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Young Seminole Tribe Member Sues Ron DeSantis

Valholly Frank 1.jpg
Courtesy Valholly Frank
Valholly Frank at a climate change demonstration.

As flooding becomes more frequent, and hot, sticky Florida gets even hotter, a group of young people, ages 13 to 21, are suing Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Secretary of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, among other officials, over climate change. The eight young people are asserting their right to a healthy future is at risk in Reynolds v. Florida.

Valholly Frank is 17 years old, and she is a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She calls the Everglades and Big Cypress home. And she is one of the young people suing Governor DeSantis and other state officials in Reynolds v. Florida, asserting their future is jeopardized by climate change inaction.

For Valholly, the Everglades is an important place.This is where the Seminole have been for many, many generations. “It's where we hold our ceremonies. It's where we get our native plants for medicine,” she tells WGCU. “If it weren't for the Everglades, and it's really tough conditions to survive in, the US Army wouldn't have retreated, we wouldn't be the unconquered tribe. That connection to my land, to my people and to the spirituality I hold, it's a big reason that I am an advocate against climate change and to taking steps to stop it and slow it.”

Valholly says the effects of climate change are already dangerous, for her community and for Indigenous communities around the world. Here in the Everglades, her home is threatened by sea level rise, salt water intrusion, and worsening weather phenomenon.

The reservation is already at sea level, and Valholly worries that within a few years, her community’s home will be underwater.

Governor Ron DeSantis and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried play a powerful role in what she says is being allowed to happen in Florida. Valholly notes both have the ability to take action through legislation and regulation but they are not doing it. She says, both like to paint themselves as environmentally friendly. But neither have taken significant, specific action on climate change.

“It's crazy how politicians can just lie and get away with it,” she tells us.

While Valholly is too young to vote, “I still hold rights, as a kid, and my voice is supposed to be heard,” she says. “Ron DeSantis is not serving me as my governor.”

Valholly worries that climate change threatens her people and culture.

“It's hard coming to terms with the reality of your situation and your people's situation, especially when you're such a small part of the world, a small part of your state,” she notes.

“It's been a really terrifying thought to think that I could lose my community and I could lose my culture. And it could just be gone forever. Because hundreds of years ago, they tried to wipe out the Natives for the sake of land and development and colonizing Native land. But we're still here, Indigenous people are still here. And I think it’s so important to keep fighting.”

Valholly wants the government to implement a stable climate plan that will put the state and the nation on track for a cleaner, safer, and sustainable future.

The Reynolds v. Florida case proceeded to the first district court of appeals in July. Her attorney, Mitchell Chester, argues the young people’s constitutional rights are being violated.

“What we're seeking is a declaration of the youth’s rights, their constitutional rights, life, liberty, safety, security, the ability to enjoy life,” he tells WGCU.

Chester says while economic considerations often prevail, there is an opportunity to incorporate economic growth into a sustainable plan for the future.

“Proper action allows for the creation of jobs, opportunities, the funding of research, the funding of engineering, the funding of all the different aspects that we need to use to get to a stable climate,” he asserts. “But if they're truly concerned about economics, and the viability of the state, as we face sea level rise, and really oppressive heat, they could... be partners with us in addressing climate change. Hand in hand, we can both accomplish a proper climate plan, as well as the growth of our economy, and the well being of all sectors of our state, and for that matter, the country.”

Afterall, the same climate change that impacts the Seminole Tribe affects everyone in Florida and our life, property, and economy. But a bigger threat? Chester says, the human mind.

“The human mind that is unwilling to try to protect generations of people and our future,” he says, is a threat. “And so, yes, greenhouse gases are horrible, and they've got to be stopped and they've got to be contained and there are ways to do it. We've got the technology, we've got know-how. But we also have to understand that we have to educate leaders who don't seem to get it, who aren't connecting the dots so that they can see a path forward for all different parties, in moving towards a stable climate system.”

Chester also worries that if climate change continues to be unaddressed, the economic, social, religious, and cultural impacts of rising sea levels and more will be detrimental to humanity. We, as a society, have failed to understand the extent of the impact climate change will have, he says.

“There are so many people who don't realize the severity of it,” says Valholly. “And they just think it will never affect them.”

Valholly sees climate change as a threat to the future she, and generations to come, face.

“We have to look deep in our souls introspectively and say, do we really care so little about ourselves that we don't want to protect ourselves and our future generations?” says Chester.

To learn more about Reynolds vs. Florida, visit ourchildrenstrust.org