Lighting the Way

Young people never fail to amaze me. I remember once, a few summers ago, I went to a demonstration with some folks I had met at school. We were going to help defend Lake Michigan and the waters that flow into her from a plant being built there that had the potential to do a lot of damage. It had been a tense fight and at that point we knew that we were losing the battle. But it felt important to at least let the waters know we were there and we were trying.

It was 90 degrees in the shade, with unbearable humidity, and it was an incredibly still sort of day. I was in a caravan of mostly Native folks and we stuck out very obviously in a crowd of mostly non-Natives. We marched for most of the day. Out there with us was a little girl in full regalia, about eight or nine. She was one of the organizers’ daughters. While all of us adults were sweating bullets and draining our water bottles after every way station, she seemed so cool and calm. She held her shawl about her shoulders with a stately dignity and never wavered in her energy, until eventually she found herself at the front of the line. I stayed with her just to add an extra pair of eyes for her safety should anything get bad. We got to talking. She mentioned, quite casually, how baffling it was to her that people didn’t understand that water is finite. There’s a lot of it, sure, but it’s very hard to get and the amount you can get becomes almost pointless if you’re poisoning it.

It was obvious from the way she said it that she wasn’t trying to put anyone down, nor was she trying to impress me. I asked her to continue her thoughts, and for the next hour or so, she told me all about the climate and the water and the animals. It was this lovely mix of scientific fact, social values, and just plain old beautiful childhood wonder. The world was still so new and full of joy for her, and it was that simple sort of love that made her want to protect it. She came from an activist family, but it was plain that her insight was purely her own. After all, you can drag any kid to water, but you can’t make them cherish it. When the time came to say goodbye, she raised her little fist at me and said, “We’ll get them next time.”

I think about that little girl often when I see other young leaders like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power with a voice that seems so beyond their years. The youth that I meet in my work are so often the first ones to point out inconsistencies, to call us out for our slip-ups. The little ones in my family startle me with their insight and righteous fury, their absolute commitment to a better world. As an adult, there is a part of me that feels justifiably angry that they have do that—we should not have let it get this bad. It is not fair that they cannot just be kids.

But their voices are also necessary. With adulthood comes no shortage of obstacles to that purity. We all get caught up in bills and business, grades and extracurriculars. Politics colors our every experience. By comparison, the absolute clarity and lack of guile that comes from the voice of a child cuts like a knife through whatever else it is I’m worried about that day. It makes me want to be the sort of person I needed when I was their age. These youth, through their courage, are reminding us how to be better big sisters and brothers, aunties and uncles, mothers and fathers, community members, and, ultimately, better ancestors.

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