restricted access The Challenge of Speaking First
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The Challenge of Speaking First

In 2000 I invited Simon Ortiz and Teresa Leal, co-chair of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, to the North American Conference on Environment and Community in Reno, Nevada. I had asked Simon to participate, with Teresa, on a roundtable that would focus on how artists, activists, scholars, and teachers can work together to achieve the goals of the environmental justice movement, which advocates for the right of all people to benefit equally from a safe and clean environment. Waiting for a delayed flight, Simon, Teresa, and I found ourselves in the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, drinking coffee and eating bagels. Simon and Teresa had never met before and they were clearly enjoying the opportunity to talk about who they knew in common, what places they had both visited, and what civil rights and environmental actions they had each participated in.

I remember feeling privileged to be sitting with these two. Each had contributed so much, to use Simon's words, "for the sake of the land and all people." Teresa (Opata/Mayo) had been on the front lines, fighting against the contamination of workers and their environments since her days working in the fields with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. Simon had been writing about his own people, the Acoma, and other Native American peoples since the 1960s, drawing connections between such events as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and modern day corporate colonization of American Indian labor and resources and the consequent social breakdown in native communities and toxic degradation of the surrounding environment. "When I write," [End Page 57] he would say at the roundtable discussion that took place the next day, "I write as an Indian, or native person, concerned with his environmental circumstances and what we have to do to fight for a good kind of life" (Adamson 16).

"Fighting for a good kind of life" is one of the most powerful themes running through Simon's writings and certainly one of the most urgent goals of the environmental justice movement. In the preamble to the seventeen "Principles of Environmental Justice" created at the 1991 First National People of Color Summit in Washington, D.C., delegates declared their right to "secure our political, economic, and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples" (qtd. in Di Chiro 307). In interviews and readings throughout the 1990s, Simon was talking about the right of indigenous peoples to fight for their own liberation in terms very similar to those in the preamble. In Winged Words, he told interviewer Laura Coltelli,

[this] process of colonization, that is, usurping the indigenous power of the people, taking their land and resources and language and heritage away—that has to be struggled against. [. . .] You have to fight it, to keep what you have, what you are, because they are trying to steal your soul, your spirit, as well as your land.


The fight against colonization, he said when I first met him during the 1992 "Poetics and Politics: Reading by Native American Writers Series" in Tucson, Arizona, has to begin with "responsibility" and "advocacy." "Native American writers," he explained, "have to be responsible to their source, it's an advocacy position in a way, to be able to continue as who we are, to sustain ourselves and to be nourished by our cultural source, then you have to be an advocate, but an advocate that is responsible" ("Poetics and Politics").

Simon's observation that there is a fine line to walk in advocacy and that advocacy must begin with a "responsibility to the source," resonates strongly with many of the discussions I have had with [End Page 58] Teresa Leal over the past several years. Just the other day, we were speaking of Simon, reminiscing about our pleasant conversation with him at Sky Harbor, and thinking about the challenges of being a person willing to speak first. She told me,

It is hard, Joni, to be the first one to speak. Especially if you are Indian. Indians must always...