Respect, Rights, and Representation: 3 Indigenous Women Speak Out

Alice Paredes, Archana Soreng, and AnnaLee Yellow Hammer are three young Indigenous women who are raising their voices and leading change in their communities.

From violence and discrimination to poverty and climate change, Indigenous women face more risk than most people. But that’s only part of the story.

Across the globe, Indigenous women are reclaiming the respect, rights, and representation they deserve.

“Growing up, being an Indigenous female adolescent felt like a triple tragedy,” Alice Paredes says of her childhood in Lima, Peru. She and her family were shamed for being Indigenous and called derogatory names for speaking their native Quechua in public. “But as I got older, I started to reconcile with my identity and be proud of my roots and my heritage,” she says. “I came to an understanding that not only do I need to reconcile with my culture, I need to actively contribute to it.”

So, at just 15 years old, Alice founded her own nonprofit, ConexEDU, to help children in rural areas — especially Indigenous youth — receive quality education. Last month, she joined nearly 3,000 girls from 120 countries for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up Leadership Summit, where she witnessed firsthand how “girls’ empowerment can take many shapes and forms.”

AnnaLee Yellow Hammer’s path to activism also began at a young age. As a member of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota, AnnaLee lives on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which stretches across 2 million acres on the border of North and South Dakota. At 13, she launched an online petition against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the tribe’s sacred Black Hills and Missouri River, writing:

My friends and I have played in the river since we were little; my great grandparents raised chickens and horses along it. When the pipeline leaks, it will wipe out plants and animals, ruin our drinking water, and poison the center of community life for the Standing Rock Sioux.

More than 150,000 people across the globe ended up signing their petition, which AnnaLee and her classmates hand-delivered to U.S. officials after a 2,000-mile protest from the reservation to Washington, D.C.

Today, AnnaLee is one of more than 850 young people across 100 countries who make up the UN Foundation’s Young Climate Advocates (YCA), a global network of youth leaders working toward a sustainable future for our planet.

“For me, climate action is reclaiming spaces for Indigenous communities,” says Archana Soreng of the Kharia tribe in Odisha, India. As a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, Archana is raising her voice as an environmental activist on behalf of overlooked Indigenous communities everywhere. “Indigenous people should be leaders of climate action and not victims of climate policies,” she says.

From their homes in Peru, Standing Rock, and India, these three young women challenge people to rethink what they know about Indigenous communities and share how a new generation of activists is harnessing their collective power as leaders, change-makers, and ambassadors of a more sustainable way of life.

They spoke recently with UN Foundation ahead of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Tell us about your community and your culture.

Alice: I come from a small, rural community in Apurímac, which is a region in central Peru. We have a rich culture with unique traditions, customs, beliefs, and values, and the language we speak is Quechua, which is one of the more than 50 languages spoken in Peru. Our culture has prevailed for many years despite political, social, and even geographical changes. And we are very fortunate that younger generations like me can still learn and sustain our culture, but most importantly share it with the world. What unites us is a strong sense of community and purpose. Like we say in Quechua, “Huk Kallpala.” It means, “We are a single force.” And that is one of the values that has stuck with me through living in Lima, which is the capital in Peru.

Alice Paredes is an Indigenous youth from Lima, Peru. She advocates for children in rural settings to receive quality education. Graphic: UN Foundation.

Archana: I come from the Kharia tribe in Odisha, India. In our worldview, we are not just part of nature, we are embedded with nature. Nature is a source of identity, culture, tradition, and language. Unlike other communities, land and nature are not considered a commercial commodity. Most of our work has been around agriculture practices and forest-based livelihoods. We take care of nature the way nature takes care of us. Our culture, songs, and languages also come from nature.

AnnaLee: I reside on the northern portion of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in a town called Fort Yates, North Dakota. I have lived here all my life.

Right now there is a group of mentor artists who are spray-painting murals around our community. It is beautiful to see elements of our culture on buildings around town. It makes me proud of who I am.

What do you wish people understood about Indigenous communities like yours?

AnnaLee: I feel that a lot of non-Indigenous people are under the assumption that we all get a monthly check from the government, free housing, free health care, or still live in tipis. Many of our Indigenous communities face the same issues, but we are also very unique as well. With the newer generations, I feel like there is a big push to reclaim our language and culture. We know that the answer to most of our issues is within our own culture. We understand the generational trauma that has happened to our people and that we need to heal from it all in order to move forward in a healthy way.

"We know that the answer to most of our issues is within our own culture."

AnnaLee Yellow Hammer

Indigenous youth leader and activist

Archana: Often people do not take into consideration that there are Indigenous people in Asia and in India specifically. For years, Indigenous communities have been looked down on for our culture, our language, and our traditions. We have been told that we are backward or savage because of our way of living, but our practices — like organic farming, protecting biodiversity, and conserving forests — are now being appreciated and recognized. Meaningful participation of Indigenous communities must come from a place of respect.

Indigenous people should be leaders of climate action and not victims of climate policies. I want to make sure that our voices are being heard and we are being taken seriously because the communities that are the least contributors to the climate crisis are often the most affected by it. We need to stop tokenizing the participation of Indigenous people and make them part of the entire policymaking process. For me, climate action is reclaiming spaces for Indigenous communities.

Alice: Although more than 5 million Indigenous people live in Peru, we are seen and treated as minorities. We are diminished and discriminated against. I wish people understood that Indigenous culture should be as respected as mainstream society. There is a lot we can contribute, not only our customs and traditions, but also valuable knowledge that will help tackle the most pressing issues that humanity is facing.

We believe in forging a deep relationship with nature, which we call Pachamama, and our practices have spirituality and sustainability at heart. It’s why our communities are highly resilient to change. We only use what we have and we consume only what we need so our communities are extremely resourceful and independent.

"Indigenous people should be leaders of climate action and not victims of climate policies."

Archana Soreng

Member, UN Secretary-General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change

What are some of the biggest issues affecting your communities today, and especially young members of your communities?

AnnaLee: Poverty, alcohol, drugs, and the lack of housing. Although there are some jobs, there are many barriers to being employed, such as the lack of transportation, child care, the daily cost of getting to work when you have to travel from one of the outlying communities to one of our tribe’s casinos. When you are only making a little over $10 an hour and have to commute anywhere from 30+ miles a day, it makes it very difficult. That is not a livable wage here.

AnnaLee Yellow Hammer is a Lakota activist. She is a member of the UN Foundation’s Young Climate Advocates network. Graphic: UN Foundation.

There are not a lot of opportunities for our young people here on the Standing Rock Reservation. Many children and youth are left unattended or unsupervised. Some are left to care for their siblings or younger relatives. Our youth really want to reclaim our traditional way of life. We know the importance of our language, ceremonies, and culture, but are often criticized and lack the support from some of the older generation. At times, I feel like there is a bit of a generational divide.

Archana: The impacts of climate crises make us more vulnerable — whether it is drought, floods, cyclones. It leads to forced migration to the cities at the cost of our identities. Another threat is extractive development projects, which are taking away the land and the forest from Indigenous communities, or evicting communities altogether, which have huge repercussions in terms of traditional knowledge, health, and our people.

Alice: The main reason my family immigrated from the Andes to Peru is to provide better educational opportunities for me, for my sister, for my cousins. And that is one of the biggest problems: Quality education is not offered in rural communities across Peru. It’s a problem that is very particular to Indigenous communities because education is often not available in Indigenous languages. Children are forced to abandon their culture in some way in order to become educated. The education system here in Peru has not created a space to welcome Indigenous cultures, languages, or the multicultural communities we have here. And that is essential.

Unfortunately, there are not many people — not even adults — who are speaking up for the children who are being disenfranchised from their right to education in Indigenous communities. If it’s not them, then who? It’s me, it’s us, it’s young people within Indigenous communities who have to take action. I always saw education as my opportunity to rise out of poverty. And, thankfully, I got a scholarship that allowed me to learn English and get a good education. And that’s why I’m here, speaking to you, because it has empowered me to speak up. It is important that we take up this space and raise our voices, our opinions, and the things that we have to say in politics, in decision-making, and in our communities.

Each of you is a powerful advocate for Indigenous communities, championing everything from climate action to gender equality to education. How did you first get involved in activism around these issues?

AnnaLee: In 2016, when I first heard about the Dakota Access Pipeline, I was hurt and I was angry, but I knew I wanted to help. My grandfather, the late William “Glenn” Yellow Hammer Jr., grew up in an area called Big Lake. His family was displaced when the Army Corps [of Engineers] created all the dams along the Missouri River. Twice now the Army Corps has proved to us that our lives are expendable and that we don’t matter.

When we created our petition to the Army Corps of Engineers on, we didn’t know how huge this movement would become. We knew the power of social media, but we didn’t expect the world to stand with us in return. To help amplify our voices, we decided to do a run from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to Washington, D.C., to hand-deliver that very petition to the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters. Through this whole movement, I have gained so many mentors and lifelong friends. It has taught me so much.

Alice: Growing up, being an Indigenous female adolescent felt like a triple tragedy because not only is your voice disregarded, but you feel that you cannot do much about it because society tells you that you don’t have a valuable opinion, or you don’t have anything good to contribute to the community, when in reality you do. You have a lot to fight for. When I would speak a word in Quechua, people would say derogatory things to me and my family. That marked me as a child, and it’s still something I struggle with. I rejected my cultural identity throughout my childhood. That’s hard to experience, especially when you’re trying to shape your identity through your teenage years. But as I got older, I started to reconcile with my identity and be proud of my roots and my heritage. I came to an understanding that not only do I need to reconcile with my culture, I need to actively contribute to it.

"Growing up, being an Indigenous female adolescent felt like a triple tragedy."

Alice Paredes

Youth education advocate

If I’ve come this far, it is my duty to help others. It is my duty to support them and be a voice for them. And that is precisely what I want to do.

Archana: If I reflect down deep down on how I got into this, I think there are two things: my personal experience of being brought up in a family where my grandfather was a pioneer of community forest protection practices and [my being] a staunch believer that until and unless we have a sustainable relationship with nature and forest, we will not have a sustainable life. My father was an Indigenous health care practitioner. He said this is traditional knowledge we received from our ancestors, which led me to know more about our culture, our traditions, and our language. When I lost my father, I felt it is our generation who must learn from our elders so we can transfer their traditional knowledge and practices to the next generation.

Archana Soreng is an environmental activist and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Graphic: UN Foundation.

Why is it so important that Indigenous peoples — especially Indigenous women — are fully included when it comes to tackling our biggest challenges?

AnnaLee: Historically, women have always been the backbone of our Indigenous communities, but in modern society it is not seen that way. When it comes to the many issues the world is facing, it is imperative that we have everyone at the table from all walks of life, regardless of their gender identity, socioeconomic status, race, and so on.

Alice: Our beliefs and traditions are also empowering for every member in our community, especially women. We see several examples and living testimonies of strong Indigenous women and female leaders working within and outside the community, defending the rights of their people and just working to create a better reality for their counterparts and everyone else.

Archana: Even if you see Indigenous people represented, it’s mostly men. But Indigenous women are the ones who are often contributing the most. Women have been the backbone of Indigenous communities, whether it’s climate adaptation, taking care of food, [or] income generation. One of the key things that really needs to be emphasized is intergenerational dialogue.

The UN protects and promotes the rights of Indigenous communities across the globe, helping Ingigenous peoples protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.