonstrate that we are powerful. And we are leaders. And we don’t have to be quiet and we don’t have to get out of the way. And that it’s really our role to be leading this movement for the protection and preservation of this planet and our territories and really exposing how systems of white supremacy have suppressed us for so long. And so it means a lot to know that impacted you and made you feel like you could just do the work that you’re doing now. So, that’s awesome.
Jade Begay: Yeah. And it’s really been full-on. The work has not stopped. I think we met at COP, right after that Bioneers. If you don’t know, the COP is the Conference of the Parties. A lot of people know them as the UN climate negotiations. It is within the COP that the Paris Agreement was put together. And then back in 2015, that’s when nations joined the Paris Agreement, right?
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Paris, I definitely remember you there. I definitely remember you being like a part of the badass comms crew. Comms are the communications folks, the people that are building the stories and the narratives for the social media, the video content. And I remember wanting to hang out at the comms house. And I was just like, “These guys are so cool. And they’re fun. And they’re incredibly talented.”
Jade Begay: Yeah, it’s definitely not an easy space to organize. It’s highly bureaucratic. But we have to show up because if we’re not there, then there’s a void of our people being at the table. So we also really fight within the space for access and for equity and reaching those goals that were set.
So, Eriel, as we know, activism can take a toll, especially when it’s about the issues that are really core to your identity. So how does this relationship sustain you? Our relationship. Our friendship.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: I think that friendship is so important and revolutionary, to be honest.
Jade Begay: Yeah.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: In this type of work, if you don’t have those people that you can — after a crazy speech where you’re in that place or when you’re in these big mobilizations or when you’re in these moments where, like, you are talking about deep trauma, you’re talking about deep wounds in our communities, you’re talking about dismantling systems that have robbed our communities of so much. And it can be really traumatizing and retriggering. And it’s so important to have folks that you can lean on for that emotional support, but also for that camaraderie. Like, we’ve seen each other in our own communities, but a lot of the times it’s been, like, Paris or California or New York City, Washington, D.C. All over the world, we’ve run into each other and done all sorts of incredible things. But it doesn’t matter where we are because it’s the friendships that sustain those relationships. And they’re medicine. Because without them, then we would just be holding all of that trauma.
Laughter is a really, really key part of our culture. Like, I know that even in a lot of our funerals and stuff, people laugh so much. We laugh through some of the hardest times. And I just enjoy the laughter that I’ve had with you. Just being able to not take everything so seriously. Being able to just be like, “Oh my God, I just need to go. Holy shit, this has been like a shit show all day. Let’s just go.” Because if we don’t have that, and we’re just fighting all the time, that’s not good for your spirit either. With you, it’s about really building that movement together and lifting each other up as Indigenous women and having fun.
Jade Begay Aww! Yeah, I totally resonate with that. And when we’re lobbying or we’re at a protest or even just talking in the same rooms with some of our oppositions, like, that can be really tough too. Facing your enemy, so to speak. You do have to leave and really call your spirit back in those moments. Your, your spirit is doing so much. It’s trying to protect you. It’s trying to guide you to say and do the right things. It’s so important to have people to laugh it off, cry it off, whatever needs to happen.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Our friendship has been forged in these fires of mobilization and movement spaces. And it’s been critical to surviving those spaces. These similar moments of how we’re trying to transform the narratives around how we approach these things, and then fighting in these systems and struggles. And then to have someone that’s there and is also like literally my kin because we are related, not just through spirit, but through like our ancestry. We come from the same lineage of people. It’s really, really incredible and powerful to have that. But the pandemic, there was like a deep mourning for me in that first year of, like, missing so many of my friends that I’d made in these spaces that were so critical to my mental health and wellbeing, not just in those moments of intensity, but just generally across the board.
Jade Begay: Yeah.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: So Jade, despite the fact that you said, I’m someone that you think was, like, your age, I am older than you. It’s just, it’s just my good skin from being cold in the north. That’s what I always make jokes about. But, you know, I feel like a lot of the time I’m stepping into this role of being like an auntie, as we say in our communities. Being an auntie and an uncle, we’re stepping into roles of mentorship. And helping to guide the next generation. So what does mentorship, or being an auntie, mean to you?
Jade Begay: I love how you Indigenized this question by making it a question about how to be a good auntie. Yeah, I just reflect on the folks who have been good aunties to me or matriarchs. And there’s this thing about belonging or supporting people and feeling like they belong for people in general. But definitely maybe in our communities, because we face issues of invisibility or not being recognized as tribes. Oftentimes there’s a lot of forces out there that try to invalidate Indigenous peoples. And so I think this thing about belonging can be tough. And especially for folks who maybe grew up away from their tribe, away from their community and not in close proximity. Or who had families that were really assimilated, not by choice, of course. I think of my aunties and cousins and mentors and people like yourself—even in movement spaces—who just support you in feeling like you belong. And I think that’s one of the most beautiful gifts we can give each other. And that we’re valid in the places that we want to show up.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: I feel like that’s a really good articulation of Indigenizing mentorship. I think a lot of the English language and the way that questions are framed aren’t always translatable in our communities. There’s just a different articulation or way of showing up. But I like that, because it’s less about teaching skills and more around welcoming in.
Jade Begay: Yeah. And, you know, I think just building on it—and this is something I just have to say—we haven’t established like a “you’re my mentor and I’m your mentee.” But I learn so much from you, I do. And this is also speaking to the auntie-ness of being a mentor, but giving that tough love. And checking people. Checking your mentee. I just remember this epic moment. We were in Alberta, Canada, in Cold Lake. And, yeah, there was this really awesome moment of you just checking some youth who just were not respecting the elders. And you did it in this way that just, like, really called them in. And it was about being a good relative and it wasn’t about calling them out or making anyone feel guilty or ashamed. I think everyone there was like shook when that moment happened because it was like… it healed a gap that was occurring in that group dynamic. And especially in our work, I’ve seen you do so much holding of space. And I’ve been a part of those spaces a lot of the time where we’ve had lots of group challenge. And I’ve seen the way that you’ve facilitated and have brought people back together. And not only do we need that in our relationships as friends, as families, but we need that in our relationships and movements.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: I remember that moment at that camp. I feel like that was my official auntie status. Because some of the youth that I called in that day, they came up to me and they’re just like, “Oh! You really showed up like a real auntie today.” “Oh my God, I’m the auntie now.” It was a moment of realization.
Jade Begay: Well, on this topic, I just have to ask the same question. Eriel, what does mentorship mean to you?
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Yeah, I think when we talk about mentorship, too, a lot of the times, we think of it as, like, an older person mentoring someone else. And, like, helping to pave the way or, like, shine a light on the path or whatever it is. Or, like, support through hard times. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that mentorship… it it’s not just older people mentoring younger people. That a lot of the time young people mentor older people. And I’ve had both young and old mentors. But I do feel like the Tom Goldtooths and the Winona LaDukes and Andrea Carmens—all of these incredible, trailblazing natives that have done such tremendous work for our communities. And they have definitely been mentors in, like, shining the light, showing the path, demonstrating leadership—all of those things. But I also think that it’s important to understand that, while as an auntie, you gotta call in the young folks. Sometimes younger people show us different ways to do things. And that’s one thing that I’ve really seen you do, is challenge the ways in which things are being done, and providing a lens to see it done differently. But you also do it in a way that respects and honors the work that has been done already. And you have to be willing as an older person as well to, like, have humility to know that just because you’re an auntie, doesn’t mean you have all the answers. It means that you’re there to support and to help guide, and that we are still constantly learning.
I remember once my mom, we went to go see this medicine woman and some people were asking her questions. I don’t remember what the questions were. I was quite little. But this old lady that we had gone to see to get medicine, spiritual guidance from, and someone asked her, like, a question that wanted a specific answer. And she just said, “I’m an old lady. And I still know nothing. I’ve lived all these years, and I’ve learned so much. But when we think about everything, I still know so little.” And unless we’re willing to be humble and to accept and honor all of the different parts of the world and the things and the places that we experience, and the words that we hear, we will not actually grow. And we can continue to grow until the very day that we die. And I really honestly think that mentorship needs to come from both sides.
Jade Begay: We’re going to need so much humility as we face the climate crisis. I see a lot of our people just fracturing, a lot of division, a lot of critique without solutions. And I really feel like, yeah, we’re going to have to build our muscles around holding many truths to get to, you know, the shared vision of being OK in the future. There needs to be a biodiversity of pathways to navigate the future. And that’s a good thing.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: I think that’s really important. Maybe this is what I want people to know is that, like, we always talk about, “Oh, we’ve got to save the biodiversity of the planet.” As if it’s something outside of us as people. And that we also need biodiversity in humanity. That’s what I think is so beautiful about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and all over the world, is that we’re not homogenous. There’s no pan-Indigeneity that exists. We exist in a multiplicity of cultures, languages, relationships with the living ecosystems, origin stories—all of this. And we all had a different way of doing things. And I think, as we look to find pathways for the future, we have to honor that biodiversity that exists within humanity.
Pre-colonization, Indigenous peoples were so diverse and so rich. And colonization has tried to put us all together and homogenize us as one peoples. But we’re so diverse. And as future generations are looking towards their path, having that humility to a) you don’t know everything, but you have a lot to offer. And b), that you can be a part of this biodiverse web of solutions, where your solutions might work for where you are, for your community, and no one can take that away from you. If that’s what works, that’s what works. Then we have to honor the sovereignty, the self-determination, and the autonomy of our communities. And respect those diversity of tactics. We have to be willing to learn. We have to be willing to listen. We have to be willing to step up when we need to. And step back when we need to. And I think one of the last things is that for future generations—I heard this from an elder, like a very prolific elder from my community, who said that he learned this from an elder when he was little. He said, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. So we can listen twice as much as we speak.” And I think that that is really important. Because if all you’re doing is taking up the air space, and you’re not listening, you’re not going to learn. So having that humility to have open ears and an open heart and an open spirit is going to be really, really important. And having those deep radical friendships with amazing people that can have your back, that can laugh with you, they can have fun, but that can throw down. I think that’s so critical.
Jade Begay: Well, Eriel, I really appreciate you mentioning that elder and those instructions. Those are worth repeating. Thank you so much for taking this time. This was lovely to take a break from the business of it all and just gab about being old pals.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger: Thank you for being in my community with me and thank you for having this chat with me. Mussi.
Jade Begay: Any time.
Jess Stahl: Thank you so much for listening, and thanks to Jade Begay and Eriel Tchekwie Deranger for sharing your time with us. This episode is one of six conversations we’ll be sharing this month as a part of our mentorship issue, which is more than just a podcast season, by the way. You can read more about mentorship at grist.org/fix, where we are exploring the power of mentorship in climate work and how mentorship must change to make the space more inclusive and accessible. That’s at grist.org/fix.
Temperature Check is a podcast from Fix, Grist Solutions Lab, produced in association with Reasonable Volume. I’m Jess Stahl, Fix’s Editor for creative storytelling. Fix’s Claire Thompson, Camille Williams, and Josh Kimelman all contributed to this podcast, with additional contributions from Fix managing editor Jaime Buerger and designer Mia Torres. This podcast is produced by Audrey Ngo with associate producer Dominique French, and editing by Elise Hu and Rachel Swaby. Sound Engineering is by Mark Bush.
If you’d like to support what we do, you can rate, review and tell all your friends to follow Temperature Check. You can listen to all of our other conversations on mentorship right now in this podcast feed. See you there!