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Native Leaders Lend Strength to the Climate Change Fight

Photo by Vincent Schilling

Though a longtime activist on environmental issues and how they affect Native communities, Tom Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné) became passionate about climate justice in 1991, when he was appointed spokesperson of the Native Peoples Caucus at the first annual National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Goldtooth is the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), which works with tribal communities at a local and global level to protect sacred sites and the environment through direct action.

The conference drove home for Goldtooth the reality that, because of the lack of jurisdiction and federal support, tribal territories are often targeted by companies with climate-changing infrastructure such as pipelines, oil extraction through fracking, and the extraction of oil in the Canadian Tar Sands.

“It was the grandmothers, sisters, and brothers who were there that really got my heart,” he says. “They were talking about life and death issues, … and people from the coal power plant regions were dying from respiratory illness. I also heard testimony from … African-American people from the southeast who had been around the chemical-polluting industries along the Mississippi River corridor from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Since then, Tom and his son Dallas Goldtooth have continued to take action on climate justice, working in collaboration with tribes across North America. Though they’d have to be hard-pressed to admit it, the Goldtooths and IEN have played a key role in spearheading national Native activism on this issue, most notably in raising awareness of human rights issues at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris and providing critical support in pulling off what many thought was an impossible feat: stopping the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline.

The Case Against the Pipeline

The battle to stop the KXL pipeline from being constructed is a prime example of the direct effect climate-changing fossil-fuels have on Indigenous communities.

Proposed in 2008, the 1,700-mile-long, $8 billion KXL pipeline was to bring 800,000 barrels per day of bituminous crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Texas coast.

The KXL pipeline’s projected path across the country involved the entire central portion of the United States from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and many tribal populations were gravely concerned about the pipeline crossing over tribal territories and the massive water sources supplying them. If the pipeline were ever to leak, the pollution could have potentially destroyed the water supply to millions of Native and non-Native people.

Left to right: Tom and Dallas Goldtooth talk with Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman. Photo courtesy Dallas Goldtooth.

If the people do not understand the sacredness of Mother Earth, I do not see how we can develop any global plan to stop the climate crisis.

Tom Goldtooth

The tar sands are located approximately 250 miles north of Edmonton and cover 10 million acres of boreal forest. Underneath these lands lies bitumen, a tar-like form of petroleum that can be converted to fuel. To access the bitumen, the trees must be cut and cleared, and the bitumen must be converted to liquid fuel through an extraction process that creates up to four times the amount of greenhouse gases as standard oil drilling.

The bitumen also contains toxic substances known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which can cause cancer, and which are reported in substantially higher numbers by surrounding First Nations communities than most other communities because their lands are closer to the tar sands.

Alberta’s First Nations communities, particularly women, had been fighting against the effects of tar sands extraction on their lands when plans for KXL started to emerge in the public eye around 2010. It was then that IEN launched one of the first anti-KXL campaigns to gain national attention in the US and Canada.

The Battle to Stop KXL

Knowing full well the potential impact of the KXL, activists from all over Indian Country joined IEN in the fight to stop the pipeline.

As Dallas Goldtooth told UK’s The Guardian “Our resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline and other tar-sand infrastructure is grounded in our inherent right to self-determination as Indigenous peoples. As the original caretakers, we know what it will take to ensure these lands are available for generations to come. This pipeline will leak; it will contaminate the water. It will encourage greater tar sands development, which, in turn, will increase carbon emissions.”

They took to the media, pointing out that Indigenous people in the US and Canada have treaties in place obligating the governments to care for tribes in exchange for natural resources from their lands. However, they said, these treaties have been unheeded throughout history, including when it comes to the Alberta tar sands. While Canada claims there are 1.7 trillion barrels of oil trapped in the tar sands, First Nations do not benefit from the financial gains of the oil, though they experience many of the negative impacts.

“Indigenous people in many parts of the world are trying to maintain their subsistence lifestyle,” says Dallas Goldtooth. “They attempt to live off the land, and they continue to struggle to maintain these original instructions that we have maintained from time immemorial. Sadly, some of these extreme places are the same places where we are seeing these impacts of climate change happening. Because these places are targeted by industries, this ability to maintain a reconnection to the lands and animals is now limited.”

The Goldtooths helped launch an Earth Day action in April of 2014 in which thousands of protesters, including the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and Winona LaDuke’s Honor the Earth Foundation, arrived in Washington, DC, to protest KXL. They started getting tribal councils across North America to pass resolutions against KXL, and they sent a declaration opposing KXL, signed by thousands of Native people, directly to President Obama. They also helped lead the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2015.

A few weeks later, President Obama rejected the KXL pipeline proposal, citing its negative environmental repercussions. According to many, the world would not have seen such a victory if it hadn’t been for the organization and solidarity of Indigenous people.

Disappointment in Paris

Native leaders, including the Goldtooths, didn’t stop after KXL’s defeat. Many attended the COP21 in Paris, held November 30 through December 11, 2015, to push for a climate agreement that would include legally binding protections for Indigenous rights.

The Goldtooths participated in panels and events organized by the Committee in Solidarity With the Indigenous People of the Americas. During his time in Paris, Tom Goldtooth was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for his efforts in Native climate justice at a global level.

While the Paris climate agreement was lauded by many as a step forward in the fight against climate change, it tragically left out protections for human rights, including Indigenous rights. Native activists from around the world had called for such protections, particularly because Indigenous communities around the world are often forcibly relocated by governments colluding with corporations to raze rainforests or construct pipelines.

Dallas Goldtooth told Green America the rights of the Indigenous being slighted in Paris is admittedly old hat. “A lot of non-native allies asked us, “Why are you even going?’” he says. “I tell them, “We still need to acknowledge the message that needs to be told in terms of Indigenous people. We are still here.’”

While the Paris climate agreement was lauded by many as a step forward in the fight against climate change, it tragically left out protections for human rights, including Indigenous rights.

The Need for Native Values

Both Tom and Dallas say they will continue to deliver that message, primarily because they believe a profound respect for Native values is critical in the fight against climate change.

“If the people do not understand the sacredness of Mother Earth, I do not see how we can develop any global plan to stop the climate crisis,” Tom Goldtooth told Indian Country Media Today shortly after the Paris talks. “That is why Elders continue to encourage campaigns for the spiritual awareness of Mother Earth.”

“We need to connect to our original ways. It is more than just me,” says Dallas. “It is more than just my family and you. It is our future and the seven generations and the seven beyond that. This is something that deserves that passion.”

Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) is vice-president of Schilling Media, Inc. and an editor at Indian Country Media Today. Follow him @VinceSchilling.