Ma’Ko’Quah Jones indexes Indigenous strategies for climate change resilience

Preserve the Past, Craft a Future

Ma’Ko’Quah Jones stands in front of Lawrence City Hall. // Courtesy campaign

In some ways, Ma’Ko’Quah Jones’ journey toward climate advocacy had always been underway. But, the urgency of her mission intensified in 2008. 

“I had a son who passed away that year. He was a 7-month-old baby,” says Jones. Her tone is firm. There’s a sadness, of course, but something else. “Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom taking care of my kids. That loss is what put me on the college track.” 

A resoluteness is perhaps that other thing. From the grief and chaos of the loss, Jones focused her entire being. She and her husband at the time, and their children, eventually five, had settled in Lawrence and were trying to find their way. Jones was a semester into her studies at Haskell Indian Nations University. Summer 2009 was approaching, and she was determined to stay the course, find a job, and complete her studies.

“I’d heard about this research internship from a friend of mine. But I was a freshman. It was with Professor Wildcat. He didn’t know me. He teaches upper-level classes… But he was the one to talk to about this research internship, and it paid really well,” says Jones.


Courtesy campaign

Our world’s climate is changing, and fast. Stories abound of what could happen if our species does not act quickly to curb our carbon emissions. But, more and more, stories documenting the loss and change that is happening now are appearing. Sometimes, though, those stories do manage to offer a bit of hope.

For millennia, the Ojibwe Tribe, now of Wisconsin’s Lac de Flambeau Reservation, roughly 4 hours northeast of Minneapolis, has harvested wild rice from the constellation of marshes and lakes characteristic to the region. 

In a recent article published in The Nation, it was noted that wild rice once grew in 25 lakes on the Lac de Flambeau Reservation alone. Now, the staple crop grows in two. Once encountered widely across the Upper Midwest, the plant is now hard to find wild, given the extensive development our nation has seen over the last several decades.

A rice plant is sensitive, and, at a stage of its lifecycle, it is barely rooted to the lake bottom. Additionally, research is beginning to show just how vulnerable the crop is to the increasingly intense weather associated with climate change. 

But, this year, the rice was growing tall. Time will tell if the tribe and a collaborating team of university researchers can preserve the crop and restore its range.


Ma’Ko’Quah Jones and family. // Courtesy campaign

Around Lawrence and among the native community, Professor Dan Wildcat is something of a legend. Known as a teacher who grows his students through hands-on opportunities, he’s a kind, mild-tempered person who, according to Jones, loves to push his students into the deep end with little notice and a smile.

To complete the picture: thin, with long, gray hair. Sometimes sporting a flat-brim cowboy-style hat. Bolo tie with jeans—the hint of a southern drawl.

“I so wanted that internship,” Jones says. “I visited Professor Wildcat. I made my case. He said, ‘No, you’re a freshman. This is for upper-level students. Come back when you’re a junior or senior.’”

He didn’t count on Jones’ tenacity. Or, perhaps, her savviness. 

“I know you still have spots to fill,” she remembers saying, tactfully if pointedly. “You need to fill them. I’ll contact you closer to the end date of the application period.”

She contacted him a week before the application period closed and asked him if he still had spots open.

“In that southern drawl of his, he says, ‘Yeah, well, there are still spots…’ So I said, ‘Okay, I want to apply.’ Again, he said ‘no,’” Jones says. 

In the interim, Lawrence had proved too challenging. Jones and her family had moved back down to Oklahoma, where she’s from, to live with her aunt, save money, and regroup.

On the phone, having contacted Wildcat again, with the application period about to close and having learned there were still spots available, Jones told him the Wednesday before the internship is supposed to start: “Don’t say no. I’ll be in Lawrence tomorrow, in person, to interview.”

She drove all night. She nailed the interview. She started the internship that Monday.

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Ma’Ko’Quah Jones during an interview with The Pitch. // Photo by Haines Eason

“I first met Ma’Ko’Quah when she was doing environmental assessment work with the Potawatomi Tribe,” recalls Climate + Energy Project (CEP) Executive Director Dorthy Barnett. 

Barnett notes CEP was intentionally trying to expand its network to include Indigenous peoples. Right away, she was impressed with Jones’ passion and ability to show up “with her whole self.” And, she notes, Jones’ knowledge of climate research was deep and broad—as impressively so as Jones’ passion.

A little later on, Barnes and Jones reconnected when Jones was chairing the Douglas County Sustainability Board. This time, the two focused on utility solar regulations. 

Then, in 2021, CEP accepted a project with Lawrence Douglas County Sustainability to collect and document the lived experiences of marginalized communities about the changing climate’s impact on them as part of a Climate Action Plan. 

Jones consulted with CEP to support the storytellers and turn their recollections into materials that could be used to advertise the rollout of the Action Plan.

Barnett feels this work, for Jones, was synergy. And it was timely.


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Jones’ childhood was marked by abuse, parental alcoholism, and numerous other challenges. 

“I grew up Christian, but it was a cultic environment,” Jones says, her voice low. 

When her son passed away, she tried to turn to the Christian beliefs of her youth, but they seemed hollow. Searching for solace and answers, being far from Oklahoma in her new world at Haskell, she went to a healing ceremony, one meant to ease the pain of the community. For her, it was a chance to share the burden of her son’s death.

It was there, listening to the healing songs, wrapped in the ceremonies filled with the ecological artifacts on which the ceremonies depend, that a different part of her childhood came flooding back.

Her grandparents had held onto the tribe’s pre-Christian ways: the songs, dances, stories, and rituals. Her grandparents had taught Jones that culture. And it came flooding back.

“The healing songs at the Haskell ceremony—it was like they were left for me, waiting to be refound when I needed them,” she says. “And, I realized the ceremonies depended on the environment to continue. I thought to myself, ‘Can we continue if our environment doesn’t continue?’ Protecting all this—that’s going to be my job.”

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Photo by Haines Eason

Returning to her home region, she found work as an environmental and GIS technician with her tribe, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Then, consulting with CEP, among other stops. She even had a foray into legislative work. 

Through her time at Haskell, Jones has struck up and maintained a connection with Ponka-We Victors, the first Indigenous woman to serve in the Kansas State Legislature. She and Victors had worked to establish an internship program at Haskell. 

In her work as a legislator, Victors persistently voiced a need for there to be a reckoning with the inordinately high number of Indigenous women who go missing or who are murdered each year. With Jones’ and many others’ help, House Bill 2008, which created a course of training for Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center cadets, was signed by Governor Kelly into law April 7, 2021. The training, according to the attorney general’s office, provides law enforcement personnel with “historical context, definitions, statutes, tribal sovereignty and jurisdictional challenges,” and more. 

By spring 2022, Lawrence had ordered a proclamation setting aside May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Persons Awareness Day. Jones drafted this proclamation. Victors took the language to Wichita, where it resulted in a proclamation there also setting aside May 5.

Jones’ shining resume is perhaps all the brighter for what she has endured personally. As mentioned, her childhood was rough, but her traumas did not stop there. She was jailed in 2020 for fighting back against an abuser. She had sought help, but the system did not intervene. She used a weapon and was charged with a felony. 

“It’s all an issue of climate change. All of it. Think about it. When you have poor communities sitting on oil, for instance. When you have to work with outsiders to develop it. This is how you get what some call ‘man camps.’ The oil companies house the oil field workers as close to the rigs as they can, and those are in or near tribal communities. What do you think is going to happen?”

Lack of opportunity on reservations. Exploitation by outsiders. It’s a recipe for cultural collapse, substance abuse, mental illness, and so much more.

The man camps are called so because, according to the careers data company Zippia, roughly 95% of all oil well and rig workers are male. The work can be extremely difficult at best, with it commonly regarded as some of the most dangerous there is. And the hours are long. It’s not unusual for a roughneck, as these workers are sometimes called, to put in 12-hour shifts for two or three weeks at a time.

The workers come from far away and live in a temporary shelter in a community that is likely very different from their own. The pay can be quite good, especially considering the local, usually rural, standard of living. Furthermore, local poverty can also be a big factor. When you consider that the national rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 11.6% but, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the Native American rate is 25.4%, an illustration of a toxic power imbalance comes into focus. 

“If there’s a tribe nearby, it’s the Native women who are targeted,” Jones says flatly. “And, because there are so few people looking out for Native women, and because there are law enforcement jurisdiction issues, longstanding colonial history, etc., we Native women are largely invisible. Because of that invisibility, men are almost encouraged to visit violence on us.”

Jones then jumps right to what she sees as the ultimate source of the problem.

“If we didn’t rely on fossil fuels, we wouldn’t have these man camps,” she says.

No man camps, safer women. Safer women, healthier communities. Over the last two decades, more and more research shows that protecting and empowering women can lift entire communities.

“For many Indigenous communities, traditional gendered responsibilities and knowledge have been vital to community health and survival for millennia,” write Kirsten Vinyeta, Kyle Powys Whyte, and Kathy Lynn in their 2015 study, “Climate Change Through an Intersectional Lens: Gendered Vulnerability and Resilience in Indigenous Communities in the United States.” 

“Colonization has profoundly affected and continues to affect these gendered responsibilities and knowledge by disrupting (and in some cases destroying) the sociocultural fabric that sustained gender diversity and gender egalitarianism within many tribes, and by affecting the plants, animals, lands, and waters that are critical to gendered responsibilities and knowledge.”

Jones points to this study as a seminal one. But, study author Kyle Whyte points to Jones, in return, giving her glowing praise. He reports knowing her through networks supporting the empowerment of Tribal colleges and universities and the advocacy of Indigenous sovereignty in climate change and sustainability.

“Even in the early stages of her career, Ma’Ko’Quah has always had the courage to be out front as a leader,” he says. “She has a rare combination of talents all in one person, including scientist, organizer, policy expert, Indigenous rights advocate, environmentalist, and more—not to mention her tremendous responsibility as a parent and community member. 

“She has inspired people toward Tribal and community service. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, I am proud of Ma’Ko’Quah’s accomplishments, knowledge, and leadership as a Potawatomi person. She is razor sharp, tenacious, dynamic, and committed to justice for all.” 


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So, where does Jones go from here? 

“So all of this, what I lived through, what I see going on around me, my natural inclination toward policy… All of that feeds into what I am calling a ‘vulnerability index.’ It’s going to be informed by the life experiences and the need and priorities of the tribal communities,” Jones says.

The index, then. What is it? 

Refer back to the story of the rice. Troll the news for stories about fish ladders helping restore essential salmon runs or Jones’ own tribe restoring wetlands. There are so many positive efforts in the works, and they must be cataloged and disseminated. 

“So many of the issues the tribes are facing come from the disruption of our cultures due to colonialism and colonization. We’re going to be facing that again due to climate change. My ancestors walked the Trail of Tears. They lost everything to relocate to Oklahoma. We are going to face that again and have to leave the land again if we don’t prepare for climate change through our empowerment and by restoring our ways. We’re facing another round of generational trauma as a result of potential relocation.

“I know the people. I know the issues, the policies. How it all ties together. And I know how to explain it to diverse audiences. I have to explain it to tribal communities, scientists, politicians… The science of climate change—stuff that people still don’t understand or accept.

“It’s on me, this work. That’s why I am trying to put this research prospectus, this index, together. I am the person who needs to do this work. I am the only person to do this work. I’m a Native researcher, I’m from a tribal community, I’ve lived within these communities to know why these issues are so important, and essential, for us to tackle.”  

Categories: Culture