Protection of the Native American Heritage Hinges on the Environmental Justice Movement

Rep. Deb Haaland (NM-D), nominated for Sec. of Interior, in 2020 (Image from Shutterstock)

As Indigenous leaders are becoming increasingly prominent in the public sector, Native Americans are fighting to protect their land from further harm and raising popular attention towards climate injustice.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico is a rising star in the indigenous community. As a tireless advocate for environmental justice policy and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, her nomination as the Secretary of Interior for the incoming Biden administration has been a major win for proponents of her cause and a source of excitement for Native Americans across the country. If confirmed, she will be the first indigenous person to hold her position or any cabinet-secretary position in America’s history. Haaland’s role as the Interior Secretary includes the oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which regulates land and resource designations for native lands and reserves. The department has a strained relationship with native tribes because of a history of abusing and dispossessing Native Americans through a series of land grabs and treaty violations, a relationship that Haaland not only recognizes but intends to mend through legislative action. In her nomination acceptance speech, she remarked, “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet, and all of our protected land.” 

Indigenous communities are addressing the pressing climate issue on two main fronts: legislation and grass-roots community organizing. Native leaders are going to extensive lengths for their climate justice efforts to attract public attention. Between the Native water protectors risking their lives at Standing Rock and the Kanaka Maoli defending their sacred land at Mauna Kea, Native Americans and activists of color are undoubtedly the fierce leaders of the climate movement. 

The importance of Haaland’s department has only elevated in recent weeks, as President Trump ordered the Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Interior Department, to auction off oil and gas leases for drilling in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge. This decision drew large amounts of global outrage, garnering millions of signatures in online petitions to urge for the protection of the refuge. Oil drilling will cause irreparable damage to the nation’s largest previously unspoiled natural habitat and ecosystem. It is essential for hosting hundreds of endangered animal species, like polar bears, and is home to many Native Alaskans and Indigenous Americans who are culturally and economically dependent on the cultivation of these sacred lands. Still, the auction moved forward, and on January 6, only a few weeks before President-elect Biden’s inauguration, thousands of acres were sold to oil companies as Trump’s latest and final pursuit of environmental rollbacks and land acquisition. 

Now, Native American activists are directing their attention towards Biden. They urge him to repeal the 2017 law, signed by Trump, that not only sanctions but requires the federal government to auction off several hundred thousand more acres of oil drilling in the refuge by 2024. Republican lawmakers have rallied for decades to open the 1.3 million-acre Arctic Refuge for oil drilling, which environmentalists and conservationists countered at each attempt. With the Democrats gaining control of the Senate during the January runoffs this year, the new administration, under the direction of Haaland, has a real chance to overturn the law and any other Arctic energy projects that threaten the livelihood of indigenous people. 

But federal mandated oil drilling and “fossil fuel racism” isn’t new. Native activists have been fighting for generations to survive against the colonist exploitation of their heritage and natural resources. In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests gripped international headlines as thousands of Native Americans and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members bravely opposed the construction of an oil pipeline through the Standing Rock reservation and managed to convince former President Obama to halt construction. Their calls for environmental justice were well heard, although the pipeline was unfortunately still built by the Trump administration. Even early conservation movements were not an ally to indigenous peoples; they created the National Park System that contributed to the displacement and forcible relocation of Native Americans. 

Tribes across the nation are pioneers of environmental solutions and are reconfiguring modern climate plans, emphasizing the importance of community action, loyalty, and innovation. Native reserves are the “battlefront” of sorts in these plans: their progressive strategies for climate change mitigation put these tribes light years ahead of most other U.S. communities. The Swiminosh tribe of Washington recognized the threat of climate change early and adopted a thorough climate action plan that includes shoreline restoration and habitat healing, which 50 Native American tribes nationwide now follow. Tom Goldbooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), stated that “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.”

In the final article of my three-part Regional Focus series, I will detail the pending and potential legislation proposed by the indigenous climate justice movement and question whether the damage to the environment in indigenous communities is irreversible or not.