“The Inside Is Such a Sterile Place”: Organizing with the Indigenous Environmental Network
How did you first come to act on ecological issues?
I always had that respect and sense of connection with our surroundings. It probably came from growing up in North Dakota in a rural area. I lived with my grandparents in the summertime. They lived in the badlands in western North Dakota and we were given freedom to explore, to swim in the lake and to just be. We weren’t even allowed to be inside. It wasn’t a time to watch TV like you see a lot with kids these days, so I think that had something to do with it. I always wanted to be a veterinarian when I was in high school. I enjoyed animals, but didn’t want to do surgery. When I went to college I was 18 and just wanted to get away from the reservation. For the first two years I took general coursework at the University of North Dakota where the mascot was the Fighting Sioux. And it was a bad atmosphere for students. That’s how I first got involved in direct action. Even before I knew the movement that existed, I was thrust into it and got connected to Russell Means and I stayed with the issue until it was finally changed, which was a huge victory.1 That showed me that it can be done.
While I was an undergraduate I was concerned with how we can protect our natural resources. I didn’t have the lingo of the social justice movement; I had to choose my major. I wanted to protect our natural resources. After graduation I headed out to Big Bend National Park in Texas doing resource management and interpretation. I wondered why are we preserving parkland in one place and destroying the rest [of the world].
At the same time, I was learning more about my own history and culture. It was crazy for me to be working in North Dakota at the original site of a Mandan village. I really enjoyed it because it was about my history. I was looking to broader things while working at the park and got this email about a Masters program in earth systems science and policy, and so I went back and got my Masters.
By the time I started my Masters I had already been through a battle with cancer myself. When I was an undergraduate I was diagnosed with a stage 4 sarcoma tumor. I was one of the lucky ones. I had it removed and had additional surgeries, and I am still here. I knew there had to be a direct link between health and the environment. I started making that connection when I went to college. People said that’s not normal. I thought it was normal, but when I went away from the reservation it became clear that it wasn’t.
I met you through your work as an organizer of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). How do the IEN’s goals, mission and principles affect your work around climate change?
In 2007 on my day of graduation, I applied to IEN in my cap and gown, just hours before the deadline. I have been blessed and feel lucky that these things just came to me. Of course I had to put in the work, but I feel really lucky to be with the IEN. There are not enough people doing the work that is so necessary, especially in indigenous communities.
We—as tribal communities--are behind because we are trying to work in a system that is broken. The tribal government system, due to the Indian Reorganization Act and, prior to that, the allotments back in the 1890s, were set up for failure; we were set up for assimilation. The state and federal governments claim that we have sovereignty, but only when it’s convenient to the state or the federal government.
It’s important to understand our own tribal governments and why they would be on board for fracking. The state tells tribal leaders that you might as well go for it, because they will take it anyway. And historically that is often true.
It’s interesting to see where the world is. Now we have non-native people, like the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and white farmers resisting eminent domain… “it’s like yeah we’ve been there… it sucks doesn’t it?”2 It took it impacting all these folks before they started listening to us. There is a shift toward Traditional Ecological Knowledge. We are seeing that shift that our folks have been fighting for—for 500 years—but it is also scary because things have gotten really bad before people have understood that.
We have NASA and climate scientists reaching out to our indigenous communities because they can see the climate change in a scientific way. This year  is the hottest year on record. They are starting to hold seminars and turning to Traditional Ecological Knowledge.3 It’s not a big secret. It’s common sense: taking care of the resources so they will take care of you. You know, Our Mother Earth. People might not want to use that language, but there is a certain level of respect that is missing for our planet that sustains us. And there is a disconnect. People are so ingrained into being in their houses with their heating or their air conditioning and then they go to their car with heating and air conditioning, and sit in their office building or in a restaurant... People throw the garbage away, but where is “away?” It’s an out of sight out of mind mentality that usually only babies have, but we have it. We have blinders on, especially in the United States. It’s all about money: corporate greed, and profit, and unequal distribution of wealth. All of these systems are connected. Part of my work is to open people’s eyes to the big picture, but to do it in a way that doesn’t scare people into throwing their hands up.
People see us in the media. Communities see us as an information clearing-house. We will go to a community that asks us to help. We used to do annual Protecting Mother Earth gatherings, but our last one was in 2011. Unfortunately, lots of movement organizations had setbacks in the past five years with funding drying up. At one time, all four of us were on unemployment. Four staff have been struggling – hanging in there based on the support of our broader network…
The issues never go away. When we were on unemployment, we still put in hours on the issues. I have a baby now, and the work is even more important for me: who will fight for the future? For us, it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle! It’s how our folks at home and we are being impacted daily.
Different people have different ways to address the problem. For me personally, I am over the process of “write a comment and wait for two years, and we’ll do the project anyway.” For me, I am dedicated to nonviolent direct action. I have seen the impacts and the effectiveness of it. What I like about IEN is that IEN doesn’t push staff to do direct action or any specific strategy. It’s what the staff and communities feel comfortable with, using all tools in the toolbox… because, let’s be real, fighting back against multi-billion dollar corporations is a big deal... Continue getting out in the media, getting your voice heard, and forcing it on the agenda. We didn’t have near as many people talking about climate change five years ago.
How did you become involved in the discussion around energy transition? As an indigenous activist, you are witness to American Indian and First Nation responses to the energy crisis. How would describe the role that Native Americans (and Native institutions) have played in the response to the global warming crisis/the energy transition?
We call it JUST TRANSITION. We are part of Climate Justice Alliance and we recently came out with the Our Power Plan in response to the Clean Power Plan.4 It is not about shutting down a coal-powered plant and having all those people lose their jobs. If the company doesn’t want to discuss transition, it’s about working with the employees themselves to come up with an alternative job source.
In Navajo Country we work with Black Mesa Water Coalition and shutting down the mines.5 But some of their own citizens were pissed about the loss of jobs. We have to be fighting for what we are for, not just what we are against. We are fighting for food seedbanks and against Monsanto and GMOs. We have the knowledge and traditional seeds for specific environments. Large-scale community gardens where it makes sense. Every federally recognized tribe has its own culture. Culture and tradition are what people can fall back on.
Many resource tribes have given in to industry. We have to build our own economic base. In my tribe, people can roughneck on an oil rig for $25 an hour, or they can work at the casino, for a lot less. That happens throughout Indian County when it comes to resource tribes. We have to build economic self-sufficiency...
At IEN we build deep relationships. And it’s frustrating to funders because they want to see quantitative analysis. The work we do is never just a quick fix; it’s always long term. The Seventh Generation Principle is not just a thought, it’s a lifestyle.6
As for transition, the number one example of a tribal-based solution in North Dakota is Henry Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises (http://www.lakotasolarenterprises.com/) . He partnered with Trees, Water & People.7 He started out by employing eight people, showing them how to make solar panels using limited materials. They would go out and put panels on homes in Pine Ridge. He is self-taught and has won awards for what he does, and the work continues. Now every summer for six weeks he runs a training course, he brings in new people and they help others. His dream and ideal is to get it replicated on other reservations.
In different regions, the model may be somewhat different, based on culture and the specific area.
Speaking to the choir is nice. It’s nice speaking to like-minded audiences, but I find the challenge is speaking to those who don’t agree. Yes, sometimes I feel like a seal in shark-infested waters
4. You were in Paris for the Climate Conference [COP21]. Tell us about what happened while there. I read the IEN press release stating that “the Paris climate accord will harm indigenous rights, lands, and environment and do nothing to address climate change.” What would some elements of a real solution be?
We had a good inside-outside strategy. We were going into Paris doing a strong outside strategy to counterbalance what was going on in the inside… but we were taken aback with them taking five steps backwards and taking indigenous rights language out… Local Parisians were coming up to Dallas [Tom Goldtooth of IEN] and myself all through the time we were there, thanking us for the ceremony we did at the Bataclan [theater] for those who lost their lives. We had a water ceremony on a New Moon to initiate the indigenous women’s treaty, a sunrise ceremony below the Eiffel Tower, getting out in the streets marching, doing a ceremony on the last day in front of Notre Dame…. All those were far more significant to us than what happened on the inside. The inside is such a sterile place. It is set up to allow civil society to participate in some ways, but still having closed-door meetings where secondary and tertiary badges are needed to get in. The UN is saying that they want the participation of civil society without actually allowing civil society to participate. But we were able to meet with Parisians and those grassroots people from around the world that came, building those networks. Then we can go home to our communities where the real work happens. The real world doesn’t happen in Paris, Cancun, or Geneva. It happens at home in the grassroots communities. We can’t rely on a broken system.
When I came home I felt renewed, rejuvenated, and affirmed. I knew we are not in our isolated silos, but coming from different parts of world we share strategies with each other. And that is something that is also traditional to our people: the power of visiting. Nothing can take the place of the power of visiting: no phone call, no site visit, no go-to meeting, it’s not the same as going into a person’s space, seeing their body, feeling their emotion; that is something that is really powerful. That’s the one way I justify getting on a flight for thirteen hours to go to a meeting.
It was a very disappointing meeting. They took out trans-generational rights, indigenous rights, food sovereignty. Those things are just sitting in the preamble to make people feel good, but it’s not legally binding. It’s frustrating and scary. Maybe we should concentrate less on words written on paper and instead on action.
1. For background on this matter, see http://NotYourMascots.org
2. On the Cowboys and Indians Alliance, see http://www.democracynow.org/2014/4/28/cowboy_indian_alliance_protests_keystone_xl
3. For a description of Traditional Ecological Knowledge systems, please see http://www.ser.org/iprn/traditional-ecological-knowledge
4. For the Climate Justice Alliance, see http://www.ourpowercampaign.org/cja/
5. For the Black Mesa Water Coalition, see http://blackmesawatercoalition.org/
6. For a definition of the Seventh Generation Principle, see http://www.ictinc.ca/blog/seventh-generation-principle
7. For Trees, Water & People, see http://www.treeswaterpeople.org/