Navajos Too Quiet on Extractive Industries

Kayla DeVault

Note: The following column first appeared in the Navajo Times.

It’s time Navajo Nation uses its powerful voice for indigenous solidarity, not oil prosperity. In fact, it’s well past time.

Although I hold tribal membership in a different community, I was drawn last summer to work for the Navajo Nation government by its impressive example of tribal sovereignty in action. Not many tribal communities can brag that they have their own Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, etc.

Not every Indigenous person can point out the window to a traditional plant or a sacred landmark. (My own tribe suffered both relocation and the Dawes Allotment Act.) Because of Navajo leadership’s ability to negotiate at Bosque Redondo, these are things the Navajo people have never lost and that they must never forget. The Navajo Nation has a powerful voice, so long as it chooses to speak.

I have heard Navajo leadership use this voice. It is loud and it can be condemning. Think: Gold King Mine spill. Or: Delegate Crotty’s passionate denouncement against Donald “Drumpf”.

However, when it comes to the environmental threats caused by extractive industries on tribal lands, whether on the Navajo Nation or elsewhere, I hear relative silence.

And, please, correct me if I’m wrong. I would love to be wrong on this.

It’s a sad reality that the modern Navajo government structure was essentially developed by the federal government around 1922 to pass off the rights to sign oil leases. Even the modern federal government is, shall we say, uncomfortably close to the lucrative extractive industries that have an incredible knack for getting away with compliance lapses and environmental devastation.

On Nov. 6, 2015, President Obama rejected Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Lakota and their many allies celebrated this decision. It would save the Black Hills, a sacred site, from destruction. It would save the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest source of underground freshwater, from contamination.

It seemed like the message finally got across … except now the Dakota Access Pipeline is threatening the Plains yet again.

Not only will this proposed DAPL, constructed by a private energy company, also cross the vital Ogallala Aquifer, it will also cross the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers half of a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In an immediate response, a campaign called #RezpectOurWater was launched, arguing that a leak in this line could destroy local water sources and make both people and animals sick.

The youth in the campaign asked, “If it was your family at risk, would you be OK with it?” One girl states, “I guess they don’t think we’re that important.”

Do you remember how the Gold King Mine spill felt? How it still feels?

I have grown up being told by the elders around me, “The 3rd World War won’t be over land, or trade, or even religion. It will be over water.”

As the Lakota say, “Mni wiconi.” Water is sacred.

I spent two years working for “big oil” as an engineer. How I got there was kind of sick irony. My undergraduate degree specialized in environmental engineering. Yet, by the time I graduated, the “alternative energy” sector had transformed into the fracking industry.

In that short timeframe, I experienced enough emergency response spills to know how I feel about this industry.

I would spend 12-hour shifts, day after day, holding air-monitoring devices near the heads of migrant workers as they attempted to salvage spilled oil from contaminated streams in nature reserves.

I carried empty water bottles to collect dead salamanders I spotted for the biology counts. (I used to catch these little guys in the woods at home. By 2014, I had seen more dead than living salamanders in my life.)

I have also endured the misogyny of laborers while performing oversight on well pads. I suspect these man camps in Indian Country are responsible for the increase of rape and other violence against indigenous women.

Sure, an engineering job in the oil industry could make you rich. But what good is money when we’ve destroyed our collective home? The most finite of resources?

Yet it’s not just the oil spill that is a concern. It’s also the idea of burning fossil fuels. The incredible impact humans have made to the health of our planet in just my short lifetime.

The theory of climate change is not a joke. There is a pure science behind it, just like the theory of gravity. We all feel the theory of gravity; it makes it easy to believe. But not all of us feel the theory of climate change to the same degree.

The whole concept is rooted in emissions. In fact, hózhó, is at the heart of this idea.

Most people can probably understand the need for trees. Trees are the figurative lungs of our planet as they take all of the carbon dioxide we exhale and transform it into the oxygen we inhale. We need each other. It’s a beautiful balance. But, as we change the oxygen-breathing-organism-to-plant ratio, that’s similar to sitting in your garage with your car running.

Likewise, as we change the chemical composition of the atmosphere through increased carbon emissions, we change how energy such as light and heat lingers in our air. We see these effects in everything, from the intensity of storms, to the melting of glaciers, to even the inability of calcium carbonate to precipitate into the ocean for coral and fish to build their skeletons.

Everything is interconnected.

I’m going back to graduate school this fall to study energy technology because I believe in the urgency of reducing these emissions. In fact, I was recently selected as a U.S. delegate to travel with Sustainus for COP22 this November.

We will be participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference to lobby for a change in global policy. While I might feel only somewhat impacted by climate change from my home in Window Rock, I realize I have the privilege to influence change for those hit the hardest.

There are people in “critical” countries and tribal communities that will literally lose their communities in the next few decades if we don’t come together as a five fingered family and make a change.

Last year’s COP21 delegation launched the campaign #ZeroBy2050, demanding leaders to adopt policy that would phase out emission-spouting industries with alternative solutions. The year 2050 was selected because if the average temperature of the planet rises any more than 2C, which it is projected to reach by that year, vulnerable countries will be deluged by a rising sea —entire islands, homes, cultures.

At UNITY this February, I sat on stage for a panel discussion and watched my Inupiaq friend, Teressa Baldwin, passionately describe her Arctic Circle culture. Then she burst into tears as she explained her traditional village would be completely underwater by the time she is a grandmother.

The next morning, she left for Russia to strategize with other leaders from affected Arctic Circle communities.

We live in a global community. We must hold every person accountable for how they impact each other and our resources. And we absolutely must stand in solidarity with these entire communities who are at the immediate risk of losing everything on account of our silence, our turned blind eye.

How would you feel if someone was blowing secondhand smoke on your child? Would you ask them to stop? Or would you pretend each time not to see it, and then to not acknowledge the child’s subsequent struggle with asthma? The child is our future generation. The smoker is the fossil fuel industry, and that industry is a chain smoker determined to never kick the habit.

In order to reach this emissions goal, we must already be in the energy transition — creating green jobs, setting new emissions standards, holding big oil accountable and taking the hands of both tribal and federal leaders out of the pockets of these industries.

We know this and yet oil, gas and coal companies have already laid claim on deposits representing 2,795 gigatons of carbon.

To meet the 2C mark by 2050, no more than 565 gigatons can be developed between 2011 and 2049. The 2,795 is five times this limit. Think of that. Then think of these proposed pipelines that are meant to slice and dice Indian Country, traveling thousands of miles over freshwater reserves and sacred sites.

Navajo Nation leadership, this is your chance. If you voiced solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, if you committed to this fossil fuel phase-out, if you began sincerely investing in green jobs, not only would the Navajo Nation become a leader in what tribal sovereignty means today, but it would also set an example for the entire world.

The Navajo Nation has such a potential to be a powerful voice and a world leader. I just hope we all make the right decision and choose solidarity over oil prosperity.

Kayla DeVault,
 Diné College
 Tsaile, Arizona.

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turbojesus's picture
Why save the environment when alls we get is crap on toast? oh really, I'm saving the planet so some person from india, china, mexico and rich white/black kids can have a idyllic life. I'd rather destroy it and have the rest of the people that screwed up our lives destroyed. They can inherit crap on toast too.
tmsyr11's picture
The Window Rock-based Navajo Nation Government should be managing or picking up the pieces to their FUBAR foray (standing around passively) into current Oil-Natural Gas productions in Northwest New Mexico State. Oil productions stealing from Navajo reserves and Navajo rights. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/02/25/oil-leases-proliferate-northwestern-new-mexico-dine-and-pueblo-call-oversight-159378 Plainview: DRAAAIIINNNNAGE! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry, I’m so sorry. Here: if you have a milkshake... and I have a milkshake... and I have a straw; there it is, that’s the straw, see? Watch it. My straw reaches across the room... and starts to drink your milkshake: I... drink... your... milkshake! [slurps] I drink it up!