I’m a Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara woman who grew up in a small rural community in North Dakota on what is known today as the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My Hidatsa name is Eagle Woman; my English name is Kandi (Mossett) White.
As a child, I was blessed with the freedom that comes with growing up in a rural community. I played outside all the time. During summers at my grandparents’ house, I would swim in Lake Sakakawea from sunup to sundown, climb hills, and explore the Badlands. We would go chokecherry-picking with my grandma, and help her make the most delicious chokecherry jams and syrups I’ve ever had. My grandpa would take us out on his four-wheeler to load up on veggies from the garden. We would go fishing on the lake in his pontoon boat and then cross over to McKenzie Bay for ice cream. I thought North Dakota was the best place in the world.
My young eyes did not see the coal-fired power plants that dominate our state or the uranium mining or underground missile silos. I didn’t know then that North Dakota was and still is home to the nation’s only commercial-scale coal gasification plant, which, under certain conditions, can strip paint off cars parked in the wrong area. I didn’t realize all of this was polluting the lake that I swam in everyday. All I knew for certain was that cancers and asthmas, diabetes, and heart disease were all normal ailments to me. To hear that someone had lung, brain, prostate, uterine, or breast cancer was not out of the norm.
So, I was not completely surprised when, as a 20-year-old college student, I was diagnosed with a stage-4 sarcoma tumor — an aggressive, rapidly-spreading cancer that’s usually attached to muscle or bone. In my case, the tumor wasn’t attached to my muscle or bone; it was right there in the subcutaneous tissue of the left side my stomach where I could see it, feel it, and watch it spread. I remember the morning I woke up and noticed that the pea-sized lump I had discovered on my tummy just a few days before had grown and was changing color. Because cancer was so common on our reservation, I knew I had to get to the doctor.
I would eventually have to go through three surgeries to deal with my cancer. I refused localized chemotherapy or radiation because I wanted to have children one day and had heard the horror stories of women not being able to conceive after chemo.
Surviving cancer changed my life. I became much more aware of just how high the cancer rates were in North Dakota and I wanted to learn more. As I began researching cancer cases in the region, I started noticing clear patterns of serious health issues in low-income and minority communities, especially ones located near major pollution sources including coal-fired power plants, coal, oil, gas, and uranium extraction sites, and nuclear power plants.
In 2000, my now mother-in-law started a local grassroots group called the Environmental Awareness Committee of Fort Berthold. The group has evolved over the years and its name has changed several times, but its work has remained the same: protecting our people and communities from harm caused by the fossil fuel industry. We started out fighting plans for a tar sands oil refinery on our reservation and have so far managed to prevent it from being built. But the fight goes on.
Meanwhile, in 2007, around the time I joined the Indigenous Environmental Network, fracking had begun to sweep across Fort Berthold. Again, women in our communities began stepping up to oppose it whilst our all-male Tribal Council made decisions for us that were not in the best interest of the environment, future generations, or any of us alive today. We continue to be embroiled in that battle — some of us are fighting for regulations and some of us are fighting for a ban on fracking altogether.
It has often been said that the rape of Mother Earth is connected to the rape of women. When fracking came to our little communities in rural North Dakota and violence against women increased exponentially, we fully understood what that meant. As man-camps ruled the prairies, local women, children, and even men became the victims of men working grueling hours in the oil fields with little to do in their down time other than haunt the small-town bars and engage in predatory behavior. Fort Berthold became ground zero for sex trafficking.
This has often been referred to as the dark side of the oil boom, which I never understood, as I have never seen a bright side to the oil boom. Money is certainly not a bright side as it has caused jealousy, greed, and heartache among both those who have it and those who don’t.
Through the US Energy Information Administration I found out that North Dakota’s total energy production is six times greater than the state’s energy consumption, which means others are getting the energy while we are getting the sickness and pollution and violence. I also found out from the state health department that every single bit of North Dakota’s more than 11,000 miles of rivers, lakes, and streams is contaminated with mercury due to decades of coal extraction. Women in particular are told not to consume too much fish when pregnant because of the dangers posed to the unborn child by mercury exposure.
I used to love eating walleye taken fresh from the lake, battered and fried up right by the shore. I wonder now if that and other facets of my life in North Dakota led to my recent heartbreaking miscarriage, or my sister’s miscarriage, or all of my cousins’ miscarriages. We just live with the fact that we may never truly know or be able to prove a connection.
So here we are in 2018, Native women striving for that bright horizon which we can see just off in the distance. We have our culture with us, and we have our traditional teachings to guide us and wipe our tears as we fight back, once again.
Since the inception of our resistance movement, we’ve observed our grassroots leaders are predominately women. Perhaps it’s because of the “warrior status” being taken away from our men due to colonization, or perhaps it goes deeper to the status of women being the keepers of the water and carriers of the next generations. I believe it’s a combination of both and more.
Women have a deep and abiding tie to the land that we Indigenous people call “blood memory.” It’s what ties all women to our Mother Earth and gives us the instinct to care for our families and communities, just as our Mother Earth cares for and provides for all living beings. It’s because of this blood memory that we can’t stand our earth being ripped apart, blown up, dug up, and desecrated.
To me, the most important aspect of all of the women-led movements is the fact that we are not just pushing to stop fossil fuel projects or uranium mining projects or big dam projects or deforestation, we are also working towards that next step — towards something called a “just transition” — that would move our society, slowly, but surely, towards a decarbonized economy.
Our vision is that of large-scale community gardens, for we know that we cannot be truly sovereign unless we can feed ourselves. It includes small-scale distributed power in the form of the gifts we receive from the sun and the wind. It includes creating jobs for our men that will make them whole again as providers of their families but will not negatively impact their heath or ours.
As women, as nurturers and as keepers of the water, we will not quit, we cannot quit, until we succeed in changing the current course of our future on this planet.