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Ruth Miller: Alaska Native Approaches Climate Crisis with Radical Compassion

TURNAGAIN, ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, UNITED STATES - 2009/06/18: Coastal sunset scenic. | Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2019, Ruth Miller was one of three people selected from an audience of nearly 2,000 young Americans to personally address the United Nations Secretary-General at U.N.A-U.S.A.’s Global Engagement Summit. She decided to ask the Secretary-General about the climate crisis.

“I cannot think of a more pressing global issue that encompasses both the economic relationships of our world, the social relationships of our world, and the preservation of our planet,” she later told the U.N. Foundation in an interview

Ruth Miller attends Brown University's first Indigenous People's Day celebration as a sophomore in 2016. | Nick Dentamaro / Brown University
Ruth Miller attends Brown University's first Indigenous People's Day celebration as a sophomore in 2016. | Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Miller was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and is a member of the Dena’ina Athabascan Alaska Native tribe. Her father comes from an Ashkenazi Jewish background. Both of her parents are Indigenous rights lawyers. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied critical development studies with a focus on Indigenous resistance and liberation. 

During her time in college, she took part in the Ivy Native Council Conference, and led the student group Natives at Brown. She was also a programmer for the Native American Heritage Series and one of 11 Brown students who occupied the Standing Rock reservation during the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Upon her graduation in 2019, she was the first Indigenous student speaker to deliver a commencement speech at Brown. She spoke on the importance of radical compassion.

In her speech, Miller recalled the anxiety that kept her up at night as a child, and how her mother would comfort her by reminding her that she came from a long line of Indigenous “warrior women.”

“Trauma and violence play dark roles in the history of both my peoples, and maybe this echo crept into my mind at night in vulnerable moments,” she said, later continuing, “Now I am leaving Brown with a new idea of how to be a warrior. I will fight with compassion. I will stop thinking of destruction and instead towards reimagining and rebuilding. Generating seeds of change and helping them grow, instead of just battling the weeds.”

When she was just 16, Miller interned with former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, becoming one of the youngest interns on Capitol Hill. 

“That was my first introduction to not only how a young person could get involved in political advocacy within government, but it also exposed me to the many different platforms that Indigenous advocacy can take. I had the opportunity to work on bills that allowed for traditional foods to be served in public centers, for example,” she told the U.N. Foundation.

She went on to work for the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, an Alaska consortium of 15 regional tribes that fight against environmental exploitation. At the time, the organization was lobbying against Pebble Mine, a copper mining project that will negatively affect surrounding waterways and destroy salmon fishing in the area if it ends up coming to fruition. She became involved with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help local community residents write testimonies about the decades-long battle that continues today.

Miller has also appeared on a global stage through participating in various U.N. convenings, She has spoken about decolonizing and indigenizing the international space at the U.N.A. Global Engagement Summit, the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and at U.N. Youth, according to her bio on Sustain U.S. This past December, she attended the U.N.’s COP25 climate change conference in Madrid along with activists from around the world. In September 2019 at the U.N.’s climate action summit, she spoke to NowThis News about how crucial prioritizing Indigenous women’s voices in discussions about climate justice is. She said the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is directly tied to the exploitation of Indigenous land.

“When we’re talking about climate change, we are not just talking about environmental issues. We are talking about women’s rights,” she said. “We are talking about cultural rights, religious rights. Climate change affects everyone in just about every way.” 

Top Image: TURNAGAIN, ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, UNITED STATES - 2009/06/18: Coastal sunset scenic. | Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

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