Illustration by Sarah Torina Coulthard (local artist).

“The land is sacred.” These words were as true when they were spoken by an unnamed Penan elder in Borneo as they were when they were written by Lakota activist Mary Brave Bird. Caring about the climate is now fashionable and mainstream, but for those who depend immediately on the quality of the lands, waters, and animals, climate activism is a matter of survival and self-determination. The reality is this: the effects of a changing climate will impact us differently, and none more so than those of poorer countries or indigenous people. I want to shine a light on the efforts of the young climate activists of these countries and communities.

“Maka ke wakan — the land is sacred. These words are at the core of our being. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die. That is, the Indian in us dies.” – Ohitika Woman, Mary Brave Bird. 

It is my belief, that the United States has never, and is still fully unwilling, to come to terms with their genocide of the Native American peoples. The antipathy of the general public and the continual dismissal of Native American rights vis-à-vis land ownership, reparations, and government aid would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups and are severely underrepresented in any government office. For a country that has a national holiday centred around Native-colonial relations, no matter how grossly inappropriate that is to anyone with a modicum of knowledge on the subject, Native American people have been ignored in almost every facet. When nature and the culture of any native nation are inextricably linked, they have every right to be the faces of American environmental activism. Yet names like Madonna Thunder Hawk don’t immediately spring to mind… I’ll let you google her name before continuing with the rest of the column… Ok, good.

Now, when we look at some of the major environmental injustices toward Native Americans one of the more insidious acts of aggression is the continued poisoning of their land and water. Years of exploitation by private companies and a complicit government have led to the desecration of much of the natural resources held sacred to Native American nations across the country. How exactly? Mining, manufacturing, dumping. Imagine, it starts with private companies wanting the precious metals under the earth, regardless of the importance of the mountain/land/lake they have to plunder for it. It is allowed to proceed by government passing permits, even if it conflicts with the wishes of the nations who occupy the land or live in close proximity to affected sites. It is allowed to fester long after companies have closed because they couldn’t care less about cleaning up the mess left behind or who that mess might affect. 

You may be wondering, “what’s the mess?”. Hmm, let’s see. Arsenic, vanadium, mercury, uranium, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, toluene… should I keep going? It’s enough to make any chemist’s head spin (could you imagine the safety information you’d need to fill out?). But this isn’t a stock check for a group in the Chemistry Research Laboratory, it’s a list of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water, marine life, and/or soil/sedimentation samples across America that have disproportionately affected Native Americans. Superfund sites are sites so contaminated with hazardous material that it necessitates long-term cleanup. Considering the context of this column, it is not surprising to learn that in 2014, 25% of superfund sites are in Native American country. Eastern-Michaud Flats, an abandoned FMC facility and current superfund site that has polluted Shoshone-Banock rivers with Arsenic and gamma radiation, is just over an hour away from Standing Rock, the site of the famous Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016.

I was 18, seeing the headlines of the protest come up on my iPhone, and I distinctly remember feeling rage. I had always been aware of politics, the same way any other Joe Bloggs might, but very quickly it became real. Having friends with poor mental health, friends who were part of the LGBTQ+ community, or family on the poverty line will do that for you. All this, and now you throw in the impending climate disaster? Everything about the need for the DAPL protests and the treatment of the protestors had me in a rage, and it stuck with me over the years. I was totally impassioned by the young activists who defied the initial wishes of their elders by meddling in affairs that did concern them, took their petitions straight to the capitol, and risked personal safety to deny Dakota Access and to protect their land. Tokata Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, was merely 12 years old when she stood alongside her community at the DAPL protests. In large part, it was the persistence of the young activists at Standing Rock that pulled national, and later global, attention. They were a part of the protests when the first sit-in camp at Sacred Stone was established and had organised and ran 2000 miles, from North Dakota all the way to D.C., where they presented a petition of 160,000 signatures to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (a petition started, by the way, by 30 youth indigenous activists). 

For Jasilyn Charger of the Lakota Sioux this was personal and indicative of the prevailing indifference towards the Native American people. Prior to the DAPL protests, she, along with White Eyes and Trenton Casillas-Bakeberg, founded The One Mind Movement, a youth council dedicated to helping teenagers of the Cheyenne River Reservation struggling with mental illness. As she describes in her interview with the New York Times, suicides occures frequently in her community (and in fact with the Native American population at large). Utilising her experiences from her early activism, she, arm in arm with her peers, helped galvanise a nation and was instrumental in calling attention to the impending pipeline’s construction. The small prayer camp set up by Jasilyn and other teeneagers from the One Mind Movement eventually grew into the formidable campaign against DAPL and Energy Transfer. The tragedy of this story unfortunately lies with the eventual construction of the pipeline after then President Trump signed a presidential memorandum to advance approval of the DAPL’s construction. Whilst undoubtedly crushing, it has scarcely deterred Jasilyn as she continues her work in environmentalism and advocacy for Native American youth, founding the 7th Defender’s Project, an organisation working to “empower, support and fight for the lives (of the) next generation”. 

What we need to recognise is the fact that in demanding the protection of their waters, the protestors were then subjugated to brutal treatment by law enforcement. Their peers were pepper-sprayed, arrested, shot at with water and sound cannons, and put in cages. Female protestors, including ally and actress Shailene Woodley, were strip-searched, with some protestors claiming they were made to strip in front of multiple male officers. Let’s put this in explicit terms: a multi-million dollar pipeline company worked in tandem with local, state, and federal law enforcement to suppress predominantly, although not exclusively, Native American protestors. All whilst government officials granted and encouraged the construction of the pipeline on land that should have been protected, as per treaties sanctioned by the U.S. senate. All of this just adds to the well-known list of atrocities against the Native American peoples, and when injustices like these are committed in the presence of, and oftentimes towards, the indigenous youth, it is not surprising that they might have a thing or two to say about it. In fact, many of the young activists involved with the DAPL have continued campaigning for Native American rights, more significant environmental policies, and crucially for better protection of indigenous land. In order for Native American nations to have environmental justice, their sovereignty must be respected. When you have greater numbers of youth climate activists, like Jasilyn Charger, demanding space in the courts, and with greater international pressure and support, you can surely expect the tide to change for the better. 

“When you see something traumatic happen, you want to do something positive about it. That’s how movements are built, that’s how you make change.” 

-Jasilyn Charger, Our Climate Voices

Claire Torina Coulthard

Claire Torina Coulthard is a Chemistry DPhil at Balliol. She has a passion for communicating science and climate news and has been writing for over 4 years, starting with her time at the University of Warwick.