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Climate Justice

Wahya Wolfpaw: Mother, Grandmother and Leader

The first time Wahya Wolfpaw was escorted out of a Worcester City Council meeting was when she challenged a council member on the myths and historical inaccuracies of the traditional Thanksgiving story. The second time was when she spoke passionately about the unrealistic expectations placed on women with children, returning to community from incarceration.

“Sometimes,” Wahya says, “People just don’t like it when you tell the truth.” 

In truth, she says, it was massacre, disease, and disingenuous politics that shaped the Native-Pilgrim “alliance” that was at the root of the Thanksgiving holiday—not a naive welcome from Native leaders. “They were lying to children in schools and I couldn’t sit still for that. My people never said, ‘Welcome to this country.’ And as far as previously incarcerated women are concerned, when they’re coming out and trying to get their children back they’re expected to immediately get a good job and a nice two bedroom apartment. That is not as easy as it sounds and she was led to speak that truth. Wahya says, “Sometimes, when the powers that be see me coming, it’s like uh-oh.”

But it was different when she discovered Mothers Out Front Worcester, the Chapter in the second most populous city in New England. Wahya was welcomed by Chapter leaders and staff and immediately went to work speaking out on important environmental issues in Worcester, including the city’s long-standing air and water issues.

“I got involved with Mothers Out Front when I attended a rally sponsored by another organization. I was just blown away when I heard the mission, when I discovered it was about mothers and grandmothers. I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, I can be “Ma Dear” if need be and I have a voice—a loud voice.”

Mothers Out Front did what some other organizations didn’t. She attended training, was equipped with important knowledge and urged to participate. “I’m not college educated. I’m not an academic or a scholar on the climate crisis.” Nonetheless, Mothers Out Front Worcester embraced her—and it felt good.

Wahya saw that welcome as a sign that she was meant to be back in a place she considers a home base. She had returned after one of the worst fights of her life: the fight against a mysterious stage 3 breast cancer. Her doctors couldn’t tell her a likely source. There wasn’t a genetic source, they didn’t know how it had come so hard and so fast. But Wahya believed that she knew. “I grew up in Oklahoma—an Indigenous community, Native community, I was an Army brat—but everywhere around me there was fracking, coal-fired plants and general environmental pollution. This was an environmental cancer I was experiencing.”

It’s well-documented that Native Nations have carefully managed and protected complex ecosystems. Wahya says this has been true “since the beginning of time.” Traditional beliefs hold that the Creator placed Native people as the first people with intention. In return for taking care of the Earth, the Creator would provide all they would need to survive and thrive. However, it is also well-documented that non-Natives arrived with ways that were contrary to the beliefs and practices of Native people. And, non-Native practices created the environmental ills that Native and other communities of color are left to deal with today.

It’s for all these reasons that Wahya is so connected to the Mothers Out Front Worcester fight to save the planet for future generations. But she also sees the fight as connected to—even intersecting with—other issues such as ending the school to prison pipeline, bringing equity to public education, expanding the rights of previously incarcerated women and their families, and establishing low-cost home ownership options for women and their families, like “tiny home” villages and similar developments.

One day soon, Wahya hopes she and her family will have a home of their own, though getting into affordable housing has been temporarily interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. One day in the future, she also sees herself owning a community-resourced restaurant; a place that is “pre-Columbus,” she says. “No white sugar, no alcohol, no diabetes food, only locally-sourced food.” The restaurant would be full with families and children, ethnic art, Celtic music, African drumming, Native songs. The restaurant of her dreams even has a name, a Cherokee word which means “a place where peace resides” … Dohiyi.

Really that’s all Wahya Wolfpaw wants for the Earth, its land, water, air, and people—to be a place where peace resides. She believes mothers, grandmothers and others in Mothers Out Front can work together now to make it so.


Rosemary Lytle, Frontline Communications Consultant for Mothers Out Front, is a columnist who worked in newspaper journalism for nearly 20 years.