The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Hundreds gathered in front of the White House on Oct. 11 to protest the use of fossil fuels. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Eric Lee/The Washington Post)

Casey Camp-Horinek, a tribal elder from White Eagle, Okla., and environmental ambassador for the Ponca Nation, marched in the front of a crowd of hundreds headed toward the White House on Monday and held up her fist.

The 73-year-old — wearing a hat that said “Pipeline Fighter” — was among the leaders and members of Native American tribes from across the country who came to Washington for five days of protests that began Monday.

The rallies are part of People vs. Fossil Fuels demonstrations by a coalition of groups known as Build Back Fossil Free, which is 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. The coalition’s name is a nod to President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.

“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.”

At times, tensions rose between protesters and police outside the White House, but the demonstration was largely peaceful. People sang, danced and prayed, holding signs that said, “Water is alive,” alongside cardboard cutouts of fish and birds on Pennsylvania Avenue.

U.S. Park Police warned the demonstrators three times that they would risk being arrested if they did not disperse. Most of them moved into Lafayette Square, but about 156 remained, Sgt. Roselyn Norment, a U.S. Park Police spokesperson, said in a statement. Police escorted those protesters to a nearby tent. They were issued citations for obstructing traffic and then released, Norment wrote.

About 40 minutes after protesters were told to move away from Pennsylvania Avenue, Secret Service officers converged on Erica Jones, 41, an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe who lives in Ramsey, Minn., as she cried out for help.

They handcuffed her, and she fell to the ground, crying that she was a mother and didn’t want to die. Shortly after, police released her on the sidewalk, and she cried on the shoulder of another protester. Jones said in an interview that she had thrown an orange toward police and believes that prompted the police action. Secret Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Protesters also pushed against metal fences and yelled at the Park Police and Secret Service officers across from them. “Didn’t y’all just have an insurrection?” one protester yelled over a megaphone, referencing the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and criticizing the police presence on Monday.

However, most of the demonstration centered on 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 that they are still forced to experience the devastating effects of the Earth’s warming up close.

This week, they’re demanding that Biden stop approving fossil fuel projects and declare a national climate emergency.

As a child, Camp-Horinek remembers how Ponca Nation members were able to grow their own food, hunt and fish to provide for their families. But they can’t do that anymore, she said. 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.

“Everything has changed,” Camp-Horinek said. “I hope to accomplish a way forward for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be able to breathe, to eat and to drink, and to leave a legacy that says at this crucial moment in time, the Indigenous people, including their grandma, great-grandma and mama, was there to raise a voice of reason.”

An ancient people with a modern climate plan

‘Put us first’

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

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

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.

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 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as proof of the urgency needed to implement 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 such as 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.

Some labor unions have also thrown their support behind pipeline projects, arguing that jobs in the fossil fuel industry provide their members with higher pay than those in renewable energy.

More than 120,000 gallons of oil leaked from a rig and into the waters and beaches of Huntington Beach, Calif., on Oct 3. (Video: Storyful)

However, pipelines do sometimes cause accidents, with an average of 301 significant incidents in each of the past five years, including oil spills and injuries, federal data shows.

A large oil spill began spreading across the coastal waters of Southern California earlier this month, in what officials warned was an “environmental catastrophe” that would threaten wildlife. Dead fish and birds have already started washing ashore.

Climate activists pointed to this recent spill as a pressing example of why Biden must declare a climate emergency and block all new fossil fuel projects.

“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, S.D., a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux and a national pipeline campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network who rallied outside the White House on Monday. “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'

Climate protesters this week are following the lead of Indigenous activists “entirely,” said Keya Chatterjee, the executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network of more than 190 climate groups.

Indigenous groups helped block or delay 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, lost court challenges, and Biden did not act to cancel the federal permit that allowed the pipeline. Oil began flowing through it on Oct. 1.

Demonstrators in front of the White House view Biden’s inaction on Line 3 as failing to fulfill campaign promises on climate. On Monday, they chanted: “Stop Line 3!”

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

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.

Siqiñiq Maupin, the executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, told protesters outside the White House on Monday that thousands of Alaska residents are among the country’s first climate refugees, with 12 rural villages in need of relocating to drier ground.

Facing catastrophic climate change, they still can’t quit Big Oil

Maupin, 28, also told the crowd how people around her village have begun to develop rare cancers and asthma.

“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.”