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Pres. Candidate Bernie Sanders Shares the Stage with Native Organizer Tara Houska

Pres. Candidate Bernie Sanders Shares Stage with Native Organizer Tara Houska

Tara Houska

Last Tuesday, I received a call from Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Senator Jeff Merkley were going to introduce a “Keep It In the Ground” bill and they wanted to include grassroots organizers.

Less than 24 hours later, I was standing alongside Sanders, Merkley, Bill McKibben of, and Aaron Mair of the Sierra Club facing dozens of news cameras in front of the U.S. Capitol. These were the heavyweights.

Senator Merkley discussed the need for the proposed legislation – it bans new leases for fossil fuels on federal lands, waters and prohibits arctic oil and gas drilling. The International Energy Agency has stated that two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground to prevent irreversible climate change.

Senator Sanders stayed close to his heart, speaking of the influence of Koch brothers money, and the violation of public trust in favor of big oil corruption on Capitol Hill. He also spoke of the duty towards the next generation, “Unless we move aggressively to transform our energy system into…sustainable energy, the planet we are leaving our kids is something we should be ashamed of.”

Bill McKibben gave voice to the undisputable scientific evidence of climate change, and the wins in the climate change movement becoming part of mainstream dialogue. Keystone XL was just one project, but it was through this campaign that grassroots unified with the public and became hundreds of thousands marching against climate change.

Aaron Mair delivered a thunderous speech about the transitioning of fossil fuel workers towards the green energy industry and called on Congress to move towards real solutions, not rhetoric.

By that point, my hands were shaking, as I knew I would face the wall of cameras next. The unknown Anishinaabe woman in a suit, elevated among those at the top.

I looked down at my scribbled notes; my message was not going to be one of science and policy. It was a message of the devastating human costs of fossil fuel extraction. Federal lands are often adjacent to tribal lands; a fact recognized by Congress most recently in legislation allowing tribes to manage federal forestlands adjacent to Indian lands.

(Tara Houska speaks at 24:00.) 

Though others would later tell me I looked in control, when I stepped up to the microphone-laden podium, I felt faint. But I was here for Indian Country, for my grassroots brothers and sisters fighting on the frontlines. I was here because of the generations of indigenous peoples who have always been at the forefront of environmental stewardship. I was here as a woman water keeper.

The impacts of fossil fuel industries on indigenous peoples are many – man camps, increased crime, contaminated drinking water, cancer clusters, rising sea levels obliterating Alaska Native villages, the list goes on. Angered, I picked up pace.

“This is not some remote idea on Capitol Hill,” I said, gesturing to the Capitol. “These are our lives. These are our children’s lives. This is a fight for survival.”

Senator Sanders gave me a side-hug when I finished and congratulated me. He had spent the morning with the San Carlos Apache delegation from Oak Flat, fighting to save their sacred lands from a copper mine. A presidential candidate from a state with no federally-recognized tribes had been immersed in the plight of first nations.

Indigenous peoples were prominent on Capitol Hill that day. We have been on Turtle Island since time immemorial, and we will remain. We will protect Mother Earth, as we always have. Stand strong. 

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