Jihan Gearon is an Indigenous feminist, painter, writer, organizer, and leader in environmental justice. She is Diné and Nahiłií (Black), originally from the community of Old Sawmill, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. She is Tódích’ií’nii (Bitter Water Clan), and her maternal grandfather is Tł’ashchí’í (Red Bottom Clan). She is a graduate of Stanford University, with a Bachelor of Science in earth systems and a focus in energy science and technology. Jihan currently serves on the advisory board of the Environmental Justice Movement Fellowship at The New School in New York. Her work over the past 20 years – particularly with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance – has made her a nationally recognized movement leader in environmental and climate justice, just transition, Indigenous peoples rights, and Indigenous feminism. Jihan was awarded the NDN Changemaker Fellowship in 2020, the Black Women Green Future Award in 2021, and is featured in the book “Notable Native People.” At 35, Jihan was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. As part of her journey of healing, she turned to painting and has since prioritized it in her life. Jihan believes art encourages the nuanced and difficult conversations necessary in today’s changing world.
“This 30×24-inch painting was a centerpiece of my recent exhibition ‘SURRENDER: Quarantine Questions | Pandemic Wisdom.’ The 26 pieces were painted over four years, leading up to, during, and following the pandemic. This painting depicts and celebrates the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a moment I and many others worked hard to achieve. It encourages viewers to see beauty and feel hope, rather than uncertainty and fear. The industrial gray power plant is separated from the reds, golds, greens, blues, and beauty of the landscape, relegating it to the black-and-white realm of history. Fist-shaped clouds pay homage to activists who fought for this moment. ‘Kodóó Hózhó Dooleeł’ roughly translates to ‘it begins in beauty’ in Diné Bizaad, and it’s how we begin our prayers.” ―Jihan Gearon
What does the idea of “justice for Native communities” mean to you?
I have spent 20 years as an organizer and activist in environmental and climate justice movements, and it is through this work that I’ve developed my beliefs on Native justice. Key words and phrases that come to mind when I hear the word “justice” are decolonization, traditional lifeways, spiritual connection to Mother Earth, “land back,” and “bring back matriarchy.” For me, justice in Native communities means allowing, creating, and supporting the inherent rights of Indigenous people to live our traditional lifeways, in balance with our homelands, free from the colonial frameworks of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. Indigenous people make up only 5% of the world’s population, but steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity by simply living and defending their lifeways.
What do you think needs to happen in the world to achieve justice for Native communities?
I believe new strategies must be employed to successfully walk through the circumstances of today, and I have been testing such strategies over the last four years. As a consultant, I have developed Diné teachings and wisdom into concrete frameworks and tools for political education. I have tested these frameworks and tools in real-world situations and organizations facing challenging issues, such as burnout, lack of boundaries, boundary-setting, internalized patriarchy, tensions between Indigenous and Black communities, and the grief/fear that comes from realizing the coming impacts of climate change. As an artist, I have experienced and shared new ways of engaging our less-accepted aspects of fear, shame, guilt, doubt, and lack of clarity.
How do you express justice through your artwork?
Firstly, justice is expressed visually through my artwork. The piece chosen for this project, “Kodóó Hózhó Dooleeł,” depicts the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station in December 2020. It is a celebration of Native justice, and a vision and prayer for a future that values our homelands, cultures, and traditional lifeways over the extractive and colonial economies forced on us. Secondly, my art is a continuation of my activist work. Current and new generations of organizers and activists are facing unique circumstances rooted deeply in the realm of emotion, in the face of uncertainty and change. And where words fall short and create divisiveness, art is a language of complexity that allows nuance and commonality, and can advance social justice work.
Is there anything else you would like to share about Native justice and your artwork?
My art process has taught me much, which I have carried over into my process of living. It has taught and reinforced the need to allow for spiritual guidance, intuition, and serendipity ― and to have faith in the process of letting go and letting flow. These teachings have strengthened my ability to adapt to changing circumstances, which gives me confidence in facing any potential problems or challenges.