Kandi Mossett, of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations, grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. She has long been active in campaigns against fracking, documenting its pernicious health effects, particularly on her reservation. She began working with the Indigenous Environmental Network — the premier Native American organization fighting for clean air and water, against climate change, and in favor of indigenous community rights — as Tribal Campus Climate Challenge Coordinator in 2007, organizing with student activists at more than 30 colleges across the country. Today she leads the organization’s Extreme Energy and Just Transition Campaign, which has been actively involved in efforts to block the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects…
EarthTalk: Native American communities have been on the frontlines of recent environmental conflict. For instance, opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL. Um, what do you see as the main reasons for this? Why are indigenous people at the forefront?
Mossett: Well, I mean, you can kinda look at this from a historical context too and see that especially as Native American people we have been at the forefront of the conflict since the beginning of colonization. Um, being here in our home territories and then having people come in and tell us what we can or can not do, uhm, ((laughs)). So you know, this has been a struggle for over five hundred years, if you think about it in a historical context. So I think that when it comes to, uh, these fossil fuel infrastructure industries citing where they put uh, refineries or where they put extractive industry, pipelines, that a lot of times it just so happens to be in our um, communities as well. Which today, in this day and age, we have reservations that the government established, that they put us on. And so, its kinda like, the last battle, the last bit that we have from everything that we lost already and now that’s under attack. And when a tribe, like the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, says that they do not want a pipeline crossing their treaty lines, and that they do not want a pipeline that impacts their drinking water, it’s that same conflict. It’s that same continued, lack of respect for indigenous rights, indigenous treaties, that has been ongoing since the beginning of the United States being formed. So I don’t think that we have a choice really, at being the forefront of these conflicts. These industries, uh, force us into this conflict by continually putting our health at risk and the lives of our children at risk by contaminating water sources. So, I hope that that answers that. I think that we just don’t have a choice.
E: Right, and of course, historically you’ve had less political influence. So, less ability to stop such progress and we even saw that with Dakota Access right? Right with Bismarck wanted though, it was moved.
Mossett: Mhm, yeah, and so with Dakota Access, it’s still in the courts, it’s still ongoing. Um. The oil is not flowing through the pipeline; they might have put oil in there. But there’s a lot going on where they have to answer to their investors because it’s still in the court. And if the court does decide that, treaty rights we’re violated, which they were, um, I’m not sure what the Dakota Access and energy transfer partners and Senoqu energy is going to do. Because they are going to have to look at a possible reroute or look at some other form of um, of infrastructure. The only thing that is helping them greatly right now is that we are in this Trump administration. Um, and Donald Trump is completely for the fossil fuel industry and completely against you know any kind of, he’s a climate change denier. ((laughs))
Mossett: And so that’s what we are dealing with. I think that it had um, had it been anybody else it would have been a different circumstance already.
E: Right, I know it was on hiatus and you brought it back, but um, I’m never quite clear on the status because I know its been completed technically.
Mossett: Right, and they did put oil in it, but the oils not flowing and so they have to answer to their funders and to their shareholders why this isn’t happening yet. And so there is a lot of different behind the scenes things that are happening with this company where their not being completely honest with everybody. So, that’s all we know right now. Is that the oil still isn’t flowing and um, we can’t even answer the question of why, why that is. And it was supposed to have been at least by April 1st, at least is what they told their shareholders. So, I don’t know how they are keeping them in check still, as the days go by, as they continue to lose money.
E: Yeah, it’s uh, a strange situation, and definitely not an April Fools joke though. But…
Mossett: Oh I know! Gosh, it sometimes feels like it because we fought so hard to have clean drinking water. And we felt like the Obama administration was finally listening, that it was a small victory, and so something unprecedented happened when Donald Trump came in, which was to just completely forgo the environmental impact statement process in which there were already thousands and thousands, maybe even hundred of thousands of comments that were submitted. And that’s never happened before, where a new president just came in and said, “Oh, you know, too bad we don’t care about your comments, we are going to do it the way we want to do it. So there is a lot of unprecedented things happening.
E: Yeah,everything seems upside down. But let me ask, however the Dakota Access Pipeline comes out, you definitely had a unique confluence of tribes and also some unexpected allies, like military veterans opposing the pipeline. But now your with an extreme administration, beside climate change, questionable whether it recognizes tribal rights also, so uh, where do you see this alliance going into the future?
Mossett: I feel like underneath the Trump administration we are actually building stronger alliances because people that are like minded are coming together, we might not have the exact same sturggles. And in the past we might have been a bit more segregated as a result of that, but now, because everyone is under attack we are joining forces together, um against the administration that does seem to be making everything upside down. So im sure its totally unintentional ut what the Donald Trump administration is doing, is actually causing non-violent direct action energy revolution! And so, I feel like the alliance is going the be strengthened, even more, as the days go on. Um, indeed as the years go on. And the thing is is that people are finally getting it, um its not just a nimby issue, you know not in my backyard. It’s an issue that impacts us all over. And so even though, traditionally and historically it was low income communities, people of color communities that were the first and worst impacted, and still are, we are not the only ones anymore. ((laughs)) There are people outside of that world that are seeing the impacts because where there is flow and air circulates, and this planet, you know this one planet that we have, I think that people are understanding that it doesn’t matter if extractive processes are happening in North Dakota from fracking and the block information. The energy that is being produced is one thing but the pollution that is being produced is quite another and it doesn’t stay here. Now when you start adding up all of the energy projects around the world when it comes to the fossil fuel industry for example, that’s why we start to see a change in our greenhouse gas emissions, we start to see that there are anthropomorphic impacts, you know human induced impacts that we’re actually changing our systems. And that we are not segregated we are not separate. And so people are waking up! Um, the question that I always have is, are they doing it fast enough? And we don’t have the government behind us right now, or the politicians right now, what we have is an administration that is basically run by the industry. Now, we know that there has always been ties in politics and industry, but it’s never been as blatant as it is now in the Trump administration, who appears to be doing favors for people who got him elected. That includes the Koch brothers, I mean that even includes all the stuff that is happening in Russia, and a lot of the conversations that have been being had or around, his influence in the fossil fuel sector, wanting to open up, um drilling in Alaska or in Anmore, or in the artic, and he may have been working with-with Russian ties, to say yeah you can drill here if you help me get elected. So we got, there is a lot of crooked corruption going on as well. But this is calling it out.
E: Right, and it’s pretty unique I think, the amount of kleptocracy and the plutocracy in this government. And of course, I have to ask about the Keystone pipeline, which we know in Canada the indigenous people were on the forefront on opposing and to an extent the US also, so where do you see that going forward, with stopping the tar sand oils? Like, what are the main battlefronts there right now?
Mossett: Well the one thing that has been made clear with the Keystone XL pipeline is that this administration has no idea what it’s doing. Donald Trump didn’t even realize that there was no permit for Nebraska which is a key state that they’d have to go through to make the Keystone XL pipeline project happen. And so just the fact that he didn’t even know that was kind of like what are you doing. You should know these things if you’re trying to push this project forward. And so the battleground right now is definitely Nebraska making sure that it stops again with Nebraska. And there are a lot of really strong landowners and people that came together the first time to stop it which is why we were so successful. And in fact the reason why that Dakoda access pipeline was so rushed and just ramrodded through was because of Keystone XL. They didn’t want us to be successful. They didn’t want us to stop the project so they just sort of cut a bunch of corners on Dakota Access and rushed it which is really scary considering that it’s built now. The other thing is that the Trump administration said that the Dakota access pipeline the Keystone XL pipeline would have to use American still. Now he’s gone back on that saying “oh I guess they don’t have to” ((laughs)) just you know to make these projects happen. The other thing to consider is that there’s probably about 10 pipeline projects, major pipeline projects right now that the U.S. is considering. And what this administration is doing is actually putting all of these pipelines against each other, because we don’t need all of them. And so it’s kind of like they’re going to have to fight for who’s going to win and which pipeline. And that’s just not good economics or policy either it just doesn’t make any sense for us to be in the United States to be doing something like that if we don’t need the pipeline infrastructure. Why are we approving it. Why are we approving the Keystone XL. And I think probably most importantly is where…where the feedback is coming from for Keystone Excel which is the tar sands in Canada. And so connecting you know an indigenous community in Canada all the way through the U.S. they’re being impacted negatively by the tar sands. The thing is is that people are pulling out of tar sands projects you know Shell. There’s different other major players that are seeing the cost benefit analysis and it’s no longer feasible to be digging in the tar sands and they’re starting to see that. So having the Keystone XL come out of there it just doesn’t make any sense.
E: Right, the tar sands are probably the worst, the heaviest environmental impact of any kind of oil. And then you have really, well you could call it a unique alliance of say landowners and tribes, becoming less unique.
Mossett: It is, it is, it used to be it was the cowboy and Indian alliance. When we first were fighting the Keystone XL. And so we said we still have it. We don’t necessarily call it that anymore because we don’t want it to be reminiscent of the wild west. We have to bring it in modern day when it’s not just Native people that are facing eminent domain now it’s ranchers and non-native owners and they’re shocked and they’re outraged. And so it just is sometimes it just takes people to have to go through it to really understand. Which is unfortunate but that’s the way it’s playing now.
E: And of course the other key part of the alliance environmental group such as Earth justice your club or 350.org. But historically there has been some tension in the environmental groups, were seen as elite and out of touch. But seem to be working better these days So can you comment on the reasons for this alliance, the strength of the alliance.
Mossett: Sure. I mean the Indigenous Environmental Network has been around since 1990 as an official organization. Prior to that you know we were a part of the American Indian Movement and we have been sort of loosely forums for so many decades. But I think that the discourse happened because we coined the term environmental justice. We talked about how we were impacted in our communities and what happened was a lot of these bigger organizations in the front end. And I don’t think intentionally but they were like “How can we help you. We’re going to tell your story and we’re going to lift up your story” Now as a result of doing that a lot of these organizations actually got different resources or different funding or different people joining their organizations as a result of using our stories. So it’s kind of had to been a really long process of learning together to see how you actually work together in a good way and what it means to be a good ally. And I think these organizations now are getting it. So I mean it’s unfortunate that it took us so long to have to like explain to them why it’s not appropriate to parachute into a community and do an event and then leave and not have anything set up for that community. Our basis again has always been relationship building like we know all the people on our list serves like on a personal basis we go into the communities and it’s not something that you can do in the course of a few weeks. This is years and years and years of base building and community outreach and really understanding the struggles that people are facing in their communities and how it impacts their families. So I think that we were able to learn from each other, as organizations, so they learn from us how to build community. And we’re learning from them how to I guess sort of expand that and to work with each other because we have different niches of people that see the work we do. So we combine our forces with that much more powerful because at the end of the day we are all like minded in what we’re fighting for. Which is a clean energy future for for everyone. And so I think that there’s a common understanding there that we really need each other and that yeah there might be a little bit of hiccups along the way with the way we do the work but we have to work together because we do have a common goal and you know that is tackling the climate crisis. It’s not it’s not a race based thing it’s not a religion thing, it’s not an age thing. It’s a humanity thing.
E: Okay great, from being kind of paternalistic on the part of the environmental organizations to a true alliance…
Mossett: It’s getting there. ((laughs))
E: Getting there, not 100 percent.
Mossett: We’ve got some kinks to work out. But you know at least it’s a step in that right direction.
E: Great, since you bring up environmental justice I do want to bring up the African-American influence on environmental justice from the beginning starting in the 1980s. And of course keeping stuff like incinerator out of African-American or minority communities. Are you working together much with that group of allies?
Mossett: Oh yes. I mean completely this is not something where we’re trying to be separatists or when we say the term we use is POC which is people of color. And so we’ve been working as people of color for a really long time. You know the whole Black Lives Matter movement is something that totally resonated with our Idle No More movement and we started to see the similarities and how we’re dealing with you know an industry or a corporation or even politics that seeks to continue to keep us separate and when we see that we’re dealing with a lot of the same struggles and most recently a lot of our groups have united and are. Yesterday April 4th which is the anniversary of when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his beyond Vietnam speech. He talked about denouncing poverty racism military-ism and then one year later he was assassinated. And so what we did was launch something called the majority and this group called the majority has indigenous groups, Black Lives Matter groups urban and rural groups, climate justice alliances. Were all coming together because we understand the necessity to build each other up. So there was a series of actions that were done yesterday in in a political education actions I would say to bring this to light that this has a historical context it’s been happening for so long that we cannot forget what happened even 50 years ago. And so then on May 1st we’re also coming together with demonstrations. You know at mayday which has to do with worker’s rights and how people have been treated pretty poorly in the international field. This may 1st is international worker’s day it’s also known as may day. And that is because historically there was a fight for an eight-hour work day that goes all the way back to 1886 in Chicago where were striking workers had a had a run in with the police. And there were several deaths. And so this whole this group of ours the majority is calling to light the historical context and to the light the fact that these things were never remediated fully you know and that we still have a way to go in the struggle and to not forget our history. For native people as indigenous people, it’s something that we’ve always talked about. We’ve always said you have to not only look seven generations ahead but seven generations back. We cannot possibly understand where we’re going in the future if we don’t remember who we are and where we came from. And we feel like that’s happening. There’s a big uprising in the Black Lives Matter movement too, where we want to join forces and we’re also joining forces with the Vietnam vets also with the queer community because of the impact that they’ve been facing. And so that’s what the majority is made up of is Black Lives Matter, indigenous Lives Matter queer community as the Vietnam vet community is. And I think that it’s going to be really successful. And so far already has been it’s a fairly new alliance but I think we have a long ways to go. I think that the way we’re going is the right way I should say.
E: And the definition of sustainability is often not just environmental, it also includes social justice and uh, economic equity. So, that’s all together.
E: So we also saw an indigenous presence of the women march on Washington and soon we’ll be having the people’s climate march, I will be covering. But, um, this seems all part of the same movement. So can you talk a little bit about the the role of the indigenous presence at these events?
Mossett: Sure it isn’t it hasn’t been easy. It’s not like being at these events was just handed to us as indigenous peoples, we actually had to go and make our presence known. It started you know it’s been a lot of the marches, but we had the people’s Climate March in 2014 in New York City and that was on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Summit that they were having in New York which is why we did the people’s Climate March but we had to have a voice at the table we had to interject that there is a reason that we should be on the front lines. As Native American people we’re here. We were the first ones here. We were heavily impacted. We’re continuing to be heavily impacted and we’re still here. So we have to say that we deserve a place at the table we deserve visibility for our movements and the same was true of the women’s march we had to really get, kind of scramble to get on the steering committees you know and make our voices heard and and ask for a space in the front. And so what we ended up doing was creating our own collaboration called indigenous women rise and that was created specifically out of the women’s march so that we would have a space there. And it just has continued since then. And so it’s been a really successful thing for us to bring indigenous women from around the country indeed around the world together to continue this indigenous woman rise effort. And so with the people’s climate march that’s coming up here at the end of April we have a bit more, I guess history and how we shift-how we organize because of the 2014 March. And we have said “OK we really feel like in impacting communities especially in Indigenous communities need to be at the forefront of the battle because we we have been we’ve been at the forefront of the battle for over 500 years.” It goes back to that historical context. And so I think that that’s the role that we play is to show our visibility and to show that we’ve been fighting for a really long time but we’re still here and we’re still continuing to fight. We don’t give up. We need to make sure that…the planet and the systems that we work within are protected from ourselves and by that I mean humanity.
E: Right. And speaking of Native American historical situation, um it is at least in shorthand that’s often associated with like ties to a specific piece of land on local issues local identity local rights and sovereignty. But climate change is global. It doesn’t know any boundaries. And these alliances seem pretty novel, I mean in the 1960s and 70s Native Americans used that as a launching pad for a movement but it doesn’t seemed to be the same kind of collaboration that there is today. So, you think this might affect Native American identity and where do you see the alliance heading?
Mossett: Well I mean it’s true. A lot of our work is tied to land and local issues because that’s where our stories come from. We tell our traditions stories, or oral stories based upon where we live. For millennia where we grew up we can look out at the hills and that’s how a song is determined is based on the hills and the valleys the ups and downs. Our stories come from where we are, we have a huge tie to the land which is why it’s so painful for us when the land is extracted from. It’s almost like we can physically feel that pain in our own bodies which is something that is called Blood memory. The thing is is that blood memory doesn’t just exist in Native American identity it’s not unique to us. Everyone has it’s just a matter of whether they recognize it or remember it based upon their own history of where people are from. And so Native American identity is already being impacted by a number of things not to mention this melting pot that we call the United States where it’s not even necessarily about one race anymore because everybody, you know is so many different things now now we’re all mixed together. And so I don’t feel like it’s going to impact us negatively. I also feel like you know we also have always never recognized boundaries you know between even Canada and Mexico in North America here, we don’t recognize those boundaries there invisible boundaries that man has placed because we’ve always said there’s no such thing as land ownership. You know how can you how can you live on the land that belongs to all of us. And if anything I think that it’s strengthening our identity. I just hope that it’s not doing it in a romanticized way for people around the world because it’s not a romantic thing to be a Native American it’s it’s been a really hard thing to grow up for me in a reservation community in North Dakota. And I don’t think people understand the reality of what it means to be a Native American in the real life context outside the romanticized version. It’s hard and we’re targeted and we’re impacted negatively by the fossil fuel industry and by our peers around us. This country tried to do a whole termination of us and then after they didn’t succeed they tried to do is to assimilation and acculturation. We’ve been beat up pretty bad by having our culture stripped to having our integrity stripped. Yet we remain we still have our stories we still have our culture we still have our language. We were hanging on by a thread for a while there but now we’re making a comeback. On a global level what we’re seeing as people relating to us and we’re seeing people supporting us and saying you know what I’m indigenous to Africa, I’m indigenous to Sweden, you know or or Finland. And we have people saying and this is what we know from our own communities. How can we join together in the struggle to make it stronger. And so I think that we’re seeing unity. Probably a lot of that has to do with technology. So it’s kind of a catch 22 because technology can also be our downfall when it comes to climate change. So I think that our alliance is heading in the right direction when it comes to the power of visiting and the power of connecting. We just have to be really careful and really mindful of how we move and where we move. So what we try to do it IEN, the Indigenous Environmental Network and what we’re working on now is not just the projects that we’re trying to stop, but what we’re trying to build and we’re trying to build a transition away from the fossil fuel economy in our communities which takes time. And what that looks like is getting back to the small scale thinking and doing of of our everyday lifestyle. Small scale distributed wind and solar on each home, you know instead of a huge solar plant or huge wind farm because when you start getting corporate It inevitably becomes negative. It’s it’s been a side effect of large corporate thinking. We need to get back to small scale community style living which can happen even in urban settings that simply can happen by community gardens. In each block. So the block can come together as a community with their garden and talk to each other and learn about where their food sources are coming from. It can happen and I think that’s where we’re going now. It’s just that in the human ego we think of our own lifespan as this great thing. You know if we live to be 100 years old well then that’s a really long time. But in reality that’s nothing compared to Earth time. You know the earth is 4.6 billion years old. Our lifespan is the blink of an eye. So we have to really focus on then on the positive impacts that we can have in our short lifespan that’s going to lead to the next generation so that we’re changing the way we’re doing things. And now we have the scientific facts behind us. So it’s really important to combine tradition with fact with heart. Yeah and I think that I mean I don’t hope I didn’t go too far on that last half. You know that love of the land that everybody has and just how people to remember basically where they come from.
E: Okay, well thank you very much.