By Osprey Orielle Lake
Despite the termination of the Environmental Impact Statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by the U.S. Trump administration and the oil now filling the pipeline beneath the Standing Rock Sioux people's sacred Lake Oahe—Indigenous women leaders and their global allies remain unyielding in their quest for justice and healing regarding the violations of Indigenous rights and human rights being carried out through the development of DAPL and other fossil fuel projects across North America.
Interviews collected by Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake
Indigenous women from across North America stand on the frontline of ongoing action to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They stand to protect the Earth, water, global climate, and the sacred sites, Indigenous rights and communities of the region.
Osprey Orielle Lake
"It is so important for us all to stand with Standing Rock and help them succeed in stopping this pipeline, because this is not just about Standing Rock, this is about all nations around the world, including the non-natives, this affects everyone from East to West." — Smiles for the People, Rosebud Sioux Peoples of South Dakota
Since early 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and hundreds of Indigenous Nations and allies have been resisting the construction of the $3.7 billion-dollar pipeline, which would transport 470,000 barrels of oil every day and threaten massive damage to the land and the waterways, including the Missouri River, which serve as the source of the Standing Rock Sioux's drinking water, and which flow to millions of downstream residents across the U.S.
In recognition of the central role played by Indigenous women in the resistance effort, the Women's Earth & Climate Action Network, International (WECAN) interviewed women leaders of Standing Rock and allied Indigenous Nations, recording their experiences, visions and calls to action for social and ecological justice. Their voices are critical not only for the wisdom, solutions and pointed analysis that they offer, but also because of the direct, violent impacts of the fossil fuel industry that are often borne disproportionately on the bodies of Indigenous women.
With conviction and care, the women convey that protecting water and sacred places has always been their traditional role as women, and they are taking a fierce stand to ensure a healthy life for generations to come.
The women also express that this is not just a fight to stop dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure and ensure the protection of water—it is also the culmination of ancestral prophecies, and the extraordinary next step of an Indigenous rights movement that has been building in this country for decades and generations.
They speak of the need for ceaseless action for Indigenous sovereignty; for a new relationships between Native communities, governments and corporations; and for a paradigm of socio-ecological balance based on respect for women and the Earth. These things are inseparable, they explain—when there is respect for women, there is respect for water, and there is respect for life.
Women on the frontline also decry the rapidly escalating militarization and abuses of local law enforcement, which has included the use of attack dogs, mace, intrusive surveillance and physical violence against those involved in ongoing non-violent direct actions based in traditional prayer and ceremony.
30 Powerful Photos Show Standoff Between Militarized Police & #DakotaAccessPipeline Protestors https://t.co/p4oQLKfn2n @greenpeaceusa @350— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1477748003.0
Since the collection of these statements, mass arrests, check-points , violence and intimidation against land and water defenders has grown more dire. Leaders from diverse national and international institutions point to a long legacy of colonial injustices against Native peoples in the U.S., ongoing through environmental racism, human and Indigenous rights abuses and damage to the Earth by corporate and state actors who continue to push forward pipeline construction.
The words and determination of these women stand strong as beacons of hope, resistance and love that shine far beyond the corporate pillage of Energy Transfer partners and the banks and corporations financing the pipeline.
The insights of these dedicated Indigenous women leaders call out to a world facing climate disaster and massive degradation of the Earth's ecological systems. Their testimonies remind us that it is time for women's knowledge and leadership, that it is time to respect Indigenous rights, that it is time to make a stand for all generations to come—and that it is far past time to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Together the women raise their voices to declare, "Mni Wiconi, Water is Life!"
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Sioux of Fort Yates, North Dakota)—founder of the Camp of the Sacred Stones, landowner along the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline routeEmily Arasim
On April first we started the Sacred Stone Camp to stand up against Dakota Access Pipeline. We have been here since then, standing up in prayer, doing our best to stop a pipeline that will damage our water. First and foremost we are water protectors, we are women who stand because the water is female, and so we must stand with the water. If we are to live as a people, we must have water, without water we die. So everything we do as we stand here, we must make sure that we do it in prayer, and that we do it in civil-disobedience. We do it with goodness and kindness in our hearts, but we stand up. We will not let them pass. We stand. Because we must protect our children and our grandchildren.
The abuse against women is well know in American history, world history—and this tells you a lot about what is happening to our Earth. If you respect women, you respect Earth and you respect water ... It's so simple, this whole fight, it has nothing to do with being an activist, but it has everything to do with being a mom.
As a mom, it's really hard to lose a child, you are never the same, and so when my son died, I buried him on that hill over there, so that he would be right there to watch the mouth of the Cannon Ball and the Missouri Rivers. And when they told me they were going to build a pipeline I was like, 'I can't allow that, I can't allow anybody to put a pipeline next to my sons graves'.
Jaslyn Charger (Cheyenne River Sioux of Eagle Butte, South Dakota)—founder of the International Indigenous Youth CouncilEmily Arasim
As soon as I set foot here, I knew that I had to be here. I knew that this was the place I was meant to be, the place where I would benefit my people most ... I felt the call, and I've just been active in this fight ever since, because I feel the pain of what the government is doing to our Mother Earth. They are raping her, across the world they are cutting up her belly and bringing out all her guts and it's just not right. We as woman we can feel her pain, we have that connection to her. We can hear her screams even though she doesn't have a voice, we see it. There used to be so many snows here, there used to be so many animals, and they are gone.
It's only going to take two hours for the oil to reach my community and reach my people. There will be no warning for us, they aren't going to tell us if the pipeline breaks, they are going to try to cover it up. Our water would be contaminated ... that's environmental racism. It is. On my people.
So what I did here in Standing Rock is to build the International Indigenous Youth Council, where youth can voice their opinions, where youth can be heard—because our voice is a strong one. This is our future ... I am here for my children that have not yet come. I want to tell them someday, hey, I loved you so much that I gave my life for you, I gave my life to defend your land and your water.
If you do have fear, find courage, because there is someone out there who needs you, there is someone out there in the future that is depending on you, and that's what we all gotta remind ourselves ... because we need to find strength in our pain ... because no matter what they do to us, no matter what they say, no matter if they bring dogs, mase, beat us to death—we are still going to be here ... Natural never breaks, but everything man-made does. Everything man made breaks, including our laws and our government, and it is up to us, as citizens of the United States, as citizens of this great country, we have to hold them accountable. And that is what we are doing here.
Champa Seyboye (Spirit Lake Sioux living in Mandan, North Dakota)Osprey Orielle Lake
I am here at the Oceti Sakowin camp to support clean water, to support Mother Earth. I have a daughter, I am here with my grandmother, my uncles, my sisters, and what I hope comes of this is more awareness of the need for clean water, it is our right—we all deserve clean water, we shouldn't have to fight tooth and nail constantly to get something that Mother Earth provides for us. There are so many bodies of water around the world that we can no longer drink from, and the Missouri River provides water to so many of us. If it gets contaminated a lot of people will be affected. I hope for more people to understand the value of water, and what that means for everyone—from our kids to our elders.
Kandi Mossett (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara from New Town, North Dakota) —Indigenous Environmental Network lead organizer on the Extreme Energy & Just Transition CampaignEmily Arasim
I stand with Standing Rock to help stop this greedy oil industry that initially came from where I live north-west of here, where they started digging oil out of the ground in the Bakken formation. This is a pipeline that is over 11,000 miles in length, and which is endangering everyone all along the water corridor down to the Gulf of Mexico and out to the world. Immediately in this location we have millions of people that will be impacted directly, so this is not just about the few of us holding it down here in Cannonball, North Dakota - this is about all of us who live downstream. This is about protecting our water sources - it is not just about one pipeline.
The big picture is that the fossil fuel industry is on its way out. This country mostly, and our choices as human being around the world, are causing climate chaos, and that is why we see rising ocean levels and Pacific Island states disappearing and people being displaced from their homes. Really—what we want is a just transition away from the fossil fuel industry. We have seen this country say we want to reduce our emissions—well if the Dakota Access pipeline were to be built that would be the equivalent of about 30 coal fired power plants per year being added to emissions to the air. That is equivalent to 21.4 million new vehicles per year. If this country of the U.S.A. was really serious about reducing emissions, we would absolutely not allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to be built.
Phyllis Young (Standing Rock Sioux)—former councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Central Oceti Sakowin camp organizerOsprey Orielle Lake
I am "Woman Who Stands By The Water" and my other name is "Woman Who Loves the Water." I was given those names by my people because it's been my life struggle to protect the water. I grew up on this river, I was removed and displaced when I was 10 years old, and I have never been compensated for the home that my grandparents lost. I came back here and I live on the river and I am telling the Army Corp, "You'll never displace me again. You'll never put me somewhere where I don't belong." ... We have been on a campaign for life, and it is our life struggle to maintain this river where we have lived all of our lives, under international principles of treaty that govern our relationship with the United States.
We want no pipeline. We want no oil going through our river, through our land. We want alternative energy sources—the sun is our brother. The sun is our natural world, and we need to utilize the solar and the natural energies that probably will devastate the capitalist world, but that's how it has to be. We're at a new threshold of human rights. It's not about just us. It's about the whole world. It's about Mother Earth, having endured her suffering for this long, she needs our help. She needs our protection. She's a female, and Indigenous people are the keepers of Mother Earth. We're obligated to keep her water for her, and maintain the life as created, and for us. We have deep spiritual obligation to protect our place—so we're petitioning the United Nation's Human Rights Commission to send observers here, and we're petitioning the commission to eliminate racial discrimination with a formal charge on the Bismarck route being changed to Standing Rock. We are invoking all of our rights to the water, to the treaty crossing, and we need allies to help us continue ... We are here for the long haul. We are here. We're staying here until there is no pipeline.
Lauren Howland (Jicarilla Apache of Dulce, New Mexico)—International Indigenous Youth council memberEmily Arasim
I'm here to stand for the water. I'm here to fight for my children, and my children's children—for the generations to come. I'm here to protect these people all around us, this land, this is sacred land, there are burial sites all through here ... This is a youth led movement, people forget that, that the youth are here fighting. Come to Standing Rock. ... You will be taken care of, that is the way of our people. We are bringing our prayers, we are bringing our Chanupas, we are bringing our tobacco. We are stopping this black snake that would kill us. This pipeline here would kill us, it would give us cancers, it would give our kids cancers. There's gonna be no future generations if this pipeline is built. Go look out at the soil by the pipeline. ... They are hurting my Mother Earth, they are hurting our Grandmother Earth, they are hurting Turtle Island [North America]. They are not here for themselves or us, they are here for the money. Pipeline workers, police, if you hear this, you need to understand how you are hurting us, how you are hurting the children.
Shrise Wadsworth (Hopi of the Bear Strap Clan from Shungopavi Village, Second Mesa, Arizona, pictured on the left)sprey Orielle Lake
I am here joining the peaceful protesters here at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to be a part of all of this, to show my support for my brothers and sisters, and to spark inspiration and motivation in my generation to get out there and embrace their heritage, embrace who they are as people, to show my community that they too do have a voice and their voice does matter. It is a beautiful thing to be here and see all the Nations reunited, together as it should be.
Joye Braun (Cheyenne River Sioux of Eagle Butte, South Dakota)—Indigenous Environmental Network representative and Dakota Access community organizerEmily Arasim
On April 1st, I helped put out a call for other pipeline fighters, and cousin answered the call and me and my cousin became the first two campers at Sacred Stone Camp ... When we were down fighting Keystone XL, my daughter, she had this huge epileptic seizure ... and when she came too, she told us what she had seen, and what she saw was these black snakes that were coming across the land, and that we were going to chop the head off of one of them, but once we chopped the head off of that one, others would pop up, and we had to be ready. And she said that the women were going to be in front of this fight, women were going to be standing in the front in red shawls ... and you see that happening here ... we have to be ready to fight them, and we have to to take everything that we learned and teach elsewhere.
Michelle Cook (Diné of the Walk Around Clan from Oak Springs, Arizona) —Standing Rock legal advisorOsprey Orielle Lake
This river is central to the survival of a people—and to me when you threaten the survival of a people, their identity, their land base, their water, that's unacceptable. That's a paradigm that has no place in today's world and so that's why I'm here.
We are fighting the Dakota pipeline, but we're also fighting the whole system of violence. The whole system which has called us savages. Which has denied us our ability to be human—and we're responding to that by creating a community that has it's own values. That respects its women. That gives its children priority. That will teach its children the traditional knowledge of life, that will give them life ... When I saw the young women crying out for help, I said I have to be there because I'm not going to watch these people be desolated for the greed of a corporation that does not love this land, that is not part of this land. That's the beautiful work that we're here for. ... When we have natural resource development which is unsustainable, which threatens the very life of human beings and the natural world, we say absolutely no, it's unacceptable. We deserve better than that. We're not going to let the future of America, the future of Turtle Island to be robbed and taken and stolen from us.
Tara Houska (Ojibwe, Couchiching First Nation of International Falls, Minnesota)—national campaigns director of Honor the EarthEmily Arasim
I came to Standing Rock when I heard a call out for help, to protect the water and to stop this destructive project from going through these people's homelands. I came here to stand with my Indigenous relatives for something that is much larger than just a single project. We want to stop this project but we also want to take a stand and say, 'no more'. Enough is enough. Indigenous people have been targeted for far too long and we've had to give up everything. We've been targeted for our homelands, for our children, for our language, for our culture—and what little we have left, what remnants we have left is now being threatened with contamination and destruction and our children are still targeted, and it needs to stop. And so I am hopeful that when we stop this project, it will be a moment in which people will realize that Indigenous nations are here, and we are sovereign, and we are not going to tolerate the conversation as it is today.
Eryn Wise (Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico)—International Indigenous Youth Council member and media coordinatorEmily Arasim
I had a dream about two months into being here, that my grandma who has passed away asked me for a glass of water - and when I went to give her the glass of water, it was full of dirt and oil. And she kept trying to drink it, and I was just so desperate to get her some water, but I couldn't find any anywhere, and I was really worried that if I didn't step up and do something to help protect the water, that we wouldn't have it anymore—I was seeing myself down the line without it.
And so I am here, taking part in this movement that everyone needs to be part of ... We will stop the Dakota Access pipeline—and this will continue outside of Standing Rock—and that is something that I deeply hope and know will happen.
Winona Kasto (Cheyenne River Sioux)—cook at Oceti Sakowin CampEmily Arasim
I am a traditional cook for Lakota peoples and I've been cooking for about thirty years. It's always so important for me to be here, to be there for the people, the people we must feed to stay strong, so they can stay here and do the work they are doing for us all.
Morning Star Gali
Morning Star Gali (Achomawi Band of Pitt River, Northeastern California)Osprey Orielle Lake
We are here, with the frontline defenders, with the women, with the women that are holding the line ... with a woman who is facing felony charges, all because she is standing for her children, who are here at the camp. All of us here are here for our future generations, so that we will have clean water.
The atrociousness regarding what happened with the burial sites being dug up by machinery, it's unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence for us, for Native peoples. We do not have the right to practice our religious freedom, we do not have the right to practice our traditional ceremonies—we have seen that this week in terms of helicopter flyovers, drone flyovers while we are going and making our offerings and putting those prayers and tobacco down. We are here to stand with the people here—we are here to stand for the protection of all sacred places.
Leanne Guy (Diné, from Navajo, New Mexico)—executive director of the Southwest Indigenous Women's CoalitionEmily Arasim
We are, as tribal peoples, connected to our lands, to our culture, to our languages. As women, we are life givers, we are nurtures within our communities, and have such a strong connection to Mother Earth as well. Violence against Mother Earth is violence against our women. And, that is part of what we stand for. Trying to end the violence—sexual and domestic violence, and also making that connection to Mother Earth, to the water, to our lands and to us as people. We are uniting against all of the pipeline industry—all of the extraction that is happening against our Earth, our women, our girls, our boys, our men. We are here to provide our support and to stand together as women in the movement, and with all of our relatives here.
Deezbaa O'Hare (Diné, Irish/Swedish residing in Oakland, California)Emily Arasim
As Indigenous people we know that water is life, we know that we come from the water, the first environment is this water, and the women carry that. We carry that water inside of us. And this is about this to, this is about connection. ... We have to listen to our core, our core responsibilities as humankind, let us honor ourselves, let us honor each other, let us take care of ourselves as we take care of the world around us. ... There is a prayer that has been laid down here and it's not just for our generation, is for the next generations, and so we carry that, we carry that forward for healing and wellness for the Earth. And we are not being asked to do this alone, it is time for all people of all nations to wake up and listen to the water. Water is life.
Osprey Orielle Lake is the founder and executive director of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International . She is the author of the award-winning book Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature. Follow on Twitter @WECAN_INTL.
Emily Arasim is the Communications Coordinator and Project Assistant for WECAN International. She is an avid photojournalist, writer, seed saver and farmer from New Mexico.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake
There are some crystalline moments in which the challenges we face as a civilization become brutally clear. Moments in which corrupt aspects of American democracy and the fractures in our social, economic and political systems are exposed with unsurpassed clarity.
Moments in which we are reminded of how fundamentally ruptured our dominant culture's relationship with the Earth has become and in which we see before our eyes how this split has led to almost unfathomable acts of violence against the Earth, against women and against the original inhabitants of North America.
Standing on the sweeping, golden prairie of North Dakota with the noxious flames of the Bakken fracking fields visible in all directions, one such moment descended with heavy weight.
Rape of the Land, Rape of the Women
"The Bakken" is a shale formation that spans some 25,000 square miles and covers much of western North Dakota, eastern Montana and the southern parts of two Canadian provinces. Since the early 2000's, a boom in oil extraction has taken place in the region thanks to newly available hydraulic fracking technologies used to extract sticky, heavy oil from deep within shale rock. In less than a decade, North Dakota has become a fracking epicenter and the second largest U.S oil-producer after Texas.
For millennia before becoming the center of the fracking industry, northwest North Dakota served primarily as rich agricultural grounds and as the home of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples.
For the Three Affiliated Tribes, the social and environmental destruction wrought by the fracking industry is but the latest wave of historic oppression and colonization. In 1947, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara were forcibly moved from their traditional lands to make room for the construction and flooding of Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River.
Of the 12 million acres promised to the Three Affiliated Tribes by an 1851 treaty, less than 1 million acres have been delivered in the form of the Fort Berthold Reservation and now these remaining acres are being eaten away by destructive development, cultural dislocation and irremediable ecologic damage cause by the fracking industry.
Williston, a mid-sized town just outside of Fort Berthold Reservation, has officially adopted the new town slogan "Boomtown, USA" and has been taken over by the industry to the point that it is almost unrecognizable to residents, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, whose families have lived there for generations.
The population of Williston has doubled , maybe even quadrupled since 2010, however exact numbers are too hard to track due to the transient flow of labor and utter inability of local government to keep up.
Law enforcement and social services have been stretched far past their limits, leaving many, especially Indigenous women and girls, exposed, vulnerable and without proper legal protection.
While there are some families and women moving to the area to partake in work on the fracking fields and sprawling hotels and strip malls that have popped up to service the workers, the majority of the tens of thousands of new residents are men. In recent years the demographic has changed to the point that there are now more men concentrated in North Dakota than anywhere else in the U.S outside of Alaska.
Workers are housed in ever-expanding mobile home complexes called "man-camps," ranging from unregulated trailers in farmers' fields to sprawling complexes housing and feeding more than 1,000 workers at a time.
Conditions for fracking workers are cramped and have proven to be breeding grounds for violence, drug use and sexual abuse. The population influx and housing demands had driven up rents to exorbitant rates rivaling New York City and San Francisco, squeezing out long-term residents and putting many at risk of homelessness.
According to the state's Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime, including murder, aggravated assault, rape and robbery increased by 125 percent between 2005 and 2013.
In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified two small towns in the Bakken alongside four major cities (Boston, Houston, Atlanta and Oakland), as the places in the U.S most in need of assistance to combat rampant sex and human trafficking.
In North Dakota, as in many places across the world, violence against women intersects with and is multiplied by deep racism and a legacy of exploitation, systemic violence and genocide of Indigenous peoples.
According to U.S Department of Justice records, one in three Native American women are raped in their lifetimes, a figure that is two-and-a-half times greater than the average for all U.S. women.
In an astounding 86 percent of cases of rape of Indigenous women and girls, the assailant is non-Native, which has proven to be a fatal catch-22 allowing many crimes to go uninvestigated by either U.S or Tribal officials.
From the biggest industry supporter to the staunchest critic, everyone in the North Dakota Bakken is quick to admit that the region feels like an uncontrolled, "wild west." This violent lawlessness bears down upon Indigenous women and girls with unmatched brutality.
In April of 2015, a coalition of Indigenous and women right's organizations, led by Honor the Earth, filed a request with the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, demanding a UN intervention in the epidemic of sexual violence brought on by extreme fossil fuel extraction in Bakken fracking fields and the Alberta, Canada tar sands region.
While violence against Indigenous and other local women in the region continues to be pushed under the cover, the very visible rape of the Earth happening across North Dakota is harder to ignore.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission cites nearly 2,000 spills, leaks, ruptures, fires and blowouts over the past 12 months and the Associated Press recently uncovered at least 750 "oilfields incidences" hidden from the public since January 2012. More than 75 tons of oil waste is generated in the state every day, one third of which is highly radioactive.
Radioactive "frack socks," used to filter solids from toxic fracking water, are produced by the hundreds of thousands every day. Waste disposal sites in North Dakota are not allowed to accept these radioactive materials, the result being that thousands of filters are being illegally dumped by industry workers, most notably on back roads, dumpsters and playgrounds of the Fort Berthold reservation.
While fracking is happening across the U.S, there are a several elements of the North Dakota industry that set it above the rest when it comes to devastation of the land and the health of local communities.
The massive worker influx and targeting of Indigenous communities are two such factors—flaring or the burning off of the natural gas extracted during the fracking process, is another.
Across the U.S, an average of just 1 percent of gas is flared, while the rest is captured and used as productive energy. In North Dakota, upwards of 26 percent is burned off, creating an additional source of volatile pollution and waste and serving as a testament to the industries flagrant disregard for the health of people and Earth in North Dakota.
Carbon dioxide, methane and many other hydrocarbons and carcinogens have been identified in samples, however companies are not required to disclose the exact chemical composition of the flared gases, which compromise local air quality, have been linked to cancer, asthma and respiratory disease, and astonishingly, can be seen glowing from space in the previously dim, sparsely populated North Dakota plains.
Flares are highly toxic when lit, but even more devastating when the flames go out and gases pour out unseen, creating gas plumes over local communities for hours, days or weeks.
The global warming inducing methane and carbon dioxide released by flaring is a double threat not just for North Dakota, but for worldwide efforts to curb run away climate change.
Fracking is a violent assault on all of Earth's vital systems, but most immediate and pronounced on the water cycle.
The process drills some 2,000 to 10,000 feet deep, often passing through and contaminating vital aquifers. For each frack well, 1 to 8 million gallons of fresh water is mixed with undisclosed chemical "fracking fluids" and forcefully injected into the ground to break the rock and release the gas and oil.
Despite corporate secrecy, it has been established that more than 600 chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, are common components of the water/chemical concoction. Many of the chemicals used by the fracking industry have been exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws, despite the fact that they are being directly injected into the Earth and drinking water sources.
Elementary school science, which taught us that the water cycle is a closed loop—that no water is ever gained or lost—is no longer an ultimate truth, as water used in the fracking process is contaminated with oil and hydrocarbons, radioactive materials, carcinogens and biocides to the point of no return.
At a time of global water crisis, the fossil fuel industry is permanently destroying billions of gallons of pure water in a race to dig up non-renewable resources. The imperative of action to keep fossil fuels in the ground could not be clearer.
Women Speak from the Frontlines
In September of 2015, a delegation from the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network traveled to Williston, North Dakota to take part in the Fifth Annual Stop Extreme Energy Conference, support advocacy efforts and bear witness to the conditions being experienced in and around the community of longtime Indigenous, women's and climate justice activist, Kandi Mossett.
Mossett, native energy and climate campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, was born and raised in New Town, a once small, close-knit community just inside the borders of Fort Berthold Reservation.
Mossett led a diverse group of educators and activists on a "toxic tour" of the region around New Town, Williston and Fort Berthold, visiting contaminated sites and passing seemingly endless open flares, oil derricks and drills, processing sites, train depots,"'man camps" and supporting infrastructure from hotels and truck stops, to strip clubs and liquor stores.
The phrase "national sacrifice zone" came to the lips of many of the witnesses, struggling to describe the dangerous deregulation, debase pursuit of corporate profit and callous disregard for the health and safety of local communities, and the soil, water, air and lives of future generations.
Driving just outside of Watford City, the group passed an elementary school and playground. Mere meters away from the school on the other side of the road, Mossett pointed out a torn up road and a newly constructed building, to serve as a radioactive storage facility for the fracking industry. According to Mossett, the permits for the building had been officially issued just weeks previously, however construction had been started many months before.
This is only one of many incidences involving direct threats to local children and their right to life. In the town of Mandaree toddlers were found playing with radioactive "frack-sock" filters dumped in a field, prompting residents to immediately begin campaigning and plastering nearby towns with flyers identifying the danger and making sure parents and children knew to stay away and immediately report dumping of radioactive waste.
With tears and heart-wrenching grief, Mossett also recounted the story of a young girl, less than five years old, found running, naked, away from a man-camp after having been sexually violated by a worker.
In the windswept, rolling plains of North Dakota, companies like Halliburton, Hess, Crestwood Energy, Whiting Petroleum Corp. and Enbridge, to name but a few, have crowned themselves king and are acting with a level of impunity beyond measure.
They are using the complex overlay of sovereign tribal, federal and state jurisdictions, as well as questionable webs of subcontractors, to evade responsibility for atrocious social and ecologic damages—however their air of confidence and inevitability is more and more in-question everyday.
There is a saying of the Global South that speaks to the change that must now come to the Bakken oil fields: Neither the land nor women are territories of conquest.
Hope Amidst Devastation
There are many compelling reasons for hope.
For one, the profitability of the industry is plummeting. In the first weeks of 2016, Flint Hills Resources LLC, the refining arm of the Koch's brothers industries, offered to pay just $1.50 per barrel of North Dakota crude, down from $13.50 one year ago and $47.60 in January of 2014.
The same collapse is happening just north in the Canadian tar sands and investors are fleeing rather than risk stranded assets.
While the growing financial instability and risk facing the extreme energy industry in North Dakota and around the world, is a major victory for the global climate and #KeepItIntheGround movement—it was vividly apparent in travels around North Dakota that deep and sustained attention must be given to ensure that our transition away from fossil fuels is a just one and that those communities whose lives have been uprooted by the industry are not once again made disposable when the fracking boom collapses.
As the industry unravels towards its own demise, resistance movements, local initiatives and powerful narratives speaking out against the industry are also growing in strength.
After learning that their land was slated for industry expansion, the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa people moved unanimously to ban fracking on their 77,000-acre reservation, located in the north-central part of the state, just 190 miles from the fracking epicenter in Forth Berthold.
The Standing Rock Sioux Nation in the southern part of the state have also issued a ban.
As on Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara land, the movement to ban fracking amongst the Chippewa was led by local women, acting in alignment with their traditional role as providers and protectors of water. Since their success in passing the initial ban, they have been taking the next steps to ensure continued protection and the development of systemic alternatives through the use of abundant solar and wind energy.
North Dakota has the sixth largest wind resource potential in the U.S., totaling 770,000 megawatts—which is more than that of all fossil fuel powered plants in the U.S. combined.
While still plagued by an unresponsive tribal council, Mossett's own community is stepping up and taking action of their own accord.
In 2015, local grassroots women including Lisa DeVille and Theodora and Joletta Birdbear, founded Fort Berthold Protectors of Water & Earth Rights (POWER), through which the have been lobbying and directly pushing back against their local officials and the liable corporations.
They have no intention of stepping down in their campaign to stop fracking in North Dakota, bring an end to violence against local women and Indigenous communities and lift up respect for the vibrant Earth.
In December of 2015, Mossett was one of the leading activists and most prominent Indigenous voices present during the United Nations COP21 climate negotiations in Paris. She helped present the "Keep It In the Ground Declaration" with global allies, delivered a Frontline Women's Press Conference with the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network and led countless other workshops, conferences and stunning direct actions, including a high-profile demonstration to call out fracking inside of the so-called COP21 "Solutions 21" exhibition, where French fracking company Suez was promoting their business as climate friendly.
It should be well noted that at COP21 the U.S., along with 195 countries, pledged to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists have stated that we must keep 80 percent of global fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid climate catastrophe. Continued fracking will thus contribute to the negation of the Paris agreement and the demands of science—underscoring the need for serious scrutiny and immediate action to halt this extreme extraction.
In 2016, Mossett will be working to document and expose the connections between fracking and asthma and other local health impacts and will be taking on the heroic task of founding a nonprofit to promote, teach and manifest food sovereignty and renewable energy on tribal lands across Montana and North and South Dakota.
Mossett is an inspiration not only in her fierce work to challenge brutal prevailing forces of environmental and cultural destruction, gender violence, compromised health and a dangerously dysfunctional legal system—but also in her tender work to heal and nourish alternatives.
She stands with countless other Indigenous women who are working not just to expose injustice, but to actively build the healthy world we seek.
Until we are accountable to the women and the communities on the frontlines of environmental impacts, there will be no social justice or climate solutions.
It is time to urgently end the injustice and racism of sacrifice zones in the U.S. Instead, we must build hope, build solutions and follow the guidance and experience of frontline women leaders like Mossett, as she and others work for a just transition to a clean energy future that works for the Earth and all it's people.
Osprey Orielle Lake is the founder and executive director of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International and co-chair of International Advocacy for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. She is the author of the award-winning book Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature. Follow on Twitter @WECAN_INTL.
Emily Arasim has served as WECAN International's media and communications coordinator and project assistant since 2014. She is an avid photojournalist, writer and farmer from New Mexico.
By Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake
In late January 2016, the government of Ecuador signed a controversial contract with Chinese oil company Andes Petroleum, handing over rights to explore and drill for oil deep in the country's pristine southeastern Amazon Rainforest, known and revered by many as "the lungs of the Earth."
By Osprey Orielle Lake
“The message our Living Forest proposal delivers is aimed at the entire world with the goal of reaching the hearts and minds of human beings everywhere, encouraging us all to reflect on the close relation between Human Rights and the Rights of Nature." —From Kawsak Sacha, The Living Forest: An Indigenous Proposal for Confronting Climate Change, presented by the Amazonian Kichwa People of Sarayaku, Ecuador
December 2015 found all eyes on Paris as government representatives from around the world debated and finalized a new international climate change agreement at the United Nations COP21 climate negotiations. The news was abuzz with stories and analysis about the Paris agreement and the commitments (or lack thereof) made by world governments, however it was just outside of the narrow glance of the mainstream media that actions and events for bold transformative change were taking place.
Civil society, non-governmental and community organizations representing hundreds of thousands of people from diverse social movements and international networks gathered during the Paris climate negotiations for major actions on the streets, hundreds of events, assemblies, concerts and educational workshops focused on just, community driven climate solutions.
It is critical to highlight these peoples' movement initiatives, planned in parallel to COP21 proceedings, because they are the ones bringing about the socio-ecologic and systemic transformation that concerned people around the world are calling forth—from decentralized energy systems and food sovereignty to Indigenous rights and gender-responsive climate policies.
Like inconspicuous stones cast into a deep pond, the ripples from these alternative proceedings are reaching outward and broadening into ever widening circles, connecting one to another and spreading worldwide.
So it was that two significant ripples that demonstrate respect for Nature and the natural laws of the Earth, topics stunningly absent from the UN negotiations, radiated out into the corridors of COP21, to civil society gatherings and onto the streets of Paris. One ripple was the growing global movement for the Rights of Nature, the other, going hand-in-hand, the potent voice of the Indigenous Kichwa People of Sarayaku, Ecuador and their Living Forest Proposal.
International Rights of Nature Tribunal
Rights of Nature is a revolutionary and evolutionary concept, at the heart of which lies a key to addressing our horrifically dysfunctional economic system and the legal, social and political frameworks that are destroying people and planet.
The Rights of Nature framework originated from the understanding that after decades of environmental protection laws (which surely have achieved some notable successes), our modern legal systems have failed to prevent the increasingly grave threats of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and the growing displacement of humans and other species.
The majority of the world's legal frameworks are based on treating nature as property, meaning that our life-giving rivers, forests and mountains are seen as objects to be sold and consumed. Our current legal paradigm furthers dangerous ideas around the commodification and financialization of nature, and we can see the disastrous results of this way of thinking.
To avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis and move towards truly sustainable living, we must challenge the idea that Earth's living systems are property and change the very DNA of our legal frameworks to adhere to the natural laws of the Earth.
Recognizing Rights of Nature means that human activities and development must not interfere with the ability of ecosystems to absorb their affects, to regenerate their natural capacities, to thrive and evolve, and requires that those responsible, including corporate actors, be held fully accountable for negative impacts on Earth systems.
The power of the global movement for Rights of Nature has been growing quickly, in part due to the popularity of local and international Rights of Nature tribunals.
Rights of Nature Tribunals give people from all around the world the opportunity to testify publicly on the destruction of the Earth and their communities, while simultaneously creating a new legal framework, providing critical alternatives for environmental protection, and offering a new vision for just social, economic and political structures.
Critically, a Rights of Nature framework also provides a path through which people can re-learn respect for Mother Earth, as Indigenous peoples of the world have been demonstrating for thousands of years. As more and more activists in Paris began to acknowledge, we are not just protecting nature, we are nature - a recognition of profound significance given that it is the belief that we are separate from the Earth that resides at the root of and furthers a destructive relationship to the natural world.
In Paris, the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature held its third International Rights of Nature Tribunal, covering topics ranging from fracking and mega-dams to GMO's, deforestation and violence against defenders of the land.
Rights of Nature Tribunals cases were founded on the mandate of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, drafted in 2010 at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. Outcomes and final judgments were based on scientific, technical, research-based and other expert testimony, the first-hand experiences of witnesses, as well as the world views and wisdom of Indigenous peoples who hold an ancient understanding of humans as part and particle of the living cosmos.
Kawsak Sacha: The Living Forest
"Let's leave our old perceptions and ideas, to be reborn and boost a collective transformation! Now is the time to stop these destructive ideas in our ancestral territories and around the world. We as Indigenous peoples have the great opportunity to bring our vision—and a clear proposal—that could call on a transformation for all of humanity." —Patricia Gualinga, Director of International Relations for the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, Ecuador (Source: Amazon Watch)
Throughout the two weeks of the UN climate talks, a delegation of Indigenous Kichwa leaders from Sarayaku, Ecuador worked ceaselessly to present and spread their proposal of Kawsak Sacha, or the "Living Forest," a comprehensive vision for living in harmony with the natural world based upon the practices with which their ancestors have sustainably inhabited and cared for the health of the Amazon Rainforest for millennia.
Their proposal is a profound challenge to dominant concepts and practices, which view nature as a resource to market, commodify and exploit without limit. In the context of the Paris climate change agreement, this means a challenge to the idea that we can put forests into carbon trading schemes and other market mechanisms as a means of addressing climate change.
The Kawsak Sacha “Living Forests" vision is vital for many reasons, the most fundamental being that maintaining the ecologic balance of the Amazon is essential to Earth's health and capacity to mitigate climate change. Approximately 20 percent of the carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels is absorbed by tropical forests around the world, and this is just one of many critical ecologic functions. Consequently, protecting the Amazon rainforest, the largest of the world's tropical forests, must be central to climate change discussions and policies.
Within this context, Indigenous peoples and their rights must be respected and protected because it is their intimate relationship with their forests and their courageous ongoing struggles to defend their territories that has and will continue to bring about the highest protection of these vital rainforests. It is a grave and dangerous tragedy that alongside human rights, Indigenous rights were removed from the operative part of the final Paris agreement.
The wisdom and worldview expressed in the Kawsak Sacha proposal has much to offer and is best shared through excerpts of the words of the Sarayaku people themselves:
Kawsak Sacha (The Living Forest) is a proposal for living together with the natural world that grows out of the millennial knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples who inhabit the Amazonian rainforest, and it is one that is also buttressed by recent scientific studies. Whereas the western world treats nature as an undemanding source of raw materials destined exclusively for human use, Kawsak Sacha recognizes that the forest is made up entirely of living selves and the communicative relations they have with each other. These selves, from the smallest plants to the supreme beings who protect the forest, are persons (runa) who inhabit the waterfalls, lagoons, swamps, mountains, and rivers, and who, in turn, compose the Living Forest as a whole.
Kawsak Sacha, understood as sacred territory, is the primordial font of Sumak Kawsay (Buen Vivir, “Good Living"). In essence, the forest is neither simply a landscape for aesthetic appreciation nor a resource for exploitation. It is, rather, the most exalted expression of life itself. It is for this reason that continued coexistence with the Living Forest can lead to Sumak Kawsay. This encourages us to propose that maintaining this lively space, based on a continuous relation with its beings, can provide a global ethical orientation as we search for better ways to face the worldwide ecological crisis in which we live today. In this manner Sumak Kawsay can become a planetary reality.
Proposal: Declaration of Kawsak Sacha (the Living Forest)
1. Our Concrete Proposal consists in attaining national and international recognition for Kawsak Sacha (the Living Forest), as a new legal category of protected area that would be considered Sacred Territory and Biological and Cultural Patrimony of the Kichwa People in Ecuador.
2. The Living Forest proposes a way of achieving Sumak Kawsay by means of the application and execution of Life Plans that are sustained by the three foundational pillars of the Sumak Kawsay Plan: Fertile Land (Sumak Allpa); Living in Community (Runaguna Kawsay); and Forest Wisdom (Sacha Runa Yachay).
3. Understood as Territory, the Living Forest, thanks to forty years of communal effort, is now demarcated by a border of flowering and fruiting trees visible from the air. We call this vital cordon a Frontier of Life or Trail of Flowers (Jatun Kawsak Sisa Ñampi). By means of the flower's ephemeral beauty, the Frontier of Life conveys the fragility of life and the fertility of the Living Forest that it both surrounds and protects. At the same time it creates the possibility of beginning to dialogue with the beings that make up the Living Forest. In this way the Frontier of Life creates a permanent forum for communication among beings. This can help the entire world recuperate the original understanding of Mother Earth as a shared home.
Given the gravity and speed of climate change, it would behoove us to immediately welcome truly transformative ideas such as Rights of Nature and the Kawsak Sacha proposal. May these ripples in the pond turn into waves of change, or we will have overwhelming waves from sea level rise that will not be the transformation we are seeking.
Special thanks to Amazon Watch and the Indigenous Environmental Network for their support of the Indigenous peoples and the initiatives featured in this article.
Osprey Orielle Lake is the founder and executive director of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International and co-chair of International Advocacy for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Osprey is the author of the award-winning book Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature. Follow on Twitter @WECAN_INTL.
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