Jene L. McCovey is a respected Yurok Elder who has been involved in North Coast environmental issues for decades. She worked to un-dam the Klamath River, fought to protect Headwaters Forest and Dillon Creek, opposed offshore oil rigs, and regularly speaks at hearings and rallies. Her passion to be involved with environmental and social justice issues stems from her experience of being raised in Hoopa and having her family exposed to toxic aerial spraying of chemical herbicides from the timber industry.
“I’m a Yurok Tribal member from the Klamath River, I’m Chetco from the Chetco River, Tolowa from the Smith River, and Chilula from Redwood Creek,” Jene said. “I’m thankful to have left Creator to come here to be who I am at this time. As human beings we choose how to walk back to Creator. In my young life, I choose to walk for five of my relatives who aren’t here. Two of them were small babies who failed to thrive due to exposure of aerial spraying of herbicides 2,4,5-T and Agent Orange, and three of my cousins spontaneously aborted their babies from exposure to the herbicides. They would have been the same age as my daughter Daisy Etta, who is 42 years old.”
Jene has trained with the Smithsonian Institute and Traditional Circle of Native American Youth and Elders, presented at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995, and has given workshops on indigenous and environmental issues involving pesticides, water quality, the Klamath dams, and indigenous hunting and fishing rights. In 2014, Jene was honored by the Women’s Intercultural Network with the Circle of Courage Award that was presented by Representative Nancy Pelosi.
Jene’s activism began in her early twenties, when her daughter was of school age. “I went to a public meeting in Klamath regarding the toxic effects of herbicide spraying near Margaret Keating Elementary, Jack Norton, and the Weitchpec Schools,” she said. “These three schools were ‘non-target species’ and sprayed multiple times by aerial herbicides used as defoliants. In the 70s, aerial spraying of herbicides was a best management practice. To mitigate climate change, we have to realize we cannot clear-cut trees, defoliate the land or denude the terrain. Natural ecosystems have to be
recognized as needed.”
Jene is also strengthened from the history of her people. “When the miners, soldiers and settlers came to California, there was already a long history of Indian killing in America, and they had already broken treaties with tribal people. California entered the union as a non-slave state but had Indian indentured servitude laws. They took children away from their families and put them in boarding schools. The U.S. government made 18 treaties in California, but the first two California senators sequestered the treaties and they were never ratified.
“My strength comes from my grandparents and our World Renewal Dances, which is our religion,” Jene continued. “I can stand up for our people and for those who have no voice; the four-legged ones, the finned ones, the feathered ones and the one-footed ones [plants]. I sit here thinking of the importance of continuing to work around the pain that brings tears to my eyes when I think of how badly we have been treated and our Mother Earth.
“When we saved Headwaters Forest I thought, it should be Native American Earth First! I am an Earth Firster! I feel welcomed and I pray for the protectors who were standing up for those with no voices. I was really affected when Gypsy [an Earth First! activist]was killed and realized how important it is to follow your heart and die for it. Part of this is recognizing the warriors in all of us.”
Today, Jene is inspired by people like Lauren Reagan of the Civil Liberty Defense Center for “helping the youth recognize the power to find purpose and help one another to make the world a better place and to recognize that clean air and water is a human right.” Jene recited a quote from Thomas Banyaca, a Hopi man, who once told her, “What is in your heart is your spirit. It’s your soul, so be mindful of what you say, because it is your spirit that comes out into the physical.”
Jene urges folks to stand behind people on the front lines and support protectors who are standing up for the environment. “We have people who are just, kind, and compassionate,” Jene said. “We just need to be happy campers and take the high road. Sometimes just breathing clean air is enough.”
Currently, Jene is the board president of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, a board member of Tri Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, advisor to the Yurok Tribe’s Social Services and Natural Resources Advisory Committee, and advisor to the Humboldt County In-Home Supportive Services.