Climate justice must include Indigenous sovereignty


Courtesy of Wikicommons

Stand with Standing Rock- March on Washington, D. C. March 10, 2017

By Joshua Sokol

When I think of the year 2016, it seems like eons have passed. In the past four years, time has moved awry, with one headline after another bringing waves of turmoil caused by the Trump administration. Empathy and compassion are tapped resources, much like oil, and when they are abused they can become dry wells that leave nothing but a devastated and tainted body in their wake. 

But 2016 fell into the hands of the Obama administration. President Obama is a popular political figure among moderate liberals and left-leaning (I use that term loosely) demographics. Many people forget, however, that no matter how “progressive” the Obama administration may have seemed at face value, the orchestrated attacks against Indigenous communities were committed en masse before and during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

For those unfamiliar, the Dakota Access Pipeline, otherwise known as the Bakken Pipeline, is a 1,172-mile-long underground oil pipeline operated by big oil company Energy Transfer LP, which runs through multiple states, including North Dakota and South Dakota. When construction began in 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service granted a sovereign land construction permit to allow the pipeline to run through the area. These permits allow construction in areas that fall below ordinary areas of water—the defining characteristics that determine a waterline—depending on the individual state’s sovereignty.

In May of 2016, however, the sovereign land construction permit was revoked because the pipeline would cross the Big Sioux River—named after the Teton Sioux—which acts as an essential body of water for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike. Despite this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the water-crossing permits, and construction on the pipeline resumed.

When former President Trump took office in 2017, he issued a “Presidential Memorandum Regarding Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline” four days into his presidency. This memorandum reversed former President Obama’s attempt to halt construction and rushed authorization for further development of the pipeline.

Leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, and Yankton Sioux Tribe authored a letter to President Biden just before his inauguration requesting “quick, decisive action on the Dakota Access Pipeline” in the first 10 days of his administration.

So far, President Biden, 20 days after he was sworn into office, has not taken any action against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That said, President Biden has signed a bill effectively killing construction of the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota. But this action should not be treated as a pat on the back or as a measure of “progressive politics”; it is what should be expected from elected officials. Expect more and demand more.

Indigenous people voiced their concerns about the conception, construction, and location of this pipeline before the project even began. Throughout American history, Indigenous voices are silenced and suppressed by the government in regards to the land that they built their lives upon. 

In 1868, the United States government, after declaring the Black Hills of the Dakotas as the Great Sioux Reservation, invaded the reservation when gold was discovered in the area. This violated the treaty in a manner that has been a commonplace throughout American history. The violation of sacred land for material value is not new, and it will not stop unless it is actively fought against.

For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Indigenous communities throughout the United States, this pipeline became a declaration that land was able to be owned and abused for the sake of resources and profit. The Standing Rock Sioux, in response,  initiated a grassroots movement in order to protect their land, water, and sacred burial ground.

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a tribal historian, and Joye Braun, a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, established a water protector’s camp alongside a group of Standing Rock youth who called themselves “ReZpect Our Water.” These groups are composed of figures that became the first of many Indigenous communities who stood in solidarity with protests against the pipeline. The term “water protectors” was soon adopted to describe the demonstrators who are against the pipeline’s construction.

Indigenous protesters were met with aggression and force at the hands of a private securitywho used “dogs and pepper spray” to attack demonstrators. In November of 2016, demonstrators were blasted down with water cannons in freezing temperatures.

I remember watching coverage of the Standing Rock Protests where militant “security” forces brutalized and suppressed Indigenous people. It was shocking, but in no way was it surprising. It repeats historical patterns that are all too familiar. Colonization is not past tense; it lives in every facet of American society.

Indigenous communities, when put in the position to protect land, water, and significant cultural sites, are expected to be the sole carriers of this weight. They put themselves on the front lines and use their voice to fight against corruption of land, and they are met with violence and apathy from those with privileged voices with large and accessible platforms. 

Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico

In December 2020, New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and the first of two Indigenous women to be elected to the United States Congress, was nominated to be secretary of the interior under the Biden administration.

Haaland is an avid supporter of the Green New Deal, as well as sponsoring a bill that would seek to conserve 30 percent of US lands by 2030. A longstanding advocate for climate reform, Haaland is the type of quick-thinking progressive that we need after four years of the Trump administration ignoring the ticking time bomb of climate change.

When Haaland learned of her nomination, she gave a speech starting with acknowledging the land of the Lenape Tribal Nation, where she was audibly choked up. 

“Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce,” Haaland said. “My life has not been easy; I struggled with homelessness, I relied on food stamps and raised my child as a single mom.” 

This is significant not only due to the fact that Haaland would be the first Indigenous person to hold an executive cabinet position, but because the secretary of the interior is “responsible for the management and conservation of most federal land and natural resources.” This includes but is not limited to the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs

“My grandparents were sent to boarding schools and taken away from their families as children in an effort to destroy their traditions and identities,” Haaland said. “This moment is profound when we consider that a former secretary of the interior once proclaimed his goal was to ‘civilize or exterminate [Indigenous people].’” 

Congresswoman Haaland is referring to Native American boarding schools, which were institutions implemented by the United States government and the early Bureau of Indian Affairs  to colonize tribal land and forcibly assimilate Native Americans, attempting to erase Indigenous cultural identities throughout America. These schools used methods of shame, religious “conversion”, and family separation on Indigenous children to force them into assimilation. They were operating as recently as 2007, and they are not long-forgotten anecdotes. These “boarding schools” leave a legacy of dehumanization, racism and colonization on Indigenous communities that are alive today. 

While Haaland’s nomination is not an end-all solution to this issue, it is the first step of many to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous voices in regards to Indigenous land.

When we consider the steps we should take towards addressing climate change, we shouldn’t just consider reform, we should consider justice. That justice starts with confronting and dismantling systems of oppression and legacies of colonization that thrive in white America. This also means giving a platform to Indigenous people whose land continues to be taken from them. This is not just essential to our morality as a nation but to the survival of culture and life as it exists.