NEW YORK – Autumn Peltier of Wiikwemkoong had a simple challenge for the United Nations about their commitment to protect water as she addressed the assembly in New York last Thursday: “Warrior up!”
“I was surprisingly not at all nervous,” said the 13-year-old Anishinaabe-kwe who has become an internationally recognized warrior for the right of Indigenous peoples to clean drinking water across the globe about her presentation before the world’s leaders. “I actually felt calm. It was a good experience.”
The diminutive young woman might be slight of frame, standing barely five-feet tall in her Anishinaabe regalia, but she loomed large in stature as she stood, literally, upon world stage, behind the podium at the UN General Assembly to issue her challenge as the final speaker on World Water Day.
“We recognize and applaud your leadership and advocacy on the importance of clean drinking water and your initiatives to provide safe water to your people and the First Nations communities in your territories,” read Autumn’s invitation from the UN. “By lending your powerful voice to this important cause, you give voice to the youth, most needy and vulnerable among us who have none.”
Autumn has been an inspiration to the world, and to her own community of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, following closely in the footsteps of her auntie and water walker Josephine Mandamin, whose 2003 circumduction of Lake Superior began a decade and a half tradition of walking for water by bringing the message “the water is sick and people need to really fight for that water.” Autumn took that message deep into her heart and opened up that heart to the world.
Autumn’s journey to New York and the UN General Assembly was not a smooth run by any means, but speaks volumes to her determination and inspiration of those around her.
Wiikwemkoong Ogamic Duke Peltier and Autumn’s mother, Stephanie Peltier, along with photographer Linda Roy, were scheduled to fly to New York, but flights began being cancelled due to a heavy snow storm headed into that state.
“They started cancelling flights Tuesday night,” recalled Chief Peltier. “There was still flights available for Wednesday morning so we cancelled our flight and booked that, but when we got there that flight was cancelled too.”
The only available flights would have gotten Autumn into New York on Thursday, after she was scheduled to speak. “What would be the point of that?” asked Chief Peltier. “So we had a car there already, with studded snow tires. We asked Autumn did she really want to go.” She didn’t hesitate to reaffirm her wish to make the journey.
“So we made the decision and set out to drive there,” said Chief Peltier. “Actually, the weather was really good until we were about an hour outside of New York when the snow storm hit.”
It really wasn’t that much of a challenge to a seasoned northern driver.
They arrived in time to settle into the hotel. Autumn was up early to go to the ABC studios, where she was interviewed for a CT National News broadcast, then breakfast and straight to the UN.
In fact, the roughest part of the whole journey was the return trip in Toronto’s rush hour traffic, laughed Chief Peltier.
“I didn’t get to go,” said Annihilable Nation Grand Council Chief Pat Machabees. “I was scheduled to go, but my flight was cancelled by weather, so I wound up watching it at home livetrapping on a link Giana Duke Peltier sent me. When she told the world leaders to ‘Warrior Up!’ to protect the world’s water I let out a whoop. Lucky I was alone at home or I probably would have scared the wits out of somebody.”
Grand Council Chief Machabees praised Autumn for her “poise and confidence,” saying it “was so good. We are so proud of that young lady; she did an awesome job.”
The Wiikwemkoong community definitely agrees. “Every class at each of our schools was tuned in to her speech,” said Chief Peltier. “The teachers had planned their lessons around Autumn’s speech and World Water Day, it was a truly teachable moment.”
The UN address was neither the beginning nor the end of Autumn’s personal warrior journey, for at 13 she is already a seasoned champion of her cause.
That journey might be considered to have begun when Autumn spoke at a water demonstration that closed down the junction of Highway 6 and 17. Regional Chief Isadore Day heard Autumn speak at that event and invited her to present a water bundle to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an Assembly of First Nations meeting.
Autumn prepared a speech for the prime minister, with whom she was very upset due to his decision to allow a pipeline project to proceed. While she was unable to give her speech due to time constraints, a tearful Autumn did manage to tell him she was upset, because of “the pipelines.”
To which the prime minister replied, “I know.”
So inspired by her bravery was the AFT that the Assembly of First Nations Youth Council created a Niabi Odacidae fund to help protect the water for future generations.
Autumn and her friend Francesca Pheasant travelled to a winter meeting of Canada’s premiers in Vancouver in the fall of 2015 and then represented Canada at the Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden, where children gathered to create a list of demands for world leaders in advance of the Paris UN Climate Change Conference.
She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2017 and last fall was a recipient of the Canadian Living Me to We Award.
In January, she was presented with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers and this spring was selected as one of the Ontario Community Newspaper Association’s Junior Citizen of the Year.
Autumn will be headed back down to Toronto next week to meet with the Great Lakes Grand Council, of which her auntie Josephine Mandamin is a member. Then it is off to an interview with Turkish.
“The next week after that I will be in Hamilton for my auntie’s book launch,” she said, promising to give The Expositor an account of that event.