A Wave of Change: Xiuhtezcatl and Nick Tilsen
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

A Wave of Change: Xiuhtezcatl and Nick Tilsen



Over the last few years, youth activists have taken on the climate crisis as the cause of their lives, largely because it will determine the course of them. And yet, as these leaders and organizers tell their environmental heroes—the ones who paved the way and inspired them to fight in the first place—they can’t do it alone.

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This interview was conducted before Election Day on November 3rd, 2020 and appears in Atmos Volume 04: Cascade. Click here to order your copy.


We’re living in such unprecedented times. My life has changed a lot in the last two years. One catalyst for that change in my life has been this initiative with the organization I’ve worked with for a long time called Earth Guardians, which is this Indigenous youth leadership training initiative. It began last year: We brought 30, 40 powerful Indigenous leaders out onto the land in Arkansas and tried something that we hadn’t done before at Earth Guardians, where we opened up a training space to talk about organizing tools, community building, Indigenous sovereignty, and resilience, but also opened up a space for healing.


It showed us how important prayer, ceremony, and communal healing are as a part of our journey to protect our communities, to defend our people. And that training wouldn’t have been possible without you, Nick, without the NDN Collective, without y’all’s support. We were really fortunate and really grateful to have you on this last digital five-week training to talk about your story. One of the things you talked about is confronting and healing trauma as a part of our work to heal our communities. That has solidified itself as a pillar of how I see the way that we must go forward in the world. I would love to hear some of your thoughts around what that work can look like. I think it’s a very unique conversation for Indigenous peoples.

Nick Tilsen

When young people ask for support, I feel deeply humbled and honored to step into that role. I don’t feel like [we are] the knowledge-holders. It’s like we have collective knowledge. You guys have knowledge that we don’t have, lived experience that we don’t have. I started as a young organizer growing up, and the crazy thing is, everybody is all about the youth until the youth get power, and then people are scared.


I always remember saying to myself, If I get the opportunity, I’m not going to shut down young people like I was shut down in meetings when I was younger. I’m going to try to find a pathway to lift them up. But that takes actual action. For me, I started thinking, You know what? This is going to really create a wave of change for our people if we can display what intergenerational organizing looks like.


If young people can be supported in a way that’s not just lip service but can actually be supported in a way that’s real, and doors can be opened for them, then they’re going to have responsibility when they walk through them. And I think the last piece on continued healing is: Man, there’s so much stigma around the mental health crisis that we have in this country. It is everywhere. I think that for me, as a survivalist, I tend to think about how sometimes, in order to get through hard times, we compartmentalize.


Sometimes, we do what we got to do and say, “I just got to get through this today, and then I’ll deal with this later.” But we must find a way for our movement to lean into this reality that there’s a mental health crisis in this country and that most of it stems from trauma. Let’s see raw authenticity. There’s power in that. If we can be vulnerable, then it can create an avenue for healing. And so, we must create the spaces like that while we work, not to be like, “Okay, we’ve got to do all this healing before work happens”—that’s not reality. We’re in the rebellion right now. We have to do that as we go.


There’s a quote that you shared with us during the digital training that embodies and represents the work of NDN Collective. I don’t remember it word for word, but it ends with: “Are we not warriors?” The work of NDN Collective in the space of philanthropy—in the space of reclaiming, liberating capital to give back to the people that are on the front lines, that are doing the work on the ground, that are building community, that are building sovereignty—that’s also so important to me when I look at the vision of where we’re headed. Because as much as this moment is about resisting oppressive systems, it’s also about imagining new ones. So, I would love for you to share a little bit more about NDN Collective.


It’s interesting, that quote is the thing that always comes back. And the coolest thing about that was: That quote didn’t come from a human being. It came straight out of ceremony. That message was given to us by the ancestors. It said: How long are you going to let other people decide the future for your children? Are you not warriors? It’s time, don’t come from a place of fear, come from a place of power.


And that’s why we never put quotations around it, because you don’t want to quote something that happened in ceremony; you want to embody what happened in ceremony. You want to be what happened in ceremony. And that’s the catalyst that helped us create NDN Collective. I wanted to change the conditions altogether about the way in which Indigenous people were supported. I’m not a philanthropist; I’m an organizer. And so, I was looking at philanthropy like, Holy shit, there’s a lot of wealth hoarding there. It’s causing a lot of problems. There’s a disproportionate amount of wealth there. It’s almost all controlled by white people.


So, it’s not a big surprise that the lion’s share of that money is also going to white-led institutions. And then, those white-led institutions try to add a little flavor by bringing in this Indigenous person here, that Indigenous person there. Yet, they’re actually giving zero support to us. And so, a lot of NDN Collective’s vision around that was like, Hey, this is some shit that we need to dismantle. We actually have to go in with this idea that we’re going to tear down systems of white supremacy, and one of those systems is the field of philanthropy. And part of that dismantling means a transfer of not just money but decision-making power into the hands of impacted people. That’s why I always say that NDN Collective is a steward of resources that we’re getting as a result of the rebellion that we are winning.


I think of the genius and the innovation and the courage that you have, that all these young people have, that live through all our Indigenous communities. And I’m always thinking, What happens when all of those folks are actually supported and given resources to have these radical visions for the future? What happens when you actually give resources to that and change the paradigms? It’s not going to just be better for Indigenous people; it’s going to be better for everybody. Because the theory of change and the philosophy is that Indigenous people actually have the ability to radically change the whole world. And if you look at some of the lines that we’re holding, most of the biodiversity that’s left on the planet is being held, controlled, and stewarded by Indigenous people. That’s not an accident. On the other end of things, the poorest places in this country are Indigenous communities.


One question I had for you is: How do folks like myself that are—you guys keep calling me “uncle,” I accept it—how do we show up? Because someone like myself really wants to, but we also need to continue to be taught how to do that. Just like many of you are on your first trajectory into leadership, I’m on my first trajectory into this mentorship role. So, how do we show up in real ways that actually make you all feel supported?

I see so many adults that shake our hands and congratulate us on our work, on our labor, on our effort, on our time, on our energy, on our sacrifice. And they don’t really take the time to understand that what we truly want is for them to be by our side, not patting us on the back as we walk forward while they stay on the sidelines.


Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

I think that’s such an important question for the moment we’re in. As you brought up near the beginning of the conversation, in our communities, leadership has often been the strongest when it is an intergenerational dialogue. It’s not just about young people coming up and having these radical futures and disregarding everything from previous generations and just building it. As we both know, that connection to our elders and to that wisdom—that ancestral knowledge that is passed down through our aunties and uncles, through our grandfathers and grandmothers—is very important.


There is something that is really powerful about this organizing space we are in: rebuilding across generational lines and strengthening intergenerational solidarity. Especially in the climate space, there’s a lot of common narratives around, “Young people are the future. Young people are running it.” I see so many adults that shake our hands and congratulate us on our work, on our labor, on our effort, on our time, on our energy, on our sacrifice. And they don’t really take the time to understand that what we truly want is for them to be by our side, not patting us on the back as we walk forward while they stay on the sidelines.


I think there is as much teaching that you have to do for us as there is need for our elders  to unlearn. And so, that open mind, that open heart, that open space is really important. There are so many colonial legacies that live on through our people, as well as beautiful traditions and beautiful culture. You see different levels of anti-Blackness in certain spaces, or homophobia, or these different things that aren’t actually in service to our collective liberation. And a lot of that is taught to us and placed on us by colonization.


And so, I think what’s important is the willingness to enter spaces with confidence in the knowledge that you wield and also the humility to be able to enter in and grow and learn from the youth. I think the nurturing comes from listening but also being able to remind us of what y’all have lived through. Because every elder was also once a youth and has gone through this—and has probably made the mistakes that we’re making right now. And so, I think there’s this dialogue, there’s this push and pull that I’ve been very lucky to experience in my life in a really healthy way. I’ve had a lot of really positive mentors, adults that have come into my space that have facilitated and fostered so much growth.


One thing I’m curious about—because I know it’s hot on everyone’s mind—NDN Collective helped orchestrate and be a part of an action recently to shut down the road towards the Black Hills, towards where Mount Rushmore was built, for Donald Trump’s Fourth of July celebration. There was a big resistance, a bunch of Native folks stood out there and blockaded the road. You got arrested along with a bunch of other allies, supporters, and relatives.


We are in a moment right now when we are seeing these physical monuments that embody white supremacy torn down all over the place, whether it’s statues of Christopher Columbus or of men who owned human beings, who enslaved other human beings, who traded other human beings. And with this whole conversation, with this whole moment of collective global reckoning around the violent history that makes up our society, we’re seeing people challenge the constructs, the concepts of white supremacy—and also how these physical places embody that and how it’s important to tear this down. I would just love your thoughts on organizing in that space and about this white supremacist president who now also wants to be a part of that.


When Indigenous people stand on their own land, it’s powerful. We can take on the biggest corporations and the biggest governments in the world. I remember I heard reports, they were like, “There were 500 people out there that day.” There were maybe 200 of us. But we felt like there were thousands of us.


We always got to make our issues as Indigenous people relevant to the things that are happening right now in society today, because everybody has short-term memory. And especially with the world of technology that we live in today, the attention span of folks is really short. So, it’s not a huge surprise that a short attention span contributes to the active erasure of Indigenous people. The erasure is active. It’s actively happening.


With the climate in this country that was created by the leadership for the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter, there’s an opportunity to have broader conversations about what racial justice and racial equity look like. And so, when 45 was coming to the Black Hills, I was like, Wait a second, he’s going to come here in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, while a rebellion is happening. We have a national organization dedicated to dismantling white supremacy, and he’s coming to our backyard? Hell no. We’re going to throw down. And the purpose of the action was to reignite the issues of Indigenous land and to reignite the issues of the Black Hills, because that particular fight was the longest existing legal battle for land in the history of the American legal system. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. We won, but they still didn’t give us our land back.


But also, the other big issue to me was dismantling white supremacy in this country and thinking about reparations—a lot of Black leadership was talking about reparations. They’re meeting with members of Congress, there is a lot of momentum around it. And I’m like, You know what? The core of the word reparations is repair. In many of these conversations, reparations has turned into money. Indigenous people aren’t going to be down with that. Fuck your money, we want our land back.


We wanted to make sure that we recentered this issue, that this country can’t have a conversation about racial justice and racial equity that does not include Indigenous people. It absolutely has to include Indigenous people. And by us saying that, we can be in collective liberation with Black Lives Matter, and the Movement for Black Lives, and all of the other movements that are happening around the country. White supremacist constructs sometimes tell us, “Hey, we don’t want to speak our power or speak our truth because then it’s going to be interpreted as anti-Blackness or us trying to take the spotlight from a situation that was created by other leadership.” And we have to dismantle that.


Now, anytime that 45’s trip to South Dakota is mentioned, throughout history or in any of the narratives, it’s going to be confronted with this reality. And also to me, it’s a reminder that we have power in our bodies. People think about direct action, nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience. And as respectability politics go, a lot of times people are like, “I’m not going to do these things. I’m not going to do those things.” The reality is, there’s real power in the fact that we as human beings can use our own bodies to make a stand and disrupt this system tremendously.


And so, I’m thinking more and more, People, let’s use our bodies. Let’s use the power that lives within us. When we made that commitment, when we got there, it felt like there were thousands of people there, because you could feel the ancestors were like, “We’ve been waiting. We’ve been waiting for you to come home. We’ve been waiting for this. And now that you did this, we can come home with you and we can keep doing this.” These are crazy moments and crazy times that we’re in, but there’s a power. There’s a power in taking those stances and then also leveraging them, leveraging those conversations.


President Trump, in Lakota culture, he’s a trickster. People are always like, “Don’t give Trump airtime.” I’m like, “He’s got a big microphone, let’s use it against him.” Everywhere he goes, he attracts attention, so let’s use that shit against him. There have been so many people who have come out in support, who are like, “I had no idea that these four men on this mountain were colonizers and racists, and it’s horrible we celebrate this thing as a shrine of democracy.” Two of the grandkids of Borglum, the Ku Klux Klan member that carved the mountain, have come out against the mountain because of what it stands for. There’s some serious momentum. And we need to build on that.


When it comes down to it, the movement did not have access to the White House during the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, we had access to the White House, because there were some of our people on the inside there. If we play our cards right, there’s going to be people on the inside of the White House in this next administration too, because we’ve got to vote, we’ve got to win. It’s not about Biden and Harris being inspirational leaders, and we can’t wait for them to get into office. I want to have a say in who I’m negotiating with, somebody who’s actually going to take some time to have a conversation and be maybe not in the same camp but definitely in the same storm together.


How are you thinking about this election? How are you thinking about this galvanizing moment in history? Because this shit is unprecedented. We are in this historic moment. Generations will look back to this moment. How are you thinking about that as young people, trying to galvanize young people to stand up and be relevant and to show up at this time?

Nick Tilsen
Photograph by Doualy Xaykaothao


I would say I’ve gotten properly politicized really just in the last year. I’ve always understood the importance of political power. I’d done a lot of work on pressuring local politicians in Colorado, working to put people in power who were going to defend our communities from the impacts of natural gas extraction. We have put people in these different spaces who have been able to leverage and create political power to fight for the people and for our agenda, for our liberation. And I’m seeing a lot of senate races in local elections that are really inspiring. We’re beginning to see different kinds of leaders in these spaces.


I live with organizers who work with Sunrise Movement. To witness the ability that they have had in mobilizing young people to use and harness political power within the climate space has been really, really powerful. Sunrise Movement has leveraged their voice, their platform, their base to fight for racial justice, to really respond to the needs of people in this pandemic, and they have answered this moment and played a significant role in pushing Biden’s platform into being more progressive and speaking to our needs more than many of us thought was possible. I think there is a lot of leverage there. I think if Biden wins this election, it will be because we have, as a population, come together to understand the severity of this moment. And in terms of the climate, there is a very limited timeline. We don’t have very much time.


Every natural system on the planet is being torn apart because of greed and capitalism. The work to begin to address that starts from a policy standpoint, from a political leadership standpoint. I think we have a chance if we mobilize the youth vote. So, I’m curious to see what’s going to happen. And either way, I think the youth will determine this moment and the youth’s power will determine this moment. I’m hopeful.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

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