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Environment & Climate Change

Mona Polacca: leading with the heart in a time of climate change

by Christine Trudeau March 30, 2024

From an early age, Mona Polacca’s mother told her something that would guide her life’s work protecting the environment and advocating for Indigenous people: Water and all its inhabitants were her relatives. A member of the Hopi, Tewa and Havasupai tribes, Polacca took these words to heart – especially because the Havasupai are known as “the people of the blue-green waters.”

“When I became a young woman, she took me out in the street, out facing the east [toward the sunrise] and said, ‘You’re not in this world for nothing. You have a responsibility,’” Polacca said of her mother. “‘What you do, what you say, how you behave, has an impact on all of life. Your family, your brothers, sisters, your parents, your extended family. Your community, your tribe,’ you know, ‘to all Indigenous people in the world. You have a responsibility and you have to take care of that.’” 

Now 68, Polacca is a leader in strengthening Indigenous, sovereign self-determination worldwide. She is recognized internationally for her social justice work with the United Nations and as a founder of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, an alliance that grew out of concern for the destruction of the Earth and of Indigenous ways of life.

Throughout her decades of work, Polacca’s mission has remained constant: She believes that Indigenous people, especially women, have a unique role in climate adaptation and mitigation, and that they must be prioritized as global leaders make decisions that will determine the future of the Earth and all its people. 

“Eighty percent of the Earth’s biodiversity is under the care of Indigenous people. That means all of our lands are still in their natural state, not developed,” Polacca said in an interview. “So these are areas that are being targeted for all these extractive industries, like fracking, lithium mining and now hydrogen storage and liquid natural gas storage… We’re stuck in this vicious cycle.”

Polacca began participating in United Nations meetings more than 30 years ago, when she was with the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas, a human rights organization. She now serves on the organization’s elders advisory council and participates in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body that tackles issues related to the life and well-being of Indigenous peoples and their lands. 

Polacca’s work recently took her to the United Arab Emirates, where in November she attended the Global Faith Summit, a meeting hosted by the Muslim Council of Elders in advance of COP28, the U.N. climate conference, in Dubai. Polacca contributed to the Interfaith Statement released ahead of the conference, where she spoke about the effect of climate change on Indigenous peoples’ lands, ways of life and resources as well as about the important role Indigenous women play as traditional keepers of knowledge.

“Part of our spiritual practices and beliefs are connected to what could be called sustainable practices; we could be sources of solutions in the face of climate change,” Polacca said. “Give educational opportunities that empower Indigenous women to continue to do this work.”

Polacca also pressed for climate policies that safeguard Indigenous rights regarding economic developments. Such policies would ensure that tribal nations are able to protect their sacred cultural sites by granting informed, prior consent to development on their land,  a right established in 2007 by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For example, she said, companies that produce lithium batteries are targeting tribal lands for mining. “We’re really in a conundrum. We say things like, ‘OK, so we want to reduce fossil fuels, so now we’re going to use electric cars.’” But, she said, the cars use batteries made from lithium and a  lot of it is found on tribal lands.

Sitting at her sister’s kitchen table in Tucson, Arizona, Polacca shared stories of her mother and memories about important influences throughout her life, including her community and the politics of the 1960s and 1970s.

Polacca grew up in Parker, Arizona, on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, which was established in 1865 by a small group of Mohave and Chemehuevi peoples. In 1945, Navajo and Hopi families were relocated there from nearby communities. Her grandparents were among them. 

As a young woman, Polacca formed bonds with the land, the waters of the Colorado River and the four mountains facing north, south, east and west – these form the boundaries of the reservation and are considered sacred. Polacca’s family and community members also instilled in her a deep respect and a sense of purpose that moved her to get involved in tribal government.

She and other young women served as ambassadors who welcomed visiting dignitaries to the reservation. “There was this long legal battle for us to get our water rights, and eventually, we did get our water and so we learned about all that as young women,” said Polacca. “When the governor or any of the government dignitaries came in to visit the tribe, we were there. We would meet them and tell them about the reservation, take them on little tours, things like that. That’s what I was raised doing, so that’s how I have this deep sense of the importance of knowing those things about where I come from.” 

She also attended local tribal council meetings and national conferences in Washington, D.C., like those of the National Congress of American Indians, on topics of sovereignty and tribal water rights.

“That’s been my education, my Indian education,” said Polacca.

When she was in her midteens, the American Indian Movement, known as AIM, had begun and Polacca — like many other Indigenous youth across the country — felt empowered and motivated. She closely followed the occupation of Alcatraz, and later Wounded Knee, while absorbing books like “Custer Died for Your Sins” by Vine Deloria Jr. and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. 

“We were proud to be Red. ‘Yeah, Red power!’” said Polacca. She credits her parents for encouraging her and her siblings to follow what she calls “the warrior spirit,” a reference to the spirit her ancestors had when they first encountered white settlers and, later, when they negotiated treaties for land and water rights. 

“I give full credit to [the ancestors] for doing that, and it’s up to us to uphold those rights that they put in place for us,” said Polacca. 

As Indigenous peoples, “we’re always confronted with the possibility of termination,” Polacca said. She recalled the federal Termination Era of the 1950s, during which the federal government sought to eliminate some tribes, end its obligations to others and push Indigenous peoples to assimilate by moving them from reservations to metropolitan areas. The policies challenged tribal sovereignty for a number of tribes across the United States. 

After graduating from high school in 1972, Polacca participated in a youth program and learned about tribal governance. She ran a program to combat alcohol and drug use among youth as well as a youth recreation program for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Later, she worked in the tribal administration shadowing her mentor, then-vice chair Veronica Murdock, who would go on to become first female president of the National Congress of American Indians. At the time, Murdock and the tribe were litigating for water rights, and Polacca helped them file paperwork and conduct research. 

Another pivotal moment for Polacca came in 1975 with the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act and Education Assistance Act. This law allowed tribes to shape community social work programs and determine their own policies around health, education, welfare and tribal governments.  

For example, Polacca said she was able to amend intake forms so that Indigenous patients could include their tribal affiliation when entering Arizona state programs dealing with mental health issues as well as alcohol and substance abuse. That small detail could connect them to specialized tribal treatment programs with the option to access traditional practices. 

In her late 20s, Polacca started working toward her undergraduate degree and, ultimately, her master’s degree in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Afterward, she served on her tribal council and worked as a health programs policy specialist for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, where she tried to improve medical data collection and focused on elder care and depression, substance abuse and interpersonal violence.

She began working with the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas in 1993 while coordinating with the U.N. on Indigenous spiritual and cultural rights and Indigenous water rights protections. A little more than a decade later, she helped found the International Council of Thirteen Grandmothers, allowing her to exchange and share cultural knowledge with communities around the globe. 

Polacca hasn’t slowed down. She continues to practice social work and is the Indigenous water ethics organizer with the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network. She also recently wrapped up filming on the Tohono O’odham Nation for a docuseries on healing traditions, practicing traditional water healing work with the Native American Church.

Along the way, Polacca has retained her sense of responsibility to water, to her people, to all people and all living things.

“We have to pay attention, be aware, as well as be ready to speak up and…create awareness of what’s happening to our people,” she said. “That’s the kind of sense of responsibility that I live by because those folks [the ancestors] set it in place for us and we have to take care of it, and keep it going. We’re not the only ones here. There’s others coming — our young ones here — and now we have to make way for them.”

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