By Daniell Musaheb

The model and land protector on the need for Indigenous involvement in tackling the climate crisis. From the BIPOC issue.

By Daniell Musaheb. 

Land protector and trailblazing Native American model Quannah Chasinghorse sits with me at the end of New York Fashion Week. A bit surreal, but even more exciting, is that she was labeled by many as the breakout star of the Met Gala, which she attended adorned in ancestral pieces loaned to her by her much-loved Aunt Jocelyn. But the event meant much more to Chasinghorse than an elitist party for New York’s glitterati. She was determined to use the Met Gala to show a true representation of Native Americans and Native beauty, countering the degrading stereotypes and misrepresentations associated with gambling and alcoholism. Her appearance at the Met Gala defied the broken legacy that has inhibited the development of Native culture in American society. After all, Native Americans predate European settlers, yet they are so readily forgotten in what was their own lands. “There’s not enough media or attention around Native American issues,” Chasinghorse says. She is working to change that.

As a child, Chasinghorse lived in Arizona, Mongolia, and Alaska. Her earliest memories are from the years when her mother was teaching English in rural Mongolia. She giggles a bit as she tells a story of getting supplies: “From the ages of 3 to 5, we would have to go into the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for stuff we needed. We would stay in a hotel, and the only thing they would put on TV was this 24/7 fashion runway channel. I would just sit in front of the TV and watch it. I idolized modeling.” 

Mongolia felt like a home away from home. “We lived way out in the middle of nowhere, similar to an Alaskan Native village. It was not very different from what we were used to,” she says. Still, her mother began to long to be back in America again, so they settled at Chasinghorse’s aunt’s home in Arizona before returning to their tribal roots in Alaska. Chasinghorse is Hän Gwich’in of Eagle Village on her mother’s side, and Sicangu-Oglala Lakota of the Rosebud Indian Reservation on her father’s side. Coming from a single-parent family, she was raised primarily in Eagle Village, which is nestled in an expanse of land that is considered one of the last true wildernesses in America. Just 60,000 people live within 24,769 square miles, about the size of West Virginia, and self-sufficiency is a necessity. “When we went back to Alaska, my mom wanted to go back to the old ways,” Chasinghorse says. “She got a dog team, and we hunted and fished for our food.” It’s easy to understand how living on such untouched lands made her want to protect them.  

“I’m really proud of who I am,” she says. “I’ve always been proud of who I am. I’ve never been embarrassed. Ever since I was a kid, everything I did in school … [my culture] has always been ingrained in me. I don’t think there was a moment when I wasn’t proud of being Native.” 

Perhaps it was this self-assurance, coupled with a compulsion to do right, that persuaded Chasinghorse to fight against the historic injustices of her people. The genocide of Native Americans has been largely forgotten in the United States, and the horrific events that followed the arrival of a European explorer are whitewashed and celebrated with parades and department store sales. So when Chasinghorse was in seventh grade, she made a case for Columbus Day to be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and asked a Hän Gwich’in elder to visit her school and speak with its governing body. 

“When I saw him walk in, the amount of weight that fell off my shoulders as a little girl was incredible. It was intimidating to me. He walked in and said, ‘You need to listen to this little girl. She’s telling you what it’s like and the truth of what we go through. You need to start teaching more realistic history,’ ” Chasinghorse says. “The school decided to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and all the schools in town would celebrate that instead.” The day after the meeting, microphone in hand, Chasinghorse informed her school of the change, which was well received.

The feeling of that moment stayed with her and evolved into a mindset that led her to take action against Alaskan oil drilling. For example, she participated in an effort that convinced a number of leading U.S. financial institutions to stop investing in oil and gas drilling projects in Alaska. Her hometown lies within the Arctic Circle, so protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a top priority. In January 2021, the Trump administration tried to sell drilling leases within the refuge, almost as a “farewell gift,” but the sale was a failure, attracting very little interest from oil companies—a huge win for those fighting to protect the land. On this, Chasinghorse says, “Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is paused. When President Biden was elected to office, he said to the people that he would stand with us. We have to hold him accountable to his word and make sure these sacred lands are protected.” 

Chasinghorse confidently labels herself a protector, not an activist. This is partly because “protector” is a term widely used by Native Americans, but it’s also because she distances herself from the term “activist.” She tells me, “I think anyone can be an activist for anything, and that’s beautiful, but I am genuinely protecting my ways of life and protecting my culture, my traditions, and my people, spreading awareness and doing my part for my people. I feel [the words are] different.”

Climate change has already significantly affected the Arctic. Alaska, for example, has seen an average temperature increase of about 2.5°F over the past 50 years, and climate models predict that, in another 30 years, Arctic waters could be ice-free in the late summer, according to the Climate Reality Project. The change in Arctic ecological systems has always seemed abstruse until more recently, with ecologists now warning that moose populations within the states could be gone by the end of the decade. 

The World Bank states that Indigenous peoples protect 80 percent of the earth’s biodiversity. “It’s time to start including Indigenous people’s voices and uplifting Indigenous knowledge,” Chasinghorse says. “We hold many solutions to today’s problems, and no one really talks about that. Many Native nonprofit organizations have done amazing research and incorporated Indigenous values and teachings that can help direct and lead change.” 

Her point is backed up by Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: “Indigenous people must be a part of the solution to climate change. This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot—and must not—be understated.” 

And yet, frustratingly, Indigenous people often lack seats at the table when solutions are being discussed. For example, the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference has no Indigenous organizations as principal partners. While key financiers have a role to play, the solutions they’ve offered and the ideals they represent have failed us. Indigenous communities have a better track record of protecting the environment, and we must allow them to guide us. 

“I represent so much more than just me,” Chasinghorse says. “I represent a whole group of people who are always so shunned or looked down upon. It’s really important to me to break stereotypes and break these barriers that were set in place to harm our people. It’s always felt like a responsibility to me.” Chasinghorse drew attention for her styling choices at the Met Gala, aptly themed “In America.” What she wore put a spotlight on the theme itself, calling for awareness of the position of Native Americans in U.S. culture. “I immediately knew what I wanted to do, but I also asked, ‘What could I bring?’ I instantly thought, ‘This theme is all-American, how am I going to do that?’ I couldn’t—it didn’t sit right with me,” she says. “I thought the best thing to do for an American look is just be myself and bring something traditional with me. Because we’re indigenous to America, we’re Native Americans. I feel that people forget the importance of recognizing what lands you occupy wherever you go.” 

Her decision to represent her culture rather than play along with the crowd is one her most admirable and endearing qualities. It’s easier to fall in line, but Chasinghorse is self-assured and determined. She has always walked the path to her modeling career on her terms, carrying the collective knowledge of her people with her. In one of her first pieces for Calvin Klein, she talks about her heritage on-camera. Her values are equitable and irreversible, and she continues to represent her community and its needs. She has already effected major change through her work. 

Photo by Keri Oberly


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