Activist gets candid about pollution fears: 'Climate anxiety is real, especially for a young Indigenous woman'

Alaska-based Curyung activist Ruth Miller. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Alaska-based Curyung activist Ruth Miller. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference. In honor of Earth Day 2022, Yahoo Life speaks to Indigenous youth activists fighting for climate justice.

The most recent oil spill in Alaska is weighing heavily on Ruth Miller. In late March, in her home of Alaska, a boat carrying fuel tanks ran aground in Neva Strait and leaked thousands of gallons of oil into the water. Now the 25-year-old climate-justice activist can't wipe from her mind the image of the local herring, or yaaw, which were getting ready to spawn and lay their eggs, leaving local subsistence harvesters to suffer the most, she says.

"There are lots of days when I feel totally hopeless," says Miller, who has been advocating for environmental and climate justice since she was 15. "Climate anxiety is real, especially for a young Indigenous woman." Born and raised in the Dena'ina homelands of Dgheyay Kaq, otherwise known as Anchorage, Alaska, Miller is a member of Curyung Tribe. She's also Ashkenazi Jewish from her father's side.

"My name is Lchav’aya K’isen, which means Whirlwind Woman in the Dena’ina language," Miller says.

Her parents, both Indigenous-rights lawyers, have been talking to her from an early age about how human rights and her heritage intersect with the land around her. And she's seen it all threatened first-hand, remembering, when she was a little girl, "where king salmon used to run in bounty and in abundance," but now, she says, "because of the port of Anchorage, all of those fish are absolutely decimated."

Miller also grew up hearing stories about how her Indigenous ancestors thrived for 30,000 years, "seeking to live in balance and in reciprocity with the natural world." Now, she notes, "as we face a climate crisis… committed by the process of colonization and massive industrialization that has been forced on our lands, we know that it'll be our traditional practices that bring us back into harmony and balance."

After graduating from Brown University in 2019 with a BA in Critical Development Studies and a focus on Indigenous resistance and liberation, she became the Climate Justice Director for Alaska's Native Movement, which she describes as "a grassroots matriarchal, Indigenous nonprofit." In that full-time role, Miller has led youth delegations to national and international climate conferences, including United Nations climate-change conferences COP25 and COP26, and worked on the ground locally to advance a range of grassroots climate justice solutions for Alaska.

And her experience leading up to that has been extensive: She was one of the youngest Capitol Hill interns to date in the office of former Sen. Mark Begich (AK-D), and beyond attending the COPs, she's been at gatherings including the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, UN Youth Climate Summit and the Continental Gathering of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA). 

She's also a founding member of the Fireweed Collective, a statewide alliance of young Alaskans dedicated to activating Gen Z for a sustainable Alaska.

"I'm lucky to have a job doing this work, but it is a moral and ancestral imperative that we carry as the Earth's external stewards to teach our ways of relating and to teach our values of reciprocity and respect that have been abandoned," Miller says of the "many hats" she wears. "And then that abandonment and negligence is what got us to the crisis. We must now try to recover."

She stresses that "the worldview of all Indigenous peoples is founded on deep relationships." And a deep relationship with the land validates Indigenous science and Indigenous ways of knowing the land and how it has allowed us "to exist sustainably and in harmony for millennia," she explains. "These are principles and values that can be integrated into modern industry — and must be — in order to repair our relationship with our nonhuman relatives. But also to ensure survival."

Her advice for anyone "who has had their heart strings pulled on Earth Day" and wants to know what they can do to create change, "is to engage and educate yourself," Miller says. "You need to be willing to challenge the assumptions that were fed to you … to build something more inclusive and more righteous. I really implore readers and listeners to take it upon themselves to seek their own decolonization of the mind and learn how to be in better alignment with the Indigenous communities around you."

She adds, "I think that we can only contribute to this movement towards justice in a good way if we ground ourselves in compassion, and that has to begin with compassion for yourself."

Spreading some of that to others won't hurt, either. Like on a recent day in April, when Ruth was making the rounds to deliver the apparently resilient herring eggs — the gathering of which along shorelines is a beloved Native tradition and a sign of spring — to her loved ones, noting, on Instagram (above), how "electrifying" the first Native food of the year is. "The precious Herring eggs felt all the more valuable," she wrote, "considering the overfishing and oil spills the yaaw had to navigate this year."

Find all of Yahoo Life's Earth Day profiles here.

Video produced by Olivia Schneider:

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