Honor With Action: 10 Ways to be an Ally to Indigenous Peoples

by Katie Myer and Kaitlin Grable

October 8, 2021

To be an ally to Indigenous Peoples, we must follow their lead, acknowledge the immense damage of capitalism, and work tirelessly to heal our planet.

Thousands Rally in Support of Native Nation in Washington, D.C.

© Amanda J. Mason / Greenpeace

In the US, Indigenous Peoples’ Day began as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day, and it has grown in both popularity and adoption in recent years. But the holiday is simply performative without year-round action by non-Indigenous settlers to honor the critical role Indigenous Peoples play in protecting our climate, water, and lands—both today and in the centuries prior to colonization. Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples requires a steadfast commitment to learning, unlearning, and demanding change.

It is especially critical to uplift their voices. We know that climate change impacts fall disproportionately on Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and poor communities. There is no climate justice without environmental justice—and environmental justice requires that we respect the knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples.

How non-Native people can work to be an active ally to Indigenous Peoples:

1. Learn about the people native to where you live and visit.

Beyond learning their names, seek out their histories and who they are today. How did they live in harmony with the land? Which promises did the US government make—and then break? Land acknowledgments in your meetings or introductions is merely a starting point. Make a plan to support Indigenous communities in your area by donating money to local Indigenous organizations, supporting their movements and campaigns, or committing to returning land. Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples means grappling with the fact that you live on stolen land.

2. Remove harmful stereotypes and Indigenous erasure language from your lexicon.

Pow-wow is not a word to substitute for meetings. Spirit animal is not your term to use. If you are not Indigenous, you are not a native Chicagoan; you are a Chicago local or born and raised Chicagoan. He isn’t the low man on the totem pole; he’s the new hire. These terms may seem harmless, but they are not. Language has power. Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples means showing Native people respect by changing your language.

3. Educate yourself about the structural discrimination towards and intentional elimination of Native tribes.

The violent acts of genocide towards Indigenous Peoples directly led to systemic health and wealth disparities that exist today. Though you didn’t learn about it in school, North American colonial history includes the horrors of forced residential schooling and assimilation of Indigenous children—and the widespread abuse and murder of Indigenous Peoples.

As a starting point, Megan Tipler offers this collection of resources about residential schools.


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4. Support Indigenous Peoples as they protect their land from destructive, extractive practices.

Indigenous resistance is a key component in the environmental movement here. Indigenous Peoples are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, protecting some of the most endangered lands, as well as the water, animals, and people to which they provide a home.

Industries like mining, logging, and fossil fuels are some of the largest perpetuating factors of violence, trafficking, and murder against Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. In the Americas, Indigenous Peoples are on the frontlines of the fight against fossil fuels; both their people and lands bear the brunt of the pollution. Those of us with representation must demand that Congress stop subsidizing the industry that destroys both Indigenous lands and lives.

“The abuse of women is well known in history, and tells you a lot about what is happening on our earth.” – LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock Sioux

Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples means we recognize their centuries of resistance and stand alongside them as they fight to protect their lives and the planet.


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5. Think twice before claiming Native ancestry.

If you are a white American who claims Native ancestry, you must understand that being Indigenous is not about DNA percentages or a family story about a Cherokee princess in your lineage. It’s about who claims you, your lived experience as a part of an Indigenous community, and how you show up for the community you claim to be a part of.

Rebecca Nagle is a Cherokee writer and advocate, living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She states, “Pretendians perpetuate the myth that Native identity is determined by the individual, not the tribe or community, directly undermining tribal sovereignty and Native self-determination. To protect the rights of Indigenous people, pretendians…must be challenged and the retelling of their false narratives must be stopped.”

6. Diversify your sources of education and entertainment.

Representation matters. We know that. Unfortunately, it’s up to us to show that we want and need to see different faces and hear different voices.

To be an ally to Indigenous Peoples, we must: Seek out Native media. Read books by Indigenous authors. Watch shows and movies written by and starring Native actors. Share those that you enjoy—and especially those that challenge and make you uncomfortable—with friends and family.


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7. Respect the hard-earned knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous tribes.

They have a long history of a symbiotic, respectful relationship with the land. To truly heal our planet, we must not only put a stop to extractive capitalist practices, but shift our mindset to living with the earth and all of its species in harmony. Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples means actively learning from them.

8. Follow and share content from Indigenous leaders.

If you use social media, you can hear directly from Indigenous leaders. This thread is just a start of people we’ve been learning from. As you are able, compensate them for their work and emotional labor.

9. Demand an end to the use of Native mascots.

Native culture is not a costume. Racist stereotypes and mascots are dehumanizing and harmful to the mental health of Indigenous Peoples. If your local school or alma mater has a mascot using a term related to Indigenous Peoples, it is both hostile and actively damaging. Claims from team owners or fans that it is a sign of respect are bogus. We must demand change.

Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples requires speaking up. Write to a local principal or the school board. Boycott the NFL or NCAA. Refuse to support these teams and schools for being racist, derogatory, and offensive. Same for road names, school names, buildings named after white men who implemented anti-Indigenous policies or led wars against Indigenous Peoples.


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10. Support the call for Indigenous sovereignty and Land Back.

Restoring stolen lands to Indigenous Peoples will truly upend the power of greedy polluters and ensure climate justice for all.

If you have access to land and are interested in returning it to Indigenous Peoples, begin building relationships with the community to initiate the process. If you live in Seattle, you can make rent payments to the Duwamish Tribe. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can make financial contributions to the Shuumi Land Tax, which directly supports the rematriation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous Peoples. And there’s the Manna-hatta Fund if you live in New York. If you don’t live in these areas, look for ways to support the tribes whose lands you reside on (and if you don’t know who they are, go back to #1 in this list to find out).

Being an ally to Indigenous Peoples takes work beyond a single holiday.

It is hard to acknowledge the brutal, cruel conditions under which our country was founded. It can be painful for non-Indigenous Americans to realize that “manifest destiny” has always been a lie to enable fortune-seeking, destruction, and death at all costs—and always at the expense of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Peoples.

Now that we all know the truth, it is our duty and responsibility to educate ourselves and take action. It is our privilege to shift the narrative. The onus is on each of us to honor Indigenous Peoples across the planet, respectfully acknowledging the damage our collective commitment to capitalism has caused, and to work tirelessly to heal our planet.

Be humble and keep learning—especially when it’s hard.


By Katie Myer and Kaitlin Grable

Katie Myer (she/her), Digital Content Strategist, believes in the power of storytelling and art to build empathy and connections that drive social change. She brings technology, UX, and communications expertise from both the for- and non-profit sectors to her role at Greenpeace USA.

Kaitlin Grable (she/they) is an Online Content Specialist at Greenpeace USA. She is currently based out of Durham, North Carolina on Eno and Occaneechi territory.

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