This interview with Rachel Fernandez is part of the series, American Indian Women Speak Out on Mercury Standards.
Rachel Fernandez is an enrolled member of the Menominee Nation. She is an activist and organizer who advocates for survivors of gender-based violence and spreads awareness of violence against Mother Earth. She is founder and organizer of Maeqtekuahkihkiw Metaemohsak, Woodland Women’s Group, which uses cultural advocacy to help women connect with who they are as powerful and sacred women, and relies on elders for life teachings through culture and tradition.
My name is Rachel Fernandez. I am from the Menominee Nation and my Menominee name is Namaewkukiw, which means Sturgeon Woman. I am an advocate, an activist, an organizer, and I am metaemoh, woman. I am, and I always will be a helper in our ways. I have been advocating for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault for many years. That has evolved into fighting for our land, air, and water — because everything is interconnected.
As water carriers and water protectors, we have a connection to our Mother Earth that is vital in the fight to save her. We need to be accountable to her and responsible for honoring her as we honor our ancestors for the struggles and suffering as they endured violence and genocide when colonization swept across our nations. That connection is intertwined as our way of life. We need to keep honoring our land, air, and water.
The Menominee are indigenous to Wisconsin and upper Michigan. We are the original inhabitants of this land. I have lived on the Menominee Indian reservation most of my life. I am married and have 8 children and 14 grandchildren. Everything that I do is for them.
The entire state of Wisconsin is under a fish consumption advisory because of the high levels of mercury in our waterways. Not only is this detrimental for our state, because we are very recreational, but it also harms the 11 tribal nations here that depend on hunting, fishing and gathering.
Our fish are very important to providing sustenance and nourishment for the Menominee Nation, especially our Sturgeon that are vital to ceremony. In feasts for ceremonies we need to make fish, wild rice, and meat consisting of wild game and berries. Clean water is vital and connected to all of these.
I remember when I was pregnant and my doctor telling me to watch my consumption of fish and, if I could help it at all, not to eat fish. It was very upsetting because that is our way of life. I have fond memories of my dad and uncles going to fish for the family. They would come back with rainbow trout and my mom, grandma, and aunts would clean them and fry them up. My grandma had a big garden and we would eat straight from that garden with a beautiful and deliciously prepared meal for all of the family. That is how we came together.
I feel that Trump’s Administration does not understand nor do they want to understand our life ways. I feel that the Administration is powered by greed. I was taught by my elders to pity people who don’t know any better. I feel this sentiment applies here because if anyone had a glimpse of our way of life and had that teaching that everything has a spirit, all my relations, netaenawemakanak, they would honor the gifts our Creator, God gave us. We could be in a better state of mind, body, and spirit. It all connects.
Our land is beautiful. Our forest is known nationally and internationally. In satellite pictures of our area, you can easily see our reservation from space. That’s how lush and beautiful our forest is. And that’s where the name of our women’s group comes from: Maeqtekuahkihkiw Metaemohsak, Woodland Women’s Group.
The work we do is not only for our native sisters but for everyone. We are inclusive, because we all live here, and we’re all interconnected. I see myself being a part of a collective of women. We can elevate our voices, interrupt harmful narratives, and really speak up for our people, and for our land, air, and water.
We do a lot to protect what we have left. That’s why I am fighting the Back Forty mine. It’s not only because it’s our place of origin – our origin story is there at the Menominee river – but it’s for everybody. If the mine goes through, it raises serious risks to the whole state, and to the Great Lakes. How are we going to recover from that?
We’re always thrown to the side of the road. Like, Oh, that’s just those Indians. We’re an afterthought. We’ve always been an afterthought. Because they wanted to kill us years and years ago. And a lot of people say that we should get over it, but nothing has ever been reconciled. The historical trauma, and the inter-generational trauma that has happened because of that genocide, that’s why we are where we are now with our substance abuse and our violence. We were always taught to tolerate that abuse. So even now, when we want our voices to be heard, we’re looked upon as an afterthought. We’re just those Indians.
We come from water. We lived in water for nine months. And so, being a female, we are water carriers. We protect that water. We love that water. We nurse that water. It’s very important to me as a female, as a woman, and as a Menominee woman, that I protect that water. Water is life. Water is sacred. For all the years my ancestors fought and struggled and sacrificed for us to be here, the thing that I have to do to honor them is fight for land, air, and water.
What are we leaving for the future generations? I want to tell everybody to be a good relative. Be a good relative, as all living things are relation. We are all one. Be a good ancestor, as we fight to continue to honor the ancestors before us, all living things now and in the present, and honor and prepare for our future generations to come.
The fight that I’m leading, the fight that I’m showing my children and my grandchildren, is something that I’m going to do until I die. My ancestors fought to have this land right now. They did not budge. Where we once had Northeastern Wisconsin up into Michigan, now we have this little reservation. But they fought to keep that, so I have to honor them in best way that I know how. That’s why I say that I will be fighting until the day I die – because they did it for me.