Ma’Ko’Quah Abigail Jones, current KACEE Board Member, shares about her path to politics, the tragedies and trials that forged her into a fearless leader, how reciprocal human relationships give her hope in the face of climate change, and why her Lawrence City Commission political platform included environmental education.
“Where I am and what I do today are not despite the way that I grew up, but precisely because of it. My purpose is to serve as an example for kids growing up in communities like I did, showing them that they, too, can help make a difference.”
Ma’Ko’Quah is a mother, citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, survivor of sexual violence, person with disabilities, environmentalist, politician, scholar, author, and community advocate. She grew up in a tribal community in Oklahoma where poverty, addiction and abuse were present throughout her childhood. From her story in the book, I Am Where I Come From, she shares: “My family was always very poor. Almost daily, I heard conversations about where our food would come from, which utilities might be shut off, and whose house we could go to in order to bathe. I have many memories of being homeless and sleeping in the back of my dad’s truck, in the fireworks stand where my parents worked during the summers, at a religious homeless shelter, or between two dumpsters at a nearby park. As a child, I didn’t know any different and eventually normalized our way of life.”
Ma’Ko’Quah knows that the representation she and other Indigenous leaders bring to the table in politics is crucially important for people experiencing similar struggles -- reminding them that they are not defined by their circumstances. And, her life today, though she’s able to make an impact, is still not free of struggle. She’s been homeless as an adult, has been a victim of domestic violence, faced poverty and the criminal justice system, all while managing multiple long-term and chronic illnesses and disabilities. Nevertheless, she persists.
In her mind, Ma’Ko’Quah always knew running for political office was in her future, but she wasn’t sure when. In 2008, she tragically lost her infant son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Going through the depths of that darkness didn’t leave much space for fear in other areas of her life. “Once you’ve gone through something like that, things no longer scare you,” she said. “You’ve already gone through the worst thing life can throw at you.” Attending an Ivy League college across the country, the prospect of trying and failing in her political pursuits, working to make a difference in the world – what is there to lose after the worst loss a person can suffer? After grieving and working through the devastation, she began to see the potential gain. “Even if I did fail, at least my voice would have been heard,” she says.
Losing her son was the pivot point of Ma’Ko’Quah’s life. The religious faith that she once leaned on for spiritual support now felt “hollow”, so she started searching elsewhere. School beckoned -- she had been studying at Haskell Indian Nations University but had to resign due to her tragic loss, and was unable to finish her degree, so she decided to go back. In looking for something to believe in and something to comfort her in her grief, Ma’Ko’Quah found the traditions of her ancestors.
It was at a traditional ceremony at Haskell Indian Nations University that she found what would become her balm for the hollowness. The ceremonial gatherings, dances, and songs of Indigenous communities were a deeply spiritual experience for her -- intertwining humanity and nature. Ma’Ko’Quah felt a deep connection to her ancestors as the words from her mouth reverberated through history, reaching back millennia. These words were not hollow. They connected her to past generations of her People, those who had created the words and ceremonies she performs today. This experience ignited Ma’Ko’Quah’s reverence for nature and the environment, and the fire within her to protect it with all she’s got.
She finished her degree in Native American Studies at Haskell, then went on to study environmental law and policy at Vermont Law School, the top institution for environmental law.
Ma’Ko’Quah’s studies equipped her academically for a career in politics, and the knowledge that she gained about herself and her history - from an inside-looking-out (Haskell) and an outside-looking-in (Dartmouth) perspective -- gave her the context she needed to better understand the present day circumstances of her People, the intergenerational trauma that trickled down through history to touch her life, and the inner-workings of the United States legislative system -- the fabricator of centuries of colonizer treaties and broken promises.
“My education gave me the knowledge I need to understand today’s world and systems in order to be successful within it. But it’s young people who give me the inspiration to actually do the work,” she says. “In the face of climate change, what inspires me to fight for protections for a healthier environment is the in-your-face activism of today’s youth. I see their work as getting out there to do what people like me, a woman living with disabilities, cannot do. I do my form of activism -- participation in government -- for them. They put their bodies on the line whereas I cannot. My education enables me to advocate for and protect their rights.” She believes it takes both on-the-ground energy and work at the legislative level to get to where we need to be in terms of remedying the root causes of climate change and environmental justice issues.
Ma’Ko’Quah also draws inspiration from the Kansas Association for Conservation & Environmental Education (KACEE). “When I think about environmental education, I think about the complex, symbiotic relationship that we humans have with our surroundings. It’s systems thinking,” she says, “We have to take care of our environment, or we’re not going to have a healthy one. It’s crucial to teach kids that early on.” And that’s where KACEE’s work comes in - teaching kids about the interrelationship between people and our environment, how to think systemically, and how to think critically. With these skills, children grow up to be mindful of the world around them, making better, healthier decisions for themselves and for all other life living on this planet.
“An Ojibwe elder once told me, ‘When we protect the [resource], we protect the land around it'. This teaches us how important it is to take care of the land in order to take care of our traditions. I want my kids and their generation to learn this value also.” These teachings are what drives Ma’Ko’Quah’s passion for environmental education to be part of the required curriculum in the school system.
“KACEE’s work is effective because it teaches people how to think about the systems we all function within and how they work together. Things like civic engagement, economics, government, environment… They all function alongside one another, and environmental education incorporates all of these things.”
Environmental education (EE) was one of the platforms that Ma’Ko’Quah ran on in her bid for Lawrence City Commission. She understands how environmental and outdoor education reaches kids in a way that traditional classroom education sometimes cannot. She says, “Establishing and using outdoor classrooms, for example, creatively involves students of all ages and abilities by engaging your entire body in the learning. That kind of learning, it sticks with you -- it’s fun, it’s hands-on. We need more of that in order to best train today’s kids for the future they’re inheriting.”
A big part of Ma’Ko’Quah’s work throughout her campaign was educating people about environmental issues. “I saw my job as informing constituents about climate change impacts and sustainability goals and how they reach beyond the environment. They affect people’s everyday lives. Helping people understand that was crucial for my platform.” She goes on to explain that with environmental education taught in schools, our next generation will learn the complex relationship that exists between environmental health and human health.
“I advocate for environmental education in our schools in my city, Lawrence, Kansas, because it makes our school district’s education that much richer, preparing kids for the workforce while teaching them what Indigenous people are taught at an early age: that we have a responsibility to our surroundings.”
Ma'Ko'Quah currently works as an Extension Program Coordinator with Kaliwohi Services Corporation. She continues her passion working on climate change impacts in Indigenous communities alongside Dr. Dan Wildcat.
Ma’Ko’Quah is a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. She currently serves as the founder and Chair of the Kansas Democratic Party Native American Caucus, board member of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education (KACEE), board member for Kansas Holistic Defenders, coordinator for the Lawrence-Douglas County League of Women Voters, and a member of the Kansas Leadership Center 2021 cohort. She recently served as Chair of the City of Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board. Ma’Ko’Quah was elected to be a Bernie Sanders delegate for Lawrence at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She has volunteered for local campaigns and often serves as a tribal liaison for local elected officials. Prior to politics, Ma’Ko’Quah worked for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation until 2019 as the Environmental/GIS Technician working on water quality issues. She holds a Master of Environmental Law and Policy degree from Vermont Law School (2015), Bachelor of Arts degrees from Dartmouth College in Government and in Native American Studies (2014) and an Associate of Arts degree from Haskell Indian Nations University (2011).
You can learn more about Ma’Ko’Quah by connecting with her on LinkedIn or by reading her story in I Am Where I Come From: Native American College Students and Graduates Tell Their Life Stories currently available at the Raven bookstore for purchase.