Year of Clout: 10 Stories of Indigenous Environmental Influence in 2015


Indigenous activism continued to influence the environmental movement and policy, with some major victories, most notably the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline. Throughout the year, climate change was the overriding concern, culminating in the representation of Indigenous Peoples at the COP21 United Nations climate talks in Paris in December. Ongoing drought, wildfires and Arctic drilling also dominated, with President Barack Obama visiting Alaska and getting to know Native groups there. Here are some of the biggest environmental stories of the year.

Arctic Protections

In January, citing Native subsistence fishing traditions among other considerations, Obama designated 12.3 million acres as wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, putting it off limits to oil and gas drilling in perpetuity. His move, blasted immediately by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), was tempered by his opening of offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic. Nevertheless his protection was hailed as a possible turning point for the climate.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo: The White House/YouTube)

Gogebic Taconite on Hold

The longstanding fight against Gogebic Taconite’s plan to build a huge open pit iron ore mine in the pristine Penokee Mountains in Northern Wisconsin came to a halt in late February when the company announced its plans were on hold. It was good news for tribes, given that it would have sat over the Bad River Watershed, the conduit for myriad streams that flow into Lake Superior and through the famed wild rice beds on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation.

Oil Trains

Derailment after derailment and explosion after explosion prompted warning after warning from the Quinault Indian Nation and other tribes against the train transport of crude oil, especially extra-flammable bitumen from places like the Bakken in North Dakota. An average of 800,000 gallons of oil spilled from trains between 1975 and 2012, with the number reaching 1.15 million gallons in 2014, the Quinault pointed out. Those concerns were bolstered by a federal study predicting that oil- and ethanol-laden freight trains transporting the flammable substances across long distances for deliver could derail an average of 10 times annually. In April the Swinomish Tribe filed suit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway to stop the company from transporting extra-flammable Bakken crude oil across reservation lands, which it was doing in violation of previous agreements.

North Dakota oil train derailment in 2015. (Photo: Curt Bemson via AP)

Gold King Mine Spill

Disaster struck on August 5, when subcontractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally unleashed three million gallons of mining wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado, which flowed into the San Juan and across the Navajo Nation. Turned a lurid, Tang-like orange, the heavy-metal-laden waters were declared off limits for consumption and agricultural use, causing the Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation to issue disaster declarations. The disaster prompted a visit by environmental activist Erin Brockovich as federal investigations got under way. Months later, the finger pointing, legal action and cleanup are still ongoing.

Obama Visits Alaska

Obama connected with Alaska Natives on a visit to the Arctic in September, hosting a roundtable discussion with members of his administration and Alaska tribal leaders in Anchorage and attending other events. He stressed “the need for us to work more intensively and more collaboratively with communities.”

President Barack Obama watches salmon being smoked on his trip to Alaska, where he met with Natives. (Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Coal Terminals

The battle against coal terminals in the Northwest continued, with the Lummi Nation invoking treaty rights and the tribes both north and south of the 49th Parallel joining together in opposition. An alliance of tribal leaders and members from the Lower Elwha, Quinault, Tulalip, Spokane, Swinomish, Yakama and Tsleil-Waututh First Nation joined the Lummi Nation to call on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny permits for the proposed Gateway Pacific Coal Terminal. The Northern Cheyenne Council unanimously passed a resolution against coal trains as well. Opponents—including tribal members and leaders from the Tulalip, Swinomish, Quinault, Lower Elwha Klallam, Yakama, Hoopa Valley, Nooksack and Spokane nations—took their case all the way to Washington D.C., where they rallied to draw attention to the matter and express concerns about treaty rights. Besides infringing on sacred sites, the terminals support an industry fraught with derailments that spill everything from crude oil, to coal, to fertilizers and other hazardous materials.

Cherry Point, Washington (Photo: Courtesy NOAA)

Wildfires Ravage Colville Reservation, California

Fires across Northern California consumed more than 134,000 acres and killed several people, including at least one firefighter. The Colville Reservation in north central Washington was also hard hit, with two massive fires scorching more than 600 square miles.

Rabbit in scorched habitat on the Colville Indian Reservation, 2015. (Photo: Courtesy Cary Rosenbaum/Tribal Tribune)

Keystone XL Pipeline: Finally Defeated

Having vetoed a bill to force construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and ignored a request from the builder TransCanada to halt the decision-making process, Obama in November rejected the project outright, saying it was not in line with the national interests of the U.S. The pipeline had been a multi-year battle waged by numerous tribes, including the Yankton Sioux, the Sioux and Assiniboine of the Fort Peck Reservation, and the Lower Brule Sioux.

Keystone XL pipeline pieces awaiting assembly that will never come.

Climate Change

Underlying all environmental problems was climate change, which affected Native peoples all over Turtle Island. In early January a group of scientists warned that fossil fuel deposits, including those in the Alberta oil sands, must be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. In February Alaska Native villages received $8 million for climate change mitigation, and a visit from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe bought 40 acres in preparation for moving upland, away from the Sauk River, to avoid its encroachment into members’ homes and businesses. Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp continued emphasizing the importance of addressing the issue, and American Indian leaders meeting in March in Portland, Oregon, stressed the importance of working together. Pope Francis invoked traditional knowledge and culture in his 192-page encyclical on climate change, saying that Indigenous Peoples “should be the principal dialogue partners” on projects affecting the environment.

Shishmaref, Alaska, home lost to erosion due to melting permafrost. (Photo: Alaska Conservation Foundation 2010 file photo, via EPA)


In that vein, indigenous climate activists descended on Paris for the COP21 United Nations climate summit and lobbied hard to get their concerns incorporated into the final documents being negotiated, with mixed results. Jewell spoke of indigenous resilience at the conference, while indigenous leaders such as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke officially before the U.N. gathering. The negotiations, which culminated on December 11 with an agreement to keep the world’s warming no higher than 1.5 degrees Centigrade, fell short of indigenous expectations.

Paul Cheoketen from the Saanich community near Vancouver, British Columbia, plays his flute outside the COP21 Summit in Paris. (Photo: Maria Clara Valencia)

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