Terisa Siagatonu, an award-winning poet, teaching artist and mental health educator, spoke Tuesday about Indigenous perspectives on climate change. Her lecture focused on the Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii and redefining the climate justice movement through artistic contributions and Indigenous ways of knowing. 

Siagatonu performed two spoken-word poems that she wrote for her appearance at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. She didn’t initially understand why she had been invited to the Summit, she said, but she soon realized that artists played an important role in translating climate change into something that is “captivating” to ordinary people, for whom climate change can often be an issue that is too remote or too overwhelming to contend with. 

Siagatonu emphasized the role of artists in making social change. “Culture changes faster than policy,” she said, so artists have enormous power through things like social media and trends to shift narratives surrounding societal issues. Artists can also wield the power of imagination, and according to Siagatonu, “we are in dire need of a radical re-imagination of a world different and better than this one.”

As part of her role as an artist, Siagatonu uses language to “shift narratives” to focus on marginalized people, especially when it comes to climate change. “It’s Indigenous, Black and brown folks who are affected first and most,” Siagatonu said. Indigenous ways of knowing — or ways of thinking about relationships, learning and the world informed by Indigenous cultures — can also provide important perspectives on climate justice, according to Siagatonu, such as the understanding that one does not own the earth, but instead is a part of it. Siagatonu referred to the Native Hawaiian notion of kuleana, or responsibility to the land, as an example of an Indigenous perspective on climate justice. 

Siagatonu showed the audience a video produced by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa that depicted Native Hawaiian activists’ efforts to prevent the construction of an 18-story telescope on Mauna Kea, one of the most sacred Indigenous sites on the Hawaiian Islands. The activists are not opposed to science, but are opposed to “irresponsible decision-making in science” that would destroy sacred land, said Pualani Case, who spoke in the video. “If you take the most sacred,” Case said, “what would we have left?”

Native Hawaiian elders, called Kupuna, have called upon younger generations to protect Mauna Kea from desecration, Siagatonu said. The activists have blocked the single access road to the site since July, according to an Oct. 29 article by the Harvard Crimson. In addition to fulfilling their kuleana, Siagatonu said, they are also modelling a “post-capitalist, post-revolution society.” At the protest sites, there is free childcare, free elder care, free education and a prioritization of local Native sovereignty, Siagatonu said. 

There were also interactive portions of the presentation, including two free-write opportunities. The first prompt asked students to write for about five minutes about a time when they were protecting something or someone. Students said they wrote about friends, values and their heritage, among other topics. Toward the end of the presentation, a second prompt asked students to imagine “what life would be like if everything was treated as sacred. If everyone fulfilled their kuleana.” 

Siagatonu holds a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Master of Arts in Marriage/Family Therapy from the University of Southern California. In addition to performing in slam poetry competitions, she facilitates workshops, leads artistic and professional development trainings and provides mental health clinical support, according to her website. Her identity as a queer Samoan woman and activist is integral to her work in the fields of youth advocacy, Indigenous rights, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights, also per her website. 

The event was organized by the Brandeis Asian American Task Force, a group dedicated to promoting Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies at Brandeis. Siagatonu also performed her poetry on Wednesday in Bethlehem Chapel.