Indigenous rights and conservation were at the forefront of Stanford’s Bright Award annual celebration on April 14, organized by and held at Stanford Law School. This year’s ceremony honored 2020 Bright Award winner Maria Azhunova and the 2021 winner India Logan-Riley, both who seek to catalyze Indigenous activism in the fight against climate change.
The Bright Award is Stanford’s highest environmental prize and was created by a gift from Stanford Law alumnus and lifelong conservationist Ray Bright. The Bright Award is given annually to an individual who has made significant contributions in environmental preservation and sustainability. Recipients are selected from all over the world and receive a $100,000 prize to use for their efforts to combat climate change.
“We are grateful to Ray and the Bright family for entrusting Stanford with finding these unsung heroes of environmental conservation and providing them with the recognition they deserve and the resources and attention they need to take their work to the next level,” said Jenny Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.
While the Covid-19 pandemic precluded Bright Award events in 2020 and 2021, it also provided an opportunity for Azhunova and Logan-Riley to come to Stanford at the same time to deliver their acceptance addresses and discuss how their Indigenous roots inform their climate change activism. The event began with remarks by Dean Martinez and Stanford Law Professor Barton H. Thompson, Jr., the head of the Bright Award nomination committee, followed by the premier of a new video capturing the work of both award winners.
Maria Azhunova, 2020 Bright Award Recipient
During her award acceptance remarks, Maria Azhunova, Director of the Land of Snow Leopard Network and Program Director of the Baikal Buryat Center for Indigenous Cultures in Siberia, discussed her ongoing goal to create conservation efforts that respect Indigenous rights and cultures, as well as Western perspectives. She talked about the fact that Indigenous peoples guard more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and the need to create a lasting generational reverence for preserving the planet.
India Logan-Riley, 2021 Bright Award Recipient
India Logan-Riley, co-founder of Te Ara Whatu, shared how their Indigenous activist organization aims to “work at the intersection between indigenous sovereignty and climate change.” During their acceptance speech, India discussed Te Ara Whatu’s work with Indigenous Māori and Pasifika youth to help them advocate for Indigenous people’s sovereignty and climate action in New Zealand and surrounding islands.
The Critical Role of Indigenous Conservation
After acceptance remarks from both award winners, Azhunova and Logan-Riley participated in a panel discussion about Indigenous conservation with Stanford Environmental Engineering student and Yurok and Karuk Native American Brook Thompson. Greg Dalton, founder of the public radio program, Climate One, moderated the panel.
Discussions surrounding Indigenous peoples’ role in protecting their land began immediately and evolved into a thoughtful conversation about how to best incorporate and respect Indigenous peoples’ practices into conservation efforts.
“It is eternally difficult for us until our sovereignty is acknowledged in those spaces,” India noted while discussing their experience being at a UN climate conference in which Indigenous tribes were notably absent from a diplomatic meeting regarding the treatment of Indigneous land.
Maria echoed India’s comments about being heard and involved in climate change decisions while emphasizing the role of imbuing conservation efforts with longstanding Indigenous spiritual practices. “Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to communicate better and bring our knowledge systems together,” said Maria. She noted how the benefits of bringing Indigenous customs and practices to the modern age have already been successful. “By practicing traditional Indigneous values and traditional Indigenous spirituality, it has helped the snow leopards survive.”
The panel concluded with powerful words from both award winners and panel members regarding the vital importance of Western societies’ respect for Indigneous rights and practices. India summed up the panel’s calls to action regarding the need for Western leaders to acknowledge Indigneous peoples’ presence in their communities and for individuals to choose leaders who will listen to Indigenous voices. “It’s about forcing our hand a bit with our leaders…but if they still don’t care after decades of harm, get new leaders.”