Dear President Biden, An Indigenous Perspective on Your Inauguration Post by Shannon Biggs, January 20, 2021, movement rights
Banner image: “The Last Breath of the Black Snake” painted by Ledger Artist Michael Horse to commemorate the Cowboy and Indian Alliance (2014)
By Casey Camp Horinek. Casey is an Elder and the Environmental Ambassador for the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma and leads Movement Rights Ponca and Indigenous Rights of Nature campaigns.
Dear President Biden,
I congratulate you and Vice President Harris on choosing to launch your Administration by taking some powerful steps for the climate and Mother Earth. Halting the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling leases in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is a great beginning and we acknowledge that. As Environmental Ambassador for my people, the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, we appreciate that our ancestral territory and the Ogallala Aquifer is being better protected from destructive oil and gas activities. This is only a small step in the right direction.
I urge you to use your Executive power to also end the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Line 3 in your first week.
The caretaking of the Earth and Sky is in our hands, for humans are the only species who have defied the laws of Nature in a quest to conquer and own them. We must not only recognize the rights of humans to a clean environment, but the Rights of Nature itself—to evolve, thrive and continue its vital cycles—the Sacred Creation of which humans are only a small part. In keeping with our ancestral knowledge, Indigenous Peoples have stood firmly against the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands. We have laid our bodies on the line when your predecessors approved pipelines from Alberta through our territories—not only the Keystone XL but the DAPL, Line 3 and others.
While we celebrate the end of pipelines as your administration begins, I must acknowledge that the ink of your pen on these executive orders has come from the lifeblood of the Original Peoples, and our allies over many years. At Standing Rock we gathered to pray and to stand before the machines of extraction. We were not paid to be there, and indeed most of our tribal communities live in poverty. We came to stop the DAPL pipeline from going under the Missouri River, to protect the sacred water on behalf of six tribes and 17 million Americans downstream. Many of us faced down police water cannons in freezing temperatures; we were maced, arrested, numbered with sharpie pens on our arms and held in dog cages. My number was 138. My son’s number was 4838. Following Standing Rock, many states passed laws making protesting fossil fuel activities felonies, including Oklahoma. As you know President Biden, after months (and years of work before that confrontation) the Obama administration would put ink to paper to stop DAPL. Tens of thousands returned home, only to find the next administration would reverse course.
What can be done to ensure that your Executive Orders are the last word on these pipelines? Our people shouldn’t have to stand in the cold and pray everyday on the frontlines to ensure the US government stands correct with our Treaty Rights.
Yes, we want you to “Build Back Better,” starting in our communities. We’ve already been leading this environmental justice effort for free. Give us a real green economy. That would be a real start toward correcting 500 years of genocidal policies against the Indigenous people of this land. We are global leaders of green movements, including the Rights of Nature, which provides legal standing for ecosystems in court. My own tribe was the first in the U.S. to recognize that on tribal land, Nature—including people—has the legal right to exist and regenerate its vital cycles.
After so many lies, broken treaties, cultural and historic erasure, we ask you now, “how do we believe in you?”
A good start would be acknowledging the real living history of this land and its First Peoples. We are still here. At your Inauguration you could have made a land acknowledgement. A simple statement that as you were sworn in at the Capitol, you stand on occupied land of the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples. While that inaugural moment has passed, as you travel around what we call Turtle Island, you have many opportunities to acknowledge the people who have lived here for time immemorial.
Of course, this doesn’t erase 500 years of lies and oppression. We will be more comfortable moving forward once Deb Haaland has been confirmed as Secretary of the Interior. She is an Indigenous woman who understands the work ahead to begin to trust and believe in you. Our treaties with the US government include the language “as long as the waters flow and the grass grows.” These words are sacred promises from our ancestors to our future generations. We hope you are ready to make these promises real for everyone who shares this, our land.
My tribe holds a funeral every week for people killed by fossil fuels. This isn’t progress – it’s environmental genocide, Our wells are so polluted our tribe must now buy water. Our land is so toxic, organic food can’t be grown within 16 miles by Casey Camp Horinek, 04 January 2021, The Independent
As a member of the Ponca Nation, my family’s journey from our homelands to what would become Oklahoma took place in 1877. My grandfather was eight years old when he was walked at the point of a bayonet from South Dakota with his parents and grandparents. Hundreds of tribes were forced to walk along many “Trails of Tears” nationwide.
Millions did not survive the journey, but the devastation of spirit and culture remains part of our genetic memory. So too, does our ancestral knowledge of living in balance with the Earth and philosophy of caring for the next seven generations to come.
Fast forward to today. The “Land Back” movement is gaining mainstream recognition, and racist statues and sports team names are disappearing. Amid this progress, however, the Trump administration, state governments and the fossil fuel industry are attempting the largest Indigenous land grab since the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
On top of this, the climate clock is running out as Americans continue to reel under the continuing saga of the election and rising deaths from Covid-19. Under the cover of pandemic and anxious for a last gasp, the fossil fuel industry is striking deals for control of Indigenous lands with the outgoing Trump administration, and his GOP allies in Congress. From the Arctic refuge to the Bayou, it is nothing new to Native peoples that so much oil and gas activities are placed on or near tribal land, contaminating soil, rivers, aquifers and air while adding to the climate crisis and directly impacting community health. We are considered “sacrifice communities”.
Oklahoma has become a fossil-fuel dependent state. Today it is home to the world’s largest convergence of aging oil and gas pipelines and thousands of manmade earthquakes owing to fracking.
In my small Ponca tribe, we hold a funeral nearly every week from fossil fuel-related illnesses. All our families have multiple cases of asthma, cardiovascular disease and industry-specific cancers. Our wells are so polluted our tribe must now buy water. Our land is so toxic, organic food can’t be grown within 16 miles. They call it economic progress. We call it environmental genocide.
In July 2020, it seemed change was in the wind. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that much of eastern Oklahoma falls within Indian reservations. Known as the McGirt decision, it held far-reaching implications, including reaffirming tribal sovereignty over environmental lawmaking. But the undoing of such a victory was engineered 15 years ago.
Within days of the Supreme Court ruling, in consultation with the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma, Governor Kevin Stitt (R-OK) pulled the pin on a long-hidden environmental grenade. In 2005, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) quietly attached a “midnight rider” to an unrelated federal highway bill that gives the state and the EPA environmental authority over tribal lands. In August, the Covid pandemic had shuttered most tribal offices statewide. At this time, tribal governments were informed by mail that we had a few days to “comment” on the EPA takeover. Shortly thereafter, in violation of our right to free prior and informed consent, Trump’s EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, reported that tribes had been “consulted” – a far cry from consent. And just like that, the deal was done. But Governor Stitt seeks much more.
Revealed in a memo to Congress called “One Oklahoma”, Stitt is working to strip the 39 federally recognised tribes of our inherent sovereignty. This plan paves the way for further oil and gas development. It is co-signed by a number of Trump allies, notably the “Godfather of Fracking”, multibillionaire Howard Hamm of Continental Resources, one of the nation’s biggest independent oil companies. But more than that, it threatens to erase our treaty rights, our heritage and culture – and it is the blueprint for how to dismantle the rights of native peoples across the country.
The fight for Indigenous rights has never been more important for all humanity. It is no coincidence that more than 80 per cent of the world’s remaining intact forests and biodiversity is in Indigenous hands. We are global leaders of green movements, including the Rights of Nature, which provides legal standing for ecosystems in law. My own tribe, with the help of groups like Movement Rights, was the first in the US to recognise that on tribal land, nature – of which humans are a part – has the legal right to exist and regenerate its vital cycles.
In 2016 Mni Wiconi, or “Water is Life”, entered the American lexicon as hundreds of thousands joined native peoples on the Standing Rock Reservation. We came to stop the DAPL pipeline from going under the Missouri river, to protect the sacred water on behalf of six tribes and 17 million Americans downstream. Many of us faced down police water cannons in freezing temperatures; we were maced, arrested, numbered with Sharpie pens on our arms and held in dog cages. My number was 138. My son’s number was 4838. Following Standing Rock, many states passed laws making protesting fossil fuel activities felonies, including Oklahoma.
We will always put our bodies on the line to protect the source of all life, Earth, and future generations, including yours. The solutions for a green future based on living in balance with the Earth already exist, and Indigenous people hold ancestral knowledge integral to that shift. We will fight One Oklahoma in court, in Congress, signing petitions, and on the front lines. We need you to join us. After all, we are not humans protecting nature; we are nature, protecting itself.
Casey Camp Horinek is an elder and the environmental ambassador for the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma and leads Movement Rights Oklahoma and Indigenous Rights of Nature campaigns