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Indigenous activists come to D.C. with a message for Biden: Declare a ‘national climate emergency’




Tasina Sapa Win’s grandmother used to tell her stories of the land the family lived on for generations.

Her grandmother shared how the plains on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota were a vibrant green, full of trees and berries. But she also saw the river slowly dry up, and she blamed the federal government for authorizing dams.

Now, when Sapa Win, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, looks out the window of her kitchen, the green fields and sunflowers are replaced by brown, dried grass. She gets caught in swarms of grasshoppers, something she didn’t experience as often as a child, and struggles to find turnips used for a traditional Lakota soup.

“It’s because our land is becoming a food desert now,” said Sapa Win, 29, who traveled to Washington to join protesters in front of the White House this week calling for President Biden to end all new fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency. “We’ve been so unheard for centuries. We’ve been swept under the rug with our issues and our struggles. We’ve been pretty much ignored, and now we’re realizing that.”

Leaders and members of Native American tribes from across the country are in Washington for five days of protests beginning Monday. The demonstrations are part of People vs. Fossil Fuels protests by a coalition of groups, known as Build Back Fossil Free, who are demanding that the Biden administration take more extreme actions to curb carbon-producing fossil-fuel projects at a time when scientists say the world needs to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions.

This week of action is being led by Indigenous leaders, who say they’ve been ignored for too long. They argue that they have been effective stewards and protectors of the land — preserving biodiversity and leading the front-line fights against pipelines and drilling around their reservations — but they are still forced to experience the devastating effects of the Earth’s warming up close.

Environmental justice activists are frustrated by what they say is a lack of action from the Biden administration to deliver on climate-related campaign promises. They bring up the recent landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as proof of the urgency of implementing sweeping measures to slow the pace of emissions. The planet is on track to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which could trigger irreversible damage and more deadly climate crises like fires, heat waves and floods.

Biden has taken steps to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels by rejoining the Paris climate accord, setting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, canceling a federal permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and proposing new federal goals and mandates to begin shifting the country toward electric cars, among other measures. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Proponents of pipeline projects say the nation’s 2.6-million-mile pipeline network is a relatively safe way to transport needed oil and gas with a lower carbon footprint than the alternatives of trucking or railroads.

“We share the urgency of confronting climate change together without delay; yet doing so by eliminating America’s energy options is the wrong approach and would leave American families and businesses beholden to unstable nations for higher cost and far less reliable energy,” Megan Bloomgren, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

Thousands of people from around the globe will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, the site of the annual United Nations climate summit, where government leaders will face increasing pressure to commit to more aggressive pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and slow the Earth’s warming. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has described the planet’s current path as “catastrophic.”

This week, Indigenous activists will be leading the protests in Washington, directing the crowds in marching, songs and civil disobedience. They are ramping up the pressure on the administration ahead of the climate summit.

Organizers said they expect thousands of people to show up in Washington throughout the week. On a permit application submitted to the National Park Service, organizers estimated about 300 attendees a day.

‘Put us first’

Organizers of the People vs. Fossil Fuels demonstrations deliberately planned for it to start on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as many activists and localities have rebranded Columbus Day, to recognize the work of Indigenous people in fighting fossil fuel extraction across the country.

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They said Indigenous activists bring generational knowledge of the battles against pipelines and drilling around their reservations and a deep understanding of the land that can pave a path forward in tackling climate change.

Keya Chatterjee, the executive director of U.S. Climate Action Network, a network of more than 190 climate groups, said there has also been a growing desire across activist movements in recent years to be more intersectional.

To fight for climate justice is also to fight for immigration reform, racial justice and other progressive priorities that are interdependent on each other, Chatterjee said.

“People don’t really have the luxury of caring about one and not the other,” Chatterjee said. “The racial uprisings last year didn’t come from nowhere. It’s because people have been organizing and educating people and training. All of our activists go through anti-racism training. All of our activists go through decoloniality training.”

This week, Chatterjee said, climate protesters are following the lead of Indigenous activists “entirely.”

Indigenous groups have helped block or delay a number of fossil fuel projects in the United States and Canada. Most recently, protesters unsuccessfully tried to stop the completion of Line 3, a tar-sands oil pipeline expansion project that will be able to carry 760,000 barrels a day from Canada across northern Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Opponents, who claimed this pipeline violated treaty-protected tribal land and would threaten wild-rice waters, lost court challenges and Biden did not act to cancel the federal permit that allowed this pipeline. Oil began flowing through the pipeline on Oct. 1.

Michael Barnes, a spokesman for Enbridge, the Canadian company behind the pipeline, said Line 3 has undergone significant scientific reviews and found “tremendous support” throughout Minnesota. Native Americans comprised 7 percent of the workforce on the project, Barnes said.

The company also considers renewable energy “a core business,” setting a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 and investing more than $8 billion in the sector, Barnes wrote.

Those demonstrating in front of the White House this week view Biden’s inaction on Line 3 as failing to fulfill campaign promises on climate.

“Biden has turned a fork tongue, and he needs to be held accountable to the promises he made to Indigenous nations when we helped elect him,” said Joye Braun, 52, of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and a national pipeline campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It is important to put us first. This is our land before there was a so-called America … It’s important to make sure that all of our voices get heard.”

‘People are dying right now’

In Alaska, Siqiñiq Maupin, the executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, said thousands of residents are among the first climate refugees in the country, with 12 rural villages in need of relocating to drier ground. The Iñupiat, a group of Alaska Natives, have lived on this land for generations and barely made a footprint, Maupin said. Now, she said, the tracks of four-wheelers on the tundra can still be seen years later.

Maupin, 28, said people around her village have begun to develop rare cancers and asthma, and are on medication to help with breathing.

“People are dying right now from the pollutants, the toxins, the climate catastrophes that are happening, and we have to stop the harm,” Maupin said. ” … [Biden’s election was] riding on climate change, his entire election on people of color, Indigenous people. But when it really comes to when it matters, our lives are still being sacrificed for oil and gas.”

Casey Camp-Horinek, 73, of White Eagle, Okla., who is a tribal elder and environmental ambassador for Ponca Nation, is also in D.C. this week demanding that Biden use his executive authority to take sweeping actions on climate change and to support Indigenous people.

“We are going to put our bodies on the line there. If we have to be arrested in order to call attention to what the crisis is and that we need a climate emergency declared, we’ll do that,” Camp-Horinek said. “There’s been 500 years of people coming into a territory where all things were interdependent and functioning to a time of crisis, where even Biden’s great-grandchildren won’t survive if something doesn’t change.”

As a child, Camp-Horinek said Ponca Nation were able to grow their own food and go hunting and fishing to provide for their families. But they can’t do that anymore, she said. Seeds are genetically modified, the soil is too polluted to grow anything organic, fish are dying and animals have cancers and growths that make them unsafe to eat, she said. They have to buy purified water from the nearest city.