Jaime Butler | Navajo Nation

This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on February 15, 2019. Marisa Granados also contributed to the production of this story.

Jaime Butler is an 18-year-old college student and plaintiff with Juliana v. United States from the Navajo Nation. This is Jaime’s story:

“My name is Jamie. I’m 18 now. I’m from the Navajo reservation in Arizona, and I first learned about climate change when I was around nine. I started hearing things about it from school and from my mom’s friends, because my mom is pretty active in the community as an activist. A lot of our water on the reservation is contaminated or is just not there. It has been dwindling because of climate change and drought—and because of mining that has contaminated the water supplies that we rely on. Now that I’ve grown up, I’ve seen that it’s been harder to practice our traditions without things we’ve lost through climate change. A lot of our ceremonies and traditions have to do with water and certain herbs, and I’ve seen a lot more scarcity of those necessities throughout the years. It's getting harder to do what we do when our resources are dwindling.

Recently, I’ve started asking, ‘How is water scarcity impacting my culture?’  I’m Navajo and I was raised traditionally, and since I’ve gotten older I’ve started caring more about my traditions. I am understanding how unique my culture is, and how important it is to preserve it. The Juliana vs. United States climate lawsuit has brought me to think about how it impacts that part of my life—and not just me, but any indigenous peoples’ lives. No matter where they are, I’m sure climate change impacts them in some way.


  • Climate change has led to severe drought and heat waves across the Navajo Nation. (PRI)

  • The amount of surface water flowing in streams on the Navajo Nation has declined by about 98 percent over the 20th century. (PRI)

  • In addition to climate change, coal mining operations have “pumped millions of gallons of water a day from the aquifer located deep within the ground of the Black Mesa, drying up the area’s underground water source.” (PRI)

In the Navajo tradition, livestock is very important because a lot of the things that we use in ceremonies require parts of an animal, mostly sheep. We can’t send our sheep out into the desert anymore because there isn’t any vegetation, so we have to get hay from different places now. Water is getting more expensive because we have to go further out to get it. For my family, water and hay have gotten so expensive that we cannot support livestock anymore. And it's like that for a lot of people. I know a lot of my friends have gotten rid of sheep and horses because of the price of hay. Now we have to buy many things that we used to get from our own livestock.

There is a ceremony called Kinaalda, when a girl becomes a woman. We believe that there was a first woman of the Navajo. And in the ceremony, the girl becomes the first woman. It’s a three or four day ceremony, depending on the family. Most of the food and materials are from our livestock, mostly from sheep. During the prayers and in the Hogan we use the fat from the sheep, and we rub it on the girl’s body, and at the end of the ceremony we give her a rug which, back in time, would have been woven with sheep wool. Nowadays it's just a Pendleton that we get from the store, but it’s still made of wool, so we use that. In other ceremonies they also use sheep fat, and they use a lot of rugs and things.

When I was younger it sometimes felt like this was all just pretend. I went to other ceremonies, but I wasn’t allowed in the Hogan because that is a serious place. It is not a place for children. But when I had my ceremony it was kind of like, this is me, I’m not just living in a play. It’s something that is a part of me that will be in my memory, and it helped me realize who I was.

It was three days long. I heard the origin stories that we tell, which I’ve heard before, but the ceremony helped me experience what those stories represented. When you’re in the actual Hogan, and you’re hearing the songs, and you’re having the medicine man do his prayers for you and your family, you feel like the world is listening, and your culture can connect with everything, and it's all connected in some way. I felt, this is my culture at its height. This is who I am at my best.

Jaime Butler. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

Jaime Butler. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

I’m really happy that my family still does that ceremony. It helped me understand my family and my origin. For me now, that’s all I have. In this world I feel like people don’t have a lot. Social media and stuff take away our identities in some way. Like right now part of our culture is all about money and about getting rich and who’s going to make the best rap song. We are losing our different types of backgrounds. We are losing cultures, languages. We are starting to become disconnected from ourselves. I’m happy that at one point I was so connected with myself. And I’m really grateful for my culture because I feel like without it I wouldn’t know who I was.

From first grade through third grade I lived on the reservation in a little town called Cameron. It is very small, and the only thing we had was a trading post and a gas station. It is close to the Grand Canyon, so there are little canyons that came really close to our town. We would take our horses and ride into those canyons and explore them—which was probably dangerous but was really fun because no one was ever there. And it was really quiet.

The horses liked the riverbed. I think it felt nice on their hooves. The minute they touched the riverbed they would take off for like 5 minutes. You couldn’t slow them down or anything. You just had to hold on, which was really fun because we ended up in places we hadn’t been before.

The desert is hot, so we would normally go before it rained so it was cool, and that prevented the horses from getting overheated. When the horses finally calmed down after their run, we would just let them walk around, because they would never stray from each other. We would end up in weird crevices, and it was just so nice because there would be grey clouds over us but it wouldn’t be raining yet. We would be really far into the canyon. It was silent, and every once in a while you would hear birds or something.

When I was young, there were two things that were important to me. One was that Native Americans need their rights protected. I don’t think I completely understood ‘rights,’ but I knew something about Native Americans needed to be protected. And the other was that there were endangered and extinct animals. That was my super-basic knowledge.

Then I went to a Sierra Club meeting. I think it was a weekly thing for my mom. They were talking about the arctic refuge, and an oil spill or something, and my mom wanted me to write a postcard to the President about it. I understood that polar bears were endangered, and whatever happened in the arctic refuge was hurting them, and what I cared about was not hurting polar bears.

I learned about climate change through Disney channel. They used to feature kids who did things for their community, and I remember this one girl. She drew pictures of birds, and they were all endangered species. She got onto Disney channel, and she talked about how animals all over the world were going extinct due to climate change and human impacts. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a huge animal lover, and I think animals are my weak spot. When I hear about a new endangered animal, or an animal that went extinct, that’s the constant hurt that I feel.

Jaime Bulter. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

Jaime Bulter. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

Somewhere around 2009, the oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico. Watching news about that, and seeing all that oil in the ocean, really changed me and made me want to do stuff. I got inspiration from the Disney Channel girl, and I drew random pictures, and I wrote letters about the Gulf, and my feelings about that. I wrote at least six or ten letters, and I sent them to the White House to President Obama. And then I got a response in the mail from President Obama. That really surprised to me, because even though I was young I understood that I maybe was talking to no one the whole time. It was kind of crazy because I realized that someone was actually listening. And not just someone, it was the President. When I got that response it motivated me more, because I knew that some people will listen.

People heard about President Obama writing to me and I got some attention from reporters, local people from that area. And I started realizing that a ten-year-old can have a loud voice too. That was around the time that I got involved with Our Children’s Trust, and they made a video, and I got even more attention.

My mom used to take me to protests a lot when I was younger. Like on the reservation, about water or other things. I remember holding a sign. The water settlement, back in like 2009, was a big thing that happened on the reservation, and we went protesting against it. My mom’s attitude came from grandpa, her father James Peshlakai, because he used to have a big voice in things, and always said his opinion. He used to be very into politics, and he made sure that Native Americans were fairly represented in things. That’s how my mom is too. I think that’s the main reason she gets involved in everything, which I admire.

The weird thing about climate change that I’ve learned recently is not that temperatures are rising everywhere in the world; it's more like the climate is changing. Because of our drought, the sand around Cameron became super dry, and then mobile. Then, because of the winds, nothing was keeping it in one place. So we had a reservoir, and it dried up. Then one day it rained very hard. And I remember back when I was smaller, the rains used to be really nice—smooth and consistent. But this rain was very harsh, and a lot of water came down all of a sudden. And it caused the reservoir to fill up, which is sort of good. But then the next few days after that, it was super dry, so it weirdly resulted in dry sand on the top layer. And the lake was super muddy—super-duper muddy, almost like tar. And the high temperatures dried out the topsoil of the desert, and that topsoil blew onto the mud, and covered it. And there was a little puddle of water in the middle of all of this muddy area.

It was terrible because we had a big wild horse issue on the reservation at that moment. And after the rain, they came to this one little puddle. They tried to get to the puddle, and it was all like quicksand, and they didn’t see it because the topsoil blew over it, and they couldn’t get out. It resulted I think in one-hundred-twenty horses found dead in that area.

It was crazy because nothing like that has ever happened, and because it was such a strange weather pattern, it points to the cause of it being climate change. We hadn’t had rain in such a very long time, and all of a sudden we were just hit with it. That area now is just littered. People tried to get the horses’ bodies out, but there are still horses in that area. So it was sad, and it was just a couple miles from where I grew up. It made me more scared because the weather we are going to have in the future is going to be so extreme, crazy things are going to happen like this. This is just the beginning.

I go to boarding school in Colorado, and right now I would consider that my community, because that is where I spend most of my time. We’re doing a lot to combat climate change. We have a bunch of solar panels. The school is updating our dorms to be more energy efficient. Because we are a private school in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, we have money to change things.

Some communities don’t have funding to change their energy source or anything. My community back home in Arizona, we just don’t have the funding to do anything. We are not really taught about climate change. We have other issues to deal with at the forefront, because we are a separate nation and we have to deal with water issues, government issues, funding our schools. So the reservation doesn’t have the capacity to prioritize our environmental footprint. It’s kind of a weird balance.

Jaime Butler. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

Jaime Butler. Photo by Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust.

At the beginning of this lawsuit, I had my own lawsuit in Arizona. And even before that I wanted to present at the Capitol—to the Representatives, not to the Governor. And I wanted to show my video up there, and speak for at least three minutes. That isn’t that long, and my mom really tried to get me into their schedule, but a lot of them voted against it because they didn’t think it was important. A lot of them even said to my mom that climate change isn’t real, and I was going to waste everyone’s time if I showed my video. It was crazy to think that the people in office aren’t willing to listen to a child. Children are a huge percentage of the population that they are supposed to be representing. And even though we are not 18, and don’t have complete knowledge of everything, it doesn’t mean our opinions don’t matter. Even though I was getting momentum with everything, that gave me a feeling of not being listened to. I don’t talk a lot, but not being listened to is a terrible feeling.

If everything went right, I would like to think that people would hear about this case, and hear that it won, and people would be more inclined to change their ways of life in order to protect the Earth. I would hope that the majority of people in the world understand what we are actually doing, and that we are the problem. I would hope that it would lead us to learn how to live with nature, to support nature and not to harm it. That’s in the future, but that’s my utopia ideal if we won.

Everything intertwines with everything. Climate justice is part of every issue in some way. Being Native American means I care about my culture and protecting the Earth. Our culture evolved over thousands of years in the world that we lived in. And if climate change happens, and the world that we lived in is taken away, then my culture is taken away. I think addressing climate change is the most effective way to protect my culture. I can’t control the other issues that exist in my culture. Like if someone decides to move on to Christianity, I can’t control that. But I want to keep that choice between Christianity and our culture. If climate change continues, I think the resources that are necessary for my culture to exist will be taken away, and we have no choice but to change our way of life.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I also feel like if we could all come together to solve this problem, then all of our other problems would be so much easier to deal with. Because the unity that this project requires is big, and if we are able to achieve that unity, then we are good. Unity is one of the biggest issues that we face as a species.

I think ‘Just Do It,’ like the Nike logo. You can mess up, but not doing something is worse than doing something and messing up. I knew that when I wrote my first letter I was probably not talking to anyone. I knew that maybe I was wasting my time. But if I hadn’t written that letter I wouldn’t be in this situation. I think anyone that wants to do anything should do something—even if it’s just writing a letter and sending it off into the abyss. And once you start, you can keep going. You just have to do it. You just have to start.”


Here’s how you can support Jaime:

1) Share Jaime’s story to amplify her voice!

2) Jaime and her fellow plaintiffs presented their argument to the Court of Appeals in Oregon about why their case should continue to trial on June 4 2019. You can watch the hearing here and let the courts know that we are watching.

3) Use Our Children’s Trust’s #AllEyesOnJuliana 👀 to talk about the importance of this case on social media.

4) Sign up for Our Children’s Trust’s newsletter to get updates and to offer your time, skills or resources in support of their historic legal campaign. Follow Our Children’s Trust on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to stay up-to-date with the Juliana v. United States lawsuit.