Climate & Social Justice

Green New Deal and Rhode Island Climate Efforts Lack Color

Rhode Island’s community of indigenous people is working at grassroots level with various stakeholders to address climate crisis and economic inequality


Bella Noka, a Narragansett Indian Tribe member and a member of the Indigenous Transition steering committee, said society long ago stopped listening to Mother Earth. (Michael Roles)

WAKEFIELD, R.I. — Four of the six people sitting at a table near the front door of a busy coffee shop politely pointed out the inadequacies of the Green New Deal and the country’s timid efforts to address a centuries-old system that continues to marginalize people of color.

The affable quartet noted that Indigenous peoples like them have been largely shut out of efforts, both locally and nationally, to address the climate crisis and the connected issue of economic inequality.

“The smartest person in the room needs to get out of the room,” said Bella Noka, a Rhode Island resident and Narragansett Indian Tribe member. “We need to listen to the child in the corner. We need to listen to everybody.”

The Green New Deal makes a lone mention of Indigenous peoples, but, according to Cristina Cabrera, a member of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, few, if any, helped craft the document and few have been asked for their thoughts on the issues it addresses. She noted that efforts at the local level to decarbonize don’t include Indigenous peoples.

Cabrera said climate and social policy are being increasingly shaped by corporations and the politicians they help elect, which creates a revolving door of corporate interests in government. She noted that corporations enjoy the status of personhood but Mother Earth does not. She said these influences are visible in the Green New Deal.

“Corporations continue to extract, mine, dump, and trash, and net-zero formulas and taxing carbon aren’t going to stop the destruction,” the Rhode Island activist and Uruguay native said. “Corporations will capitalize on the solutions. The culture needs to change. We need a celebration of culture, not extraction.”

Cabrera, Noka, her husband, Randy, and Wayne Everett — Randy and Everett are also Narragansett Indian Tribe members; the tribe has about 3,000 members — said Indigenous peoples need to lead a “just transition” from fossil fuels and an extractive economy.

While the Indigenous Environmental Network has praised the Green New Deal “for its vision, intention, and scope,” the nonprofit, created 30 years ago to address environmental and economic-justice issues, said the resolution “will leave incentives by industries and governments to continue causing harm to Indigenous communities.”

“Furthermore, as our communities who live on the frontline of the climate crisis have been saying for generations, the most impactful and direct way to address the problem is to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” according to the Minnesota-based organization. “We can no longer leave any options for the fossil fuel industry to determine the economic and energy future of this country.”

The five people ecoRI News recently spoke with in the coffee shop at The Village at South County Commons, including Michael Roles, a white activist working with Rhode Island’s Indigenous population on these issues, all agreed that it’s time for the principles long held by this country’s native inhabitants to shape “the healing of Mother Earth.”

This just transition, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network, would include, among other points, a system change for all people to become true stewards of the places where they live, adopting laws that recognize the rights of ecosystems, the elimination of harmful projects, and the rejection of all market-based mechanisms that allow the quantification and commodification of natural resources by rebranding them as “ecosystem services,” “carbon trading,” and “carbon offsets.”

“People who lead institutions and people who are white need to step outside comfort zones,” Roles said. “They need to meet people where they live and work.”

Bella Noka said society has never listened to Indigenous peoples nor followed their lead when it to comes to protecting — working in harmony with — the environment.

“They treated the land like they treated Indigenous people,” she said.

An eight-member steering committee, which includes Noka, Cabrera, and Everett, of the Indigenous Transition is working at the grassroots level with community partners such as the African Alliance of Rhode Island to address affordable housing, transportation, jobs, energy, gentrification, shoreline access, and climate-related issues.

Everett noted that to address these issues justly, people of color need to be involved in the discussions. They’re seldom even invited to participate, he said.

“We need to be working together,” Everett said. “We need to be building bridges to communities. Stewardship of Mother Earth needs to come back, and it can’t be tied to a political narrative, organization, or religion.”

Bella Noka was more blunt in her call for a just transition and what it will take to get there.

“I’m tired of the abuse. Tired of the injustice. Tired of the suffering,” she said. “Everyone plays a role in fixing Mother Earth. We can’t afford to get this wrong. Come to the table without a hidden agenda or for political gain. Come for the right reasons. Be willing to listen.”

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  1. A couple of things to say. The original Green New Deal as developed by Green Party candidate for governor in NY in 2010 Howie Hawkins was more informed by native wisdom. What we have now is a watered down version. The second comment is that the climate movement like most movements in the US, has a long way to go in its understanding of the legacy of injustice that the European invasion started, but the fact that many many people refer to it as a climate justice movement, and that most of the youth organizing efforts are far more diverse than they were when I was that age, gives me a bit of hope.

  2. "Come to the table without a hidden agenda or for political gain. Come for the right reasons. Be willing to listen.”

  3. I am so inspired by the work of Indigenous Transition. I had the honor to meet Bella and Cristina and I am overwhelmed and inspired by their strong wisdom and spirit. They are true leaders whom I will continue to learn from and follow! <3 ilana

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