Lessons in Environmental Leadership

Fall 2012 –

It is tradition in many indigenous cultures that the men are responsible for the fire and the women are
responsible for the water, so its not hard to understand that when that water starts making members of the tribe sick, its the women who begin wondering why and advocating for a solution.

Miami University professor, and indigenous peoples expert, Roxanne Ornelas spoke in front of the
Honors class Lesson in Leadership on Monday about her experience working with the Anishinawbe tribe
and the leadership of the women in that tribe to raise awareness of affects water pollution was having
on their population.

Those of us not living on indigenous lands dont realize that they are the ones who suffer the effects of
industrial water pollution the hardest because they depend on the lakes and rivers for their survival,
explained Ornelas, who began looking into the environmental leadership in indigenous populations
in her native Minnesota in 2007. The women were witnessing the disastrous health affects the
contaminated waterways were having on their tribes and decided that it was their job to do something
about it.

Ornelas told the leadership class how these women initiated water walks around the Great Lakes to
bring to the countrys attention that the lakes, which are sacred in their culture, were being polluted
by industrial chemicals, car emissions, motorboats, agricultural run-off and other harmful made-made
substances in 2003.

Since then I continue to follow their progress and how theyve gone about getting the word out and
its inspiring, she explained. The next generation is even doing things on their own and there is change
resulting from their work.

Those changes include the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights adopted in 2007 that gives
those people rights to their own institutions and the ability to follow their traditions and celebrate their
culture. (Although, the United States was one of four nations not accept the declaration immediately,
its principles have since been recognized by the federal government.)

That was very important for the Anishinawbe because the water and its resources are such an
important part of their culture and their traditions, said Ornelas. However, she stated there is still a lot
of work to be done to ensure the water is protected for future generations.

I thought it was an eye-opening presentation, said Charlotte Freeman, one of the leadership classs
facilitators. It wasnt just about leadership, but a real drive for social change about an issue that I
wasnt really aware of.

Freeman said Ornelas was picked to speak to the class because of the desire to get different
perspectives on leadership from many different areas throughout the semester.

So I think hearing about the Anishinawbe womens leadership in environmental advocacy is really
helpful for the class, she explained. It shows how when you see a problem in your own community,
you can take the initiative to try to make a change and benefit future generations.

To learn more about the Anishinawbe women and their water walks go to


By: Bridget Vis

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