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Indigenous activists say the legacy of colonialism has limited their access to COP-26

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's something you can't miss about the people who've come from all over the world to be part of this U.N. climate summit. And I'm not talking about the negotiators, the politicians, the people whose job it is to be here. I'm talking about the thousands of folks who filled the streets over the weekend chanting in demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose planet?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our planet.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Whose planet?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our planet.

SHAPIRO: Here's how President Biden described his view of the push for environmental justice and climate action when he was here in Scotland last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think this is being led by, you know, my granddaughters and their friends, that generation.

SHAPIRO: Youth are taking the lead. So as we cover this summit all week, while we monitor official developments and interview top officials, we are also going to meet some young activists each day, people from different parts of the world who have come here trying to shape the future.

RUTH MILLER: Being an Indigenous youth at COP is extraordinarily limiting and tokenizing in a number of ways, both by nature of being Indigenous and by being youth.

SHAPIRO: Ruth Miller is 24, and she's one of nine people squeezed into a four-bedroom rental house above a corner pub. She grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. Some of her roommates here are from New Zealand or islands in the South Pacific. They're hanging out in a living room with low wooden furniture covered in mustard-colored velvet cushions joking about some of their shared experiences as kids who grew up in Native communities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Without planning on it, they all brought different kinds of smoked fish to Scotland - salmon from Alaska, eel from New Zealand. They bond over memories of fry bread.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's always a version of fry bread across, like, Indigenous people. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, you guys are going to hate me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, I only tried fried bread the first time, like, beginning of this year. I know. I know. I know.

SHAPIRO: But, of course, their connections go much deeper than food. When I ask if they're learning new things from each other's experiences in different parts of the world, Ruth says that's not exactly it. They come here with a shared view of how lands and waters are connected and how to care for them.

MILLER: It does seem less like, you know, learning new things and more like meeting a long lost family member that you haven't seen in quite some time.

SHAPIRO: Everyone squeezes around the dining table for a family-style meal of takeout Thai food. Twenty-three-year-old Tiana Jakicevich leads everyone in a blessing.

TIANA JAKICEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

SHAPIRO: They talk logistics for the next day's events, planning out how to get to and from the conference site...

JAKICEVICH: And tomorrow will be really, really busy. So we probably do need to leave quite early.

SHAPIRO: ...Because I should mention this house they rented is not in Glasgow. We're in a city called Stirling, almost an hour north of where the summit is taking place. They had to raise their own money for this trip. Staying in Glasgow was way too expensive. And that's kind of a metaphor for their experience of the conference itself. They're often on the outside looking in, trying to carve out space for their people.

MILLER: It was deeply difficult and extractive and tokenizing to be here.

SHAPIRO: Ruth Miller and Tiana Jakicevich sat down with us to talk about their shared experience here, and that includes their experience of a warming planet from the Arctic, where Ruth is from, to the southern hemisphere, where Tiana lives.

JAKICEVICH: While Ruth's ice is melting, our seas are rising. And yeah, so we are intrinsically connected to the Earth and each other through that.

SHAPIRO: Tiana woke up this week to news that her small town was in a state of emergency after three months' worth of rain fell in 48 hours. And she's seen slower changes, too.

JAKICEVICH: When I was little, we used to go down to the beach and collect tuatua, which is, like, a little shellfish. And you used to just dig in the sand for them. And every year we kept going back, and they moved every year. And then about five years ago, we couldn't find them. So at this point in time, where we've always been able to collect tuatua from, we no longer can anymore.

SHAPIRO: That's in New Zealand. And Alaska is heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. Ruth has seen record-setting wildfires and relocations from land that her people have lived on for generations.

MILLER: But, of course, you can't relocate your grandparents' graves. You can't relocate your ancient sacred sites. You can't adapt to the places that are lost due to climate change. This past year, when I was forced to watch our sitka, our salmon dying in our streams of heatstroke, it was heartbreaking.

SHAPIRO: That's why these activists put in the work, raised the money and risked their health to fly to Scotland during a pandemic. But now that they're here, it sometimes feels like everyone wants to put them in a box.

MILLER: Whitening our speech and whitening the way that we behave and wearing blazers and such. I mean, if we do bring our whole Indigenous selves, it gets translated as a photo opportunity in COP spaces.

SHAPIRO: How do you deal with that?

MILLER: Prayer. We bring our prayer, and we bring our spiritual fortitude. We bring our traditions, and we bring our medicines. We take care of one another.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes they're invited to panels where they feel like organizers only want them to demonstrate victimhood. And they show up with more than stories of suffering.

MILLER: A number of us are extremely well-versed in the substantive content of particularly Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, of a number of negotiating platforms.

SHAPIRO: Article 6 is about carbon markets, a system that lets companies buy or sell credits towards a specified amount of CO2 emissions. The activists here see it as a gift to big business, a plan that endorses systems of capitalism that created these problems in the first place.

MILLER: We work in these fields as well as being youth, and yet most of what I have talked about is how difficult it is for youth to be heard. We don't even get to talk about what we would talk about if we were heard.

SHAPIRO: They'd also like to see plans to protect human rights and Indigenous rights spelled out in the text of the COP agreement.

Last week, Ruth Miller says she was offered a platform where she could have raised some of these ideas. She was invited to speak at an Indigenous peoples event with Alok Sharma, the president of COP26. Then the schedule ran long, and the meeting abruptly ended before she could speak. So at the house in Stirling, I ask her...

Like, what would you have said if you had been given that opportunity that you were told you would have?

MILLER: I would remind him of our Indigenous diplomats and the ways that we call in deep community.

SHAPIRO: And then she says she would have offered him a traditional song.

MILLER: My people come from volcanoes, and this song was gifted to me in a time of great need. And it is a song of deep, deep earth and of ancestors that are older than human. It is a song that reminds me of embers and the way that we tend to our fires. But what I would have reminded him of is that our ember are not ones that easily go out or fade away. The embers of our Indigenous voices, if they are neglected or ignored, they tend to start fires.

SHAPIRO: I can't promise that Alok Sharma will hear this piece on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MILLER: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: But if you would like to share that for an audience that will hear it...

MILLER: (Singing in non-English language).

SHAPIRO: That's Ruth Łchav'aya K'isen Miller. She is native Dena'ina Athabaskan from Alaska.

MILLER: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.