Indigenous activist, Pennie Opal Plant, talks capitalism, climate change, and protecting our planet

Fireside Chat with Indigenous activist, Pennie Opal Plant 🌎

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes 

Indigenous activist, Pennie Opal Plant, describes herself as a protector and defender of Mother Earth and the sacred systems of life. In this fireside chat, Pennie opens up about her journey, the impact of our current systems on our planet, and how we got to where we are today. 

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  1. Who is Pennie and what’s her journey? 
  2. How did we get to where we are today? 
  3. What’s Pennie’s practice of hope in our current system? 
  4. How does Pennie shift her priorities and invest her energy into the causes she cares about? 
  5. How do movements grow and how can we take action? 

As she reflects on her 40+ years of experience in organizing and movement building, Pennie emphasizes how life is more precarious than it's ever been. 

How did you become a protector and defender of the Earth? 

I’m an Indigenous grandmother, wife, mom, auntie, and protector of Mother Earth and the sacred systems of life. 

When I was a little girl, I wondered: What happened? There shouldn’t be devastating poverty, injustice, and cruelty. I spent most of my life as a child knowing that this isn’t the situation we have to stay in. 

At around 22 years old, I felt like I was supposed to be doing more than I am. This started when I went to see Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian pediatrician who found radiation in breast milk as a result of the French testing of nuclear weapons. She started a global campaign to raise awareness of nuclear everything, where they showed films of US nuclear testings and past nuclear events like Hiroshima. I took my parents and husband to see this campaign, where I realized that humans have acquired the capability to destroy human life and everything on Mother Earth’s belly. I was devastated and wondered how everyone can be walking around thinking everything is normal. This made me realize that I wasn’t able to have a normal life or this “American Dream.” I’m glad this isn’t my life because this compulsion has taken me places that I haven’t been before. I’ve realized that life is more precarious than it’s ever been. 

What is your journey and what are your beliefs? 

Climate has been my primary work for the past 15 years. In 2012, there was legislation in Canada that would limit First Nations folks’ ability to be First Nation folks because the tar sands project was being put in place. Indigenous people around the world took Idle No More actions by playing drums, singing songs, and speaking in places that are causing harm to the sacred systems of life. 

By March 2013, I started a chapter called Idle No More SF Bay with a group of Indigenous grandmothers and it’s still functioning today.  There’s an early concept adopted by our grandmothers that we have no human enemies. Instead, enemies are the thought forms that created separation, colonization, and capitalism. To move forward in the best possible way, we all need to move together. I know it’s hard to imagine that happening in our political climate, but even though people think differently, they love their children and grandchildren, and they want the best for their families and future generations. 

The grounding point of Idle No More is that a lot of indigenous people, especially in North America, believe that we are in the middle of seven generations forward and seven generations back. I know that my ancestors seven generations back were praying for me to have a good life, and to be healthy and strong. Then, I pray for my seven generations in the future and the future of my grandchildren’s grandchildren. This gives us a different perspective on time and I hope that we are still here 100,000 years from now. 

Other than that, I also did a lot of action in the Bay Area refineries. There are five oil refineries along the northeast part of the San Francisco Bay and we had refinery workers join us for actions. We would pray at the gates of these refineries for the people that work at the refineries, the security guards, and the police. It would help calm them down and they would start to understand us (most of the time, not always). 

How do you describe our current system today? 

Our current iteration rose out of separation, colonization, and capitalism. The sacred system of life is at more risk than it has been. Looking back in recent history after the World Wars, the economy was devastated and everyone was coming back from the war. The US colluded with housing developers and created the suburbs. Before this time, there were three to four generations of people living together, but suburbs led to one nuclear family in each house. We went from multi-family to single-family household because governments provided loans for the men returning from WW2. They had special programs to get people to move into single-family homes. 

The economy exploded because each household needed one of everything — laundry machines, lawnmowers, cars. So, capitalism and consumer culture exploded. This led to what we have now, our climate chaos. 

Even so, climate reports from COP show that the system itself is preventing us from saving ourselves. There were more fossil fuels representatives at COP than Indigenous people. They would have more opportunities to talk to negotiators and people who are making these decisions. 

How do you shift your priorities and invest your energy into the causes you care about? 

There’s a lot of things to pay attention to. To not get dissuaded, I pay attention to what is coming to me. For example, the nuclear situation was worse than it was since I worked on it in the 80s. But I feel that we can do something about the climate. 

One movement is the Rights of Nature Movement, which is twenty-five years old. In the last ten years, it exploded around the world. The movement is based on the original instructions of Indigenous people. Original instructions are instructions given to tribal people around the world on how to be in the environment you’re existing in. The basis of the Rights of Nature movement has transformed into passing laws and working with governments to ensure that resources are protected. 

It’s important to know that there’s no separation between people and the resources that give life. I once took a delegation of Indigenous people to see how New Zealand recognizes the rights of the Whanganui River. The Maori people say, “I am the river and the river is me.” They worked with the crown government to recognize the rights of the river. The river now has two guardians, the Maori and the crown guardians. 

There are many rivers around the world that have laws recognizing the river’s right to live and exist for life forms to procreate. I think this is the fastest-growing movement and the quickest way forward. I am now working with the tribes in Oklahoma to pass the rights of two rivers to help get their water cleaned. 

What’s your practice of hope in our current system? 

I would say I cultivated hope. I have a personal community and amazing friends who are phenomenal women that are compassionate and driven. I also have a deep spiritual foundation. 

I understand that if we don’t make it, Mother Earth will come up with all different life forms. This makes me feel calm and soothes my being. Humans are not the culmination of everything. We are just a tiny little part of the natural system of life. 

It doesn’t mean that I don’t have my days. It took me a while to figure out what was happening internally. I was very upset and discouraged. I went through a period of time to adjust and examine myself, and decide what I would do. This took a couple of years, but I started to reshape what I was doing in the future. I used to organize marches for the past forty years, but I’m not doing that anymore. Now, I’m an artist and a published poet. 

It’s important to know when you don’t feel in alignment. Know when you’re in alignment with yourself and know when it feels like it’s sidelined. Ask yourself: What do you need to do to come back into alignment with yourself? What do you need to do today for the greater good? What do you need to look forward to in order to work on making things better for life? 

How do we contribute to fast-growing movements? What are the first steps to showing up? 

I encourage you to watch online webinars. You can go to Movement Rights, 350.org, or follow Bill McKibben. Pay attention to climate scientists. I follow Michael Mann on Twitter and look at who he’s following, which is other climate scientists. Also, go to Global Alliance Rights of Nature. It’s about the rights of Mother Earth who gives us everything we need to exist. 

But, pay attention to what is exciting you. See what you can offer. Reach out to people in organizations you’re interested in and say, “This is what I have to offer.” 

How do we take action?

I always ask others, “What are your gifts and talents that make you happy? What gives you joy?” Take that and put it into the movement that you’re in alignment with  — a movement that you feel a kinship to. This will help you in the long run because so many people get involved in movements out of obligation, and that leads to burnout. 

Also, take care of yourselves! When I was a baby activist, I felt that I was too invested and realized I needed to roll back and find ways to restore myself. Remember it’s all about relationships with yourself and the world. 

Any last thoughts? 

Do what you can because life is short. Make sure you’ve done everything you wanted in your life without hurting anybody. Be fearless, courageous, compassionate, loving, and fierce in this world. 

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Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

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