Janene Yazzie: Woman with a Mission

By Jerilyn Bowen

As a Diné/Navajo woman who early on dedicated herself to living a life worth living, Janene Yazzie holds a vision for the future in which indigenous nations provide both the model and the leadership for a sustainable way of life on Planet Earth for all peoples.  

Born in Gallup, NM and raised nearby, Yazzie comes from a family that has always lived in the Rio Puerco Valley.  As a teenager she volunteered at Battered Family Services in Gallup, a program her mother ran in a time when that was a daring and much-needed service.  It was there that Yazzie awakened to her calling to serve her community and sought out a first-rate high school education before matriculating at Barnard College, the all-woman’s wing of Columbia University in New York City.    

While working three jobs, at Barnard and Columbia Yazzie took an ambitious combination of pre-law, pre-med, and women’s studies courses but wound up specializing in the field of human rights and international politics.  One of her principal mentors was Sandy Grande, whose book Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought provided a groundbreaking vision of what indigenous education can and should be. With Grande’s support, upon graduation Yazzie built a career that eventually led her to become the Sustainable Development Program Coordinator for the International Indian Treaty Council, whom she also represents as co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) for Sustainable Development that is engaged with the U.N. High-level Political Forum on 2030 Sustainable Development, a post she carries out part-time.  

Meanwhile, she married a man she’d met in college who was also establishing a career when they had their first child.  It was not long before they realized that prospective six-figure jobs would be all-consuming and leave them no time for their young son and other things that mattered greatly.  So they decided to leave it all behind and move to Yazzie’s ancestral homeland, where they could raise their children in a close-knit community and do something that felt more meaningful with their lives.  Looking back, Yazzie observes, “Every step of the way, we’ve had to create our own path.”    

Once settled in, together they founded Sixth World Solutions, a consulting firm that works with local Diné communities to generate environmentally sound policies and programs designed to foster a healthy, sustainable, and self-governing way of life.  In Yazzie’s view, New Mexico presents a beautiful opportunity for strengthening rural communities in this way while also building mutually beneficial urban-rural bonds.  

Yazzie brings to her work a Think Globally, Act Locally perspective in which the big picture informs the immediate at-hand reality, and vice-versa.  In light of the fact that biodiversity of plants and animals is key to surviving climate disruption, she points out that 80% of the remaining biodiverse lands of the earth are inhabited by indigenous people but those people have rights over only 10% of that territory.  Their communities are also on the front lines of the devastation created by extractive practices and exploitative development.  

Yazzie observes that, when environmental advocates push for clean alternatives to fossil fuels, the model for that needed transition tends to be a market-driven one that fails to take into account the hidden human and environmental costs of, for instance, solar and wind technologies that depend on lithium that is mined from indigenous lands.  There is also no plan for the disposal of defunct solar panels containing toxic substances.  

With this in mind, Yazzie advocates that environmental rescue be coupled with respect for human rights and based on small-scale, locally based solutions that don’t replicate the massive corporate energy empires that are ravaging the planet.  “When you come from people who are deeply committed to respecting our relations to all living things, you look at solutions differently,” she says.  She notes too that when citizens undertake hands-on sustainability projects close to home, that can be an empowering antidote to despair over the state of the world. 

The Feminist Peace Initiative is another arena in which Yazzie is working to connect the dots and raise public consciousness.  Harking back to the mass movements of the 1960s, this initiative aims to educate the public about the connection between U.S. domestic and foreign policy so as to reveal how public resources are being drained by the bloated military budget at the expense of human needs here at home.  

Right across the board Yazzie recognizes the connective tissue that binds seemingly separate problems together and questions the received wisdom that activists should take on only one issue in isolation from others.  She points out that a single-issue focus loses the richness of the interconnections among urgent problems that share a common root and prevents an effective strategy for addressing that root cause. For one instance among many, Yazzie sees racism as a public health issue and uses an open-ended coaching approach to racial equity dialogues that allows for the underlying connection to emerge. Overall, it’s the system that needs to be changed, she says, not the symptoms.  This systemic perspective is the basis of any compelling narrative that leads to meaningful action. 

In Diné culture, lineages are traced through mothers.  Before the imposition of European patriarchal structures, it was the women who owned land and livestock and the women who decided if and when the men went to war. When in 1867 theDiné men were being pressured to accept a deal to end their imprisonment at Ft. Sumner by relocating their people to the newly established “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma, the Diné women rose up and refused to take that option. Thanks to their far-sighted courageous defiance, the Diné people were able to return to their ancestral homeland the following year. 

Yazzie has this to say to the young women who follow in the footsteps of such foremothers: “Take time to find your voice and create the vision you have for your life.  No matter what work you choose to do, no matter what path your life takes, you will come to challenging moments when you doubt yourself.  At times we all get disconnected from our innate wisdom and inner power.  I want each of you to have something you can hold onto in those moments of self-doubt.”