Indigenous Women Ask Biden to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

'No more broken promises, no more broken Treaties,' their letter says.

Standing Rock protesters in 2017
Activists participate in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, March 2017 in Washington, DC.

Getty Images/Alex Wong

Last week a group of 75 Indigenous women sent a letter to Joe Biden, who was about to be sworn in as President. In it, they asked him to take immediate action to halt the construction of pipelines and to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

"No more broken promises, no more broken Treaties," they wrote. "We represent Indigenous Nations and Tribes from across the United States all impacted by fossil fuel extraction and pipelines, and we urge you to fulfill the United States promise of sovereign relations with Tribes, and your commitment to robust climate action."

The letter referenced three major pipelines – the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and Line 3 – as projects that threaten Indigenous rights, cultural survival, sacred water and land, the climate, and would exacerbate the public health crises that already exist in Indigenous communities. It described the risk of irreparable environmental damage to sensitive wetlands and water bodies, should the pipelines fail. "The previous Administration created devastation to environmental protections that must be rectified immediately," the women wrote.

The authors linked pipeline construction to an increase in physical violence, citing evidence that the tragic epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women has a connection to fossil fuel production.

"Workers from outside our local communities come to construction sites to build pipelines, creating temporary housing communities known as 'man camps' near the pipeline route, which are oftentimes on or next to Indigenous Peoples territories. Studies​, reports​ and Congressional hearings​ have found that man camps lead to increased rates of sexual violence and sexual trafficking of Indigenous women and girls, as well as an influx of drug trafficking."

The letter explained that much of the construction has taken place without the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Tribes and Nations and in violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The pipeline has been opposed from its inception by numerous Tribes, land owners, and environmental groups, and has been undertaken without the proper permits. 

The letter's message was a powerful addition to the many other voices urging President Biden to take serious climate action; and its demands came true in part when he signed an executive order on his first day in office to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit. 

One of the letter's signatories, Casey Camp-Horinek, who is an environmental ambassador for the Ponca Nation and member of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, spoke to Treehugger over email. She expressed mixed feelings about the announcement:

"We are grateful that the Biden-Harris administration followed through with their promise to issue an executive order to stop KXL on day one. We are also acutely aware that it does not make up for 500 years of oppression, genocide, land theft, destruction of culture, and, in the case of the Ponca Nation, forced removal and five broken treaties. It should be noted that even though most of the environmental resistance to the fossil fuel industry is Indigenous-led, we have yet to see any administration or civil society members say thanks to us, yet we are expected to show appreciation to them for just doing the right thing."

Indigenous activists have vocally opposed DAPL and Line 3, both projects that anti-pipeline activists hope to see canceled by Biden on the same grounds as Keystone XL, though DAPL, in particular, will be more complicated, due to the fact that it's already in operation and moving 500,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

Camp-Horinek said that, based on history's precedent, she and her fellow activists are "not holding our breath" while waiting to see what happens with the remaining pipelines and Biden's promise to Build Back Better:

"Are we included? Do we have a place at the decision-making table? After all, the table is on our land, in our home, and set with precious Water and food nurtured on the portion of Mother Earth that we, the Original Peoples, are caretakers of. Honor the Treaties, implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Do land acknowledgements instead of singing 'This land is my land.'"

She has every right to feel doubtful. It remains to be seen if Biden's administration will maintain this bold start and extend it to the many environmental issues that so desperately need attention now, but as Maggie Badore wrote for Treehugger earlier this week, it's wonderful to feel an inkling of hope again. 

"It has been a long, long time since environmentalists in the United States won so much in a single day. Even during the Obama Administration, when we made significant progress, congress held back many opportunities to solve climate change and at times even the executive branch was slow to act."

To Camp-Horinek, I say thank you for all the hard work she and her fellow activists have put in. Without their dedication, we wouldn't be celebrating this initial achievement, nor rallying for the subsequent ones that must continue to be won in order to protect this planet we all love so much.