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Biden’s First Climate Actions Are a Result of Years of Indigenous Activism

Indigenous activists emerged as leaders of a climate movement that put increasing pressure on Joe Biden.

People march past Trump International Hotel during the Native Nations Rise protest on March 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Part of the Series

Indigenous activists emerged as leaders of a climate movement that put increasing pressure on Joe Biden, who revoked a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline shortly after becoming president. So, what happens next? Mike Ludwig speaks with Jade Begay, the Climate Justice Director of NDN Collective, an Indigenous led-organization building Indigenous power by working with front line activists.

Music by Dan Mason.


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Mike Ludwig: Hi everyone, Mike Ludwig with here, welcome to Climate Front Lines. A lot has happened since our last episode. Donald J. Trump, who wanted to be the fossil fuel industry’s best friend forever, is out of the White House, and President Joe Biden is already charting a different course. Shortly after his inauguration last week, Biden revoked a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, reversed Trump’s push to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and put a pause on new lease sales to oil and gas companies operating on public lands. By the way, Biden did not ban fracking and probably won’t anytime soon, and we’ll get into that later. In fact, Biden’s initial actions alone are not going to make big dent in fossil fuel production, but the president did signal that he is serious about climate and clean energy.

The pause on new oil and gas leases gives Biden time address deregulation under Trump and advocate for Rep. Deb Haaland, his nominee for Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed, the Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico would make history as the first Native American cabinet secretary. The Interior Department manages vast ecosystems across land and water – and issues permits for oil and gas projects like Keystone XL. Since Keystone XL hit the scene over a decade ago as Canada pushed to export more carbon-heavy oil from the Alberta tar sands, the pipeline has faced stiff opposition from climate activists, ranchers and, importantly, tribal governments. Since then, Indigenous activists emerged as leaders of a movement to stop new oil and gas infrastructure that would slow the transition to clean energy. They’ve also put increasing pressure on politicians like Joe Biden. So, what happens next? I asked Jade Begay, the Climate Justice Director of NDN Collective, an Indigenous led-organization building Indigenous power by working with front line activists.

Jade Begay: The role of Indigenous communities is, and peoples and tribes is pretty central in the fight to stop the KXL pipeline. Not just in the U.S. but also in Canada, above what we call the medicine line, which is, you know, also known as the U.S.-Canada border. So on both sides of the border, you have tribes fighting the infrastructure projects, so that is the Keystone XL pipeline, and you also have people fighting the extraction happening in the Alberta tar sands, which is often people will say stop it at the source. And that’s what we’re talking about is ending extraction. In the tar sands, that is the largest and most like catastrophic extraction project in the world, and the impacts of that project alone are, are just like, ginormous on both Indigenous lands, water, so many violations to Indigenous rights, but also hugely devastating for the climate. So actually, many years ago, I want to say like 14 to 15 years ago, there was a gathering of various Indigenous environmental justice leaders and various other non-native E.J. leaders across North America.

And it was actually decided then that, you know, the strategy is to, is to stop these infrastructure projects so that we can stop extraction at the source. That was kind of the idea that if, you know, we cut off, if you think of the Alberta tar sands as like, you know, a monster with like many heads, the idea was, if you start cutting off the heads of this monster, then the body, or heart of the monster, so to speak will be destroyed.

And so that’s where really where the No KXL pipeline movement or resistance began. So this fight has been, like I said, 14, 13 years in the works and you know, the first win with the Biden — excuse me, with the Obama administration, you know, many people will contribute that to the Indigenous leadership that happened. Whether that was by lawsuits or just very targeted strategic organizing. There is the famous, you know, cowboy and or ranchers and native communities coming together that kind of brought these unlikely characters together to stop the KXL pipeline that was during the first attempt to kill this pipeline.

So there’s been so many different strategies of, of, like I said, different communities coming together, working together, really in the name of water, really in the name of having safe land, safe environment. And yeah, let’s see, after the pipeline was brought back to life by the Trump administration, there was the famous, the famous quote by, I believe it was the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. The statement from that tribal leader or the council leader was, you know, we’ll be waiting. And I think that was like the extent of the press release and that really just set the tone for, you know, we’re prepared. We’re ready to, — of course it was very disappointing, but we always have to be ready for any type of decision changing or shifting. So yeah, since then there’s been lawsuits, there’s been organizing, the Promise to Protect Coalition, which the Indian collective is a part of that.

That emerged from the revamping of the pipeline and that’s a coalition of Indigenous tribes, Indigenous grassroots groups, organizations, also groups like, the Indigenous Environmental Network. So there’s many others, ACLU, South Dakota. So yeah, there’s just been like a, a huge groundswell, you know, for, like I said, over a decade of really putting the pressure on to stop this pipeline. And now that there was a change in government, and in favor of what we’re demanding, you know, we just, in the days leading up to inauguration, there was just a lot of pressure, both happening on like, social media, but also internally people working really hard to make sure that that was something that the Biden administration followed through on.

And I’ll also say that over the course of the last year, I remember it was, I think around May, it was around spring time, last year, 2020, when Biden made a promise. He officially came out on record saying he would promise to stop the KXL pipeline. And I really think that was like a moment for Indian country to be like, okay. And now we’re mobilizing the Native vote even more so.

I mean, we always knew we had to get out the vote to elect anyone but Trump, but yeah, I think this promise and other promises too around climate around protecting the Arctic, those were really some of the points around environment and strengthening nation to nation relationships that I think helped build the momentum in Indian country to elect Biden.

ML: Let’s drill in on that a little bit, I mean, just to put this in perspective, right? Like the Alberta tar sands, and correct me if I’m wrong are, are basically, that’s like open strip mining extraction, right? And the oil that is coming out of the ground from these pits basically that they would extract it from our extracting it from, it’s very carbon intensive. It has to be like used in burn and that’s what would be in the Keystone XL pipeline. But also that’s not the only pipeline where we see Indigenous leadership at the forefront of resistance. There’s Line 3 in Minnesota and Line in Michigan and the list goes on. And so I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that moment and what led up to it, where, where Biden made the commitment to stop this particular pipeline, the Keystone XL pipeline that has become really a symbol of pipeline resistance over the past, right, you said 14 years?

JB: Yeah, I think part of it is that this was a decision made during the Obama administration, and I think this, that was a, that was kind of a–

ML: You mean for a while, but to permit the pipeline–

JB: So no, to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

ML: Right. Because it was basically, if I remember correctly towards the end of the Obama administration, they were ready to kill the permits and then Trump brought them back. Correct?

JB: Right. So there were a couple things that happened during the Obama administration. So there was the killing of the KXL pipeline. Also, there was an executive order towards the end of that administration to stop the Dakota access pipeline.

Both of which, you know, very symbolic, very important for Indian country. Of course, you know, we wanted these decisions made much sooner than it took to actually make them, but ultimately those decisions were made. And it was huge. I was in Standing Rock the day that that news was broke that the Obama administration would stop the Dakota access pipeline. And just the energy was, you know, it was… yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was joyous and also just this huge sense of relief, but also very emboldening for our people to know that, you know, like this type of resistance works. And so I think part of the promise that the Biden administration made around KXL last year, I think it comes from that legacy. The Biden-Harris tribal agenda or the plan to work with tribes, you know, that didn’t come out ’til November or October 2020, just around there. But I think that this action is a part of strengthening, like I said, strengthening nation to nation relationships.

I think it’s, it’s something people, many advisors who are helping the Biden-Harris administration know what our priority is for different communities. I think this was at the top of the list. At least it was the top at the top of the list for NDN Collective and many other Indigenous groups that we work with.

ML: So this decision you see as kind of a, as part of the legacy of the uprising at Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline…

JB: Absolutely.

ML: Okay. So we see then that Indigenous activists have been able to push Biden on a climate and on these pipelines on infrastructure, because I think it’s important to point out that we’ve seen so much direct action against pipelines.

Going back to the beginning of Keystone XL to now it’s, in my perspective, it’s only been increasing in people taking direct action, filing lawsuits, taken all sorts of action to stop actual fossil fuel infrastructure before it can be. Put in place to continue the production of fossil fuels well into the future. We know that Biden has a goal of, you know, decades from now being a fossil free country, that’s a long transition and under his timeline. But we’ve seen here that he can be pushed on climate. He’s taking climate seriously. He’s also being attacked for this right now. He’s being attacked for banning fracking. I think it’s important to point out that Biden is not banning fracking. That is a lie that is being spread across right wing media right now. It’s not true. He’s limiting new fracking on public lands and there’s plenty of private land where plenty of oil and gas drilling will continue, but there’s still, you know, there’s still a long way to go as far as actually reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. And I wonder how you see the role of Indigenous activists when it comes to not just pushing Biden and leaders like Biden on climate, but also like the United Nations and other entities that are supposed to be taking the lead on this issue, when in reality, we see a lot of, you know, serious grassroots activism and leadership coming from below.

JB: Yeah, I’m really excited for what’s to come within Indigenous movements around protecting land water and also strengthening various actions around climate action. I think, you know, you brought up public lands. That is definitely something that is at the top of our agendas, how we want to mobilize, how we want to work. You know this time around, I think we’ve been, we’ve been fooled enough by- or, I wouldn’t say fooled, but there’s been loopholes. And so for example, with the various pipelines, we were able to end it in one administration and then another one comes in.

So it’s like, how can we prevent that from happening in the future? Same thing with the Arctic national wildlife refuge. How do we mobilize now? How do we create the right strategies so that permanent protection is in place? Not just for the Arctic wildlife refuge, but also the Bears Ears National Monument.

And I think what is exciting for our movement is that we, you know, Deb Holland, who is hopefully soon to be our secretary of the interior, is a Native person who comes from New Mexico, where I live, where fracking is huge. It’s a huge threat to our public lands. It’s a huge threat to our water, our air, and so, you know, she is very aware of these issues. She grew up in a tribal community, with limited access to water, to power. She knows what it’s like. And I hope that that we can, yeah, we can only hope that that experience is going to play a big role in how she’ll take action around these various demands that our Indigenous rights movements have.

I think another thing that is growing across Indian country, not just here in the U.S. but like I said, up in so-called Canada, is an idea of landback and also an idea around rights of nature. This rights of nature framework, which recognizes that ecosystems and the natural world are entities that they have rights. Almost like people have rights. And we already see this type of framework being adopted in various countries, led by Indigenous peoples, namely in New Zealand where there are various nature, like rivers and things like that have personhood, have rights. That’s what they call it.

ML: Ecuador as well, correct?

JB: Yeah. Well, I’m not sure if the Ecuadorian government has acknowledged that, but I know that there’s organizing. There’s also people led movements that are pushing that type of framework. And I think that is like a very Indigenous-led value, that I think if we can start adopting into some of our state and federal laws, that would be a game changer for sure. But I think those are some of the ideas, frameworks that I think we’ll be seeing more of, especially when it comes to protecting public lands and asking for better protections.

One more thing I’ll just mention that I know is on the forefront of lots of Indigenous communities and Indigenous organizations demands is strengthened free prior informed consent. And the consent piece is the really important part because what you see a lot of the times with these infrastructure projects with drilling, with mining is there will be reports that say we consulted and consultation.

ML: You mean consulting with tribal governments?

JB: Right, right. So, yeah, so they will write, you know, oh, tribes are in favor. And I think that’s just not enough. You know, depending on where you’re at in Indian country, it’s very possible that the tribal government might be in favor of extraction because they’re held in between a rock and a hard place–

ML: Economically, you mean.

JB: Yes, they have their hands tied. And the way we’ve talked about that is being held as economic hostages. So a lot of the time, like I said, a lot of the times you’ll see tribes vote in favor of some of these projects, but that’s not necessarily the perspective from the people who are going to be ultimately impacted first and worst by whatever type of project it is.

ML: And they’re voting for it because they are interested in jobs or some kind of revenue from the project. And, and they see that as economically in their best interest, even if it’s not desirable.

JB: Right. And there’s the issue of jobs as well. So, you know, a lot of rural tribes, you know, the the job market can be a challenge.
And so this is where you’ll start to see various Indigenous communities and tribes potentially come out with their own versions of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is not as sweeping, you know, one size fits all. It’s gonna look different for every community.

So how can we — and this is the work that I’m really excited about as the climate justice director at Indian Collective — is to really learn and understand what renewable energy solutions, what just transition solutions away from the fossil fuel industry can support our communities with jobs in renewable energy, how can we build that workforce, train that workforce.

And I think that’s something we’ll be seeing over the course of the next year. Years, you know, decades. However long it takes, I think we’re dedicated to that work.

ML: There was a term you brought up earlier that I want to revisit. One was medicine line to refer to the border of the US and Canada.
And there was another one that you just brought up, not rights of nature, but there was another term, um-

JB: Landback.

ML: Landback. Can you explain a little bit what the concept of landback is, particularly in the context of, of oil and gas infrastructure fights, but just in general with, with governments and also treaties.

JB: So, landback, this is a growing, evolving, Indigenous-led framework movement that, I believe the origins of this movement took place actually in Canada. Sso-called Canada, by First Nations fighting against various fossil fuel projects, namely the trans mountain pipeline. That’s when we really started to see this term being popularized, and for NDN Collective, we have a landback campaign, so people can check that out at and learn more about our perspective on this movement, on this campaign, on this framework, but really at the core of it is giving back land, putting back land into Indigenous hands. So this means public lands. This means private lands. And so we’re really building the mechanisms and the processes and the narratives around how this can happen. And of course working with and resourcing, like I said earlier, that’s part of our mission is to resource the Indigenous led movement across North America, to be able to carry out, whether they have a landback agenda, or whether they’re doing social entrepreneurship. We want to support the fights that are happening across the nation to get land back, to be able to manage lands, to be able to exercise their self-determination on their traditional lands.

So I think landback means a lot of things to different people. But I can be fairly certain that the core of it is just as it says, land back.

ML: Sure. And to connect that with climate, one of the ideas I’ve seen emerging, not just from the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which faced resistance from an Indigenous-led group of protesters and activists, Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline, Line Five, Line Three, all of these fights against infrastructure are about water and they’re about land, but they’re also about Indigenous stewardship of the earth, which I’m learning more about how that is going to be so crucial for preventing climate destruction.

JB: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, yeah, we could get really deep into that. Let’s see. Let’s pick up, pick a place. How about California with all the examples of wildfires? I mean, that was a huge example of removing Indigenous peoples from their territories. And that’s another part of landback, is dismantling white supremacy, dismantling these structures that forcefully removed Indigenous peoples from our lands, and kept us in oppression. And then now, the results are climate change, climate crisis, pollution.

So in addition to returning lands, fighting for an era of policy around free and prior informed consent, we need to dismantle the structures that made it possible for us to be removed from our lands and that made it possible for us to not have a say around what happens on our lands and territories.

So yeah, back to the example of California, there’s a legacy of colonization there. People being removed from the territories, but various tribes, especially– I guess all across California, but you know, the tribes that I’ve been able to talk with and meet with and learn from are our Ohlone, our Pomo people up in the Northern California region. And they had ways to manage their forests, to have safe burns. They had ancestral knowledge. Another term that’s used in our environmental or climate justice work is traditional ecological knowledge. So that is just basically saying that Indigenous peoples have the tools, the innovation, the wisdom, the knowledge to manage lands, and it comes from centuries of being with these ecosystems and learning how they work.

So yeah, part of the landback movement is definitely not just getting lands back into Indigenous hands, but what are the ways we’re going to manage these lands so that we can mitigate climate change, so that we can have regeneration around these ecosystems because a lot of these ecosystems are dying as an impact of climate change.

ML: Thanks so much for helping us connect the dots today on climate front lines. Jade. Thanks for joining us.

JB: Thank you so much for having me.

ML: Thank you for listening to climate front lines. This show wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my colleagues at Truthout, and Truthout’s, independent news and commentary wouldn’t exist without support from listeners and readers.

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