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‘We’re not leaders of tomorrow. We’re leaders of today’: Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki ’24 calls for Indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice

CNAY’s Champion for Change discusses climate activism, Tribal legislation at White House

<p>As a former Natives at Brown coordinator and current Native American Heritage Series programmer, Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki ’24 focused their on-campus advocacy efforts over the past year on rebuilding the sense of community that was lost during COVID-19 for Native and Indigenous students.</p><p>Courtesy of Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki.</p>

As a former Natives at Brown coordinator and current Native American Heritage Series programmer, Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki ’24 focused their on-campus advocacy efforts over the past year on rebuilding the sense of community that was lost during COVID-19 for Native and Indigenous students.

Courtesy of Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki.

Kalikoonāmaukūpuna Kalāhiki ’24 holds many titles.

Last year, they served as a coordinator for Natives at Brown, a student organization that fosters community among students with distinct Native and Indigenous identities through cross-cultural activities and workshops. 

This year, they are one of two programmers for the Native American Heritage Series, an initiative hosted through the Brown Center for Students of Color that works alongside NAB and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative to host events such as the Spring Thaw Powwow and the Indigenous Peoples Day gathering. 

In 2022, Kalāhiki was named a Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Last fall, they were invited by CNAY to the White House twice: first to moderate a discussion on climate change at the Tribal Youth Forum, and again as part of a roundtable discussion with Tribal leaders at the Tribal Nations Summit.

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Kalāhiki identifies as queer and Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian. They also identify as māhū, or a Native Hawaiian that “embodies both kāne (man) and wahine (woman) energies,” they said. As a climate activist and community organizer, much of Kalāhiki’s work “is tied to those identities,” they added.

Kalāhiki spoke to The Herald about their advocacy on and off campus, as well as their hopes for the future of Native and Indigenous student communities at Brown.

Indigenous environmentalism 

Kalāhiki’s activism centers around “environmental justice, Indigenous sovereignty, liberation and self-determination,” they said. “I’m really trying to uplift the value of Indigenous knowledge systems, specifically within the context of climate change.”

According to Kalāhiki, while Western environmentalism focuses on the creation of nature preserves “where humanity can’t go inside and can’t touch it,” Indigenous environmentalism allows for a cultivation of land, where humans participate actively in the ecosystem.

Climate change activism “has to be localized,” Kalāhiki added. “As Indigenous Peoples, we need to be given the power — or we’re going to take back the power — to control our lands.”

“We’ve lived on these lands for thousands of years, so we know intimately what she needs and the ways we can care for her,” they added. “We’re always thinking for the future, whereas capitalism is a lot of ‘How can we maximize profit now? How can we extract enough resources to make sure that our pockets can get fatter and deeper?’ ” 

From Providence to Washington D.C.

Twice last fall, Kalāhiki brought their advocacy efforts for Indigenous sovereignty to Washington. 

They were first invited to moderate a panel on climate change as part of the White House Tribal Youth Forum, held jointly with CNAY. The forum aims to “connect and talk to these different representatives across different levels of government,” Kalāhiki said.

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During the panel, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland and NativesOutdoors founder Len Necefer discussed the Department of the Interior’s initiatives and Necefer’s work to promote Indigenous sovereignty.

Kalāhiki was one of two Pacific Islanders at the event and the only Hawaiian attendee, they said. At the event, Kalāhiki discussed the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Pipeline in Hawaii, which transports jet fuel “only a hundred feet above one of our island’s main aquifers.” 

“My culture and identities as a Pacific Islander aren’t represented in these spaces very often,” Kalāhiki said. “Being able to bring our story to this space was really special, because I was able to talk about water and land rights back home.”

Following the forum, Kalāhiki was again invited to the White House for the annual Tribal Nations Summit, which provides “a robust and meaningful engagement with Tribal leaders on important issues facing Tribal communities,” according to the event announcement.

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At the event, Kalāhiki and other young representatives met with Tribal leaders to discuss contemporary issues affecting Indigenous Peoples, including food sovereignty, intergenerational connections, mental health and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

ICWA “makes sure that Native kids can stay with Native families,” Kalāhiki explained. The act establishes “minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture,” according to the Department of the Interior website. The constitutionality of the act was recently challenged in Haaland v. Brackeen, which expects a ruling by the Supreme Court this year.

In addition to discussing pressing issues, the summit allowed members “to share our experiences in that space and talk about strategies to address the needs of our people,” Kalāhiki said.

Cheyenne Brady, senior program manager at CNAY, wrote in an email to The Herald that 

Kalāhiki is “passionate about uplifting all Peoples and takes great pride in their Hawaiian culture. They bring their true self and speak to the needs of their community, providing context but also promoting possible solutions.” 

Youth representatives at CNAY “are selected because of their passion to create positive impacts for Indigenous Peoples and their respective communities,” Brady wrote, adding that Kalāhiki “is truly a great leader.”

Reflecting on the summit, Kalāhiki said that youth in intergenerational spaces are often reduced to “leaders of tomorrow” due to lack of experience. But because Kalāhiki and their peers take on essential roles as community advocates, they feel this description isn’t entirely true.

“We’re not leaders of tomorrow,” Kalāhiki said. “We’re leaders of today.”

Building community on campus

On campus, Kalāhiki continues their advocacy by creating community space for Native students. From their former role as NAB coordinator to their current position as Native American Heritage Series programmer, Kalāhiki has focused specifically on rebuilding the sense of community lost after the University’s initial COVID-19 response, when students were sent home.

“Last year, we were coming back from the pandemic, and the Native community had completely fallen apart,” they said. “The purpose of last year was to rebuild the community (and) be in shared space.”

In the past, both Kalāhiki’s advocacy and Native and Indigenous activism on campus focused more broadly on visibility on campus, they said.  “So much of what we did was to push the University to finally see us,” Kalāhiki said, citing the student-led push for Brown to recognize Indigenous People’s Day

Following the return to campus, Kalāhiki highlighted the need to “show up for ourselves, exist as a community and just experience joy with each other,” they said. “A lot of our programming was about what we can do to build connections between people in our community and celebrate who we are as Native Peoples.”

“I have grown to view NAB as my family,” wrote Ashlyn Lovato ’23, former Native American Heritage Series programmer, in an email to The Herald. “So Kaliko has become like one of my siblings.”

“I am very proud of their success and accomplishments, their ability to be a voice for their identified communities and to continue to fight for what NAB needs in order to maintain wellbeing and find success at this institution,” Lovato wrote. “Kaliko is selfless and truly embodies the core values of a leader.”

After two and a half years of advocacy and organizing, Kalāhiki said they are “burnt out” but remain optimistic about the future of the Native student body at Brown.

“I’m excited for the ways that our communities continue to grow,” they said. “Because every year, there are more Native students that are admitted and who are eager to help.”


Neil Mehta

Neil Mehta is the editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald's 134th editorial board. They study public health and statistics at Brown. Outside the office, you can find Neil baking and playing Tetris.



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