Native American environmental justice: The only story that matters 

Native American environmental justice: The only story that matters 

A lot of stories are coming out of North Dakota, about a protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline built on land sacred to Native Americans. Whatever else you hear about it, this is the story that matters: Native Americans are gathering by the thousands to make their voices heard by policy makers and moneyed interests who have failed or refused to listen. This is about social and environmental justice.

The wrong way to measure wrong.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved a pipeline for construction under a dammed stretch of the Missouri River. The site is just north of the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They have sued to block its construction. They believe the pipeline will damage important cultural sites and put the community’s water at risk of a devastating leak that that could poison their water.

As a business owner, I’m sensitive to the fact that Energy Transfer Partners (the pipeline’s owners) have invested a lot. They have already built 48% of it, and cleared and leveled 90% of the route. I understand that they claim the project will create jobs (over 12,000 of them). But measuring this by its economic impact is the wrong metric. It’s sort of like finding a murderer guilty or not by how much his gun cost.

There’s a conflict here that can’t be measured in dollars or sunk costs. This is about four centuries of dispossession, a legacy of trampling Native American interests, and ignoring their voices. Tragically, these voices usually speak out on behalf of the earth, culture, or justice in ways that affect us all.

environmental justice, healing, Daphne Singing Tree
Daphne Singing Tree at the Zaniyan Wellness Space at Standing Rock–serving health while connecting people to the environment.

Standing Rock: why this environmental justice fight is personal.

My father and mother met as part of a tree-planting cooperative in Oregon called the Hoedads. My mom was the cook, and my dad a tree planter—who eventually rose to be a contract negotiator. I wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for people who cared about environmental justice.

This week, the cause became personal as Daphne Singingtree contacted us. She is the founder of Xaniyan, a nonprofit in Eugene, Oregon (where I spent time growing up visiting my dad). She told us the story of the birthing center at Standing Rock where babies are being born on site. But, the midwives have no autoclave to sterilize their medical supplies. What’s more, the whole community is meeting their cooking fuel and heating needs with propane. There’s something tragic about protesting the injustice of a fossil fuel pipeline, with no safe option other than to cook and heat with fossil fuel.

Being a board member for, I launched an internal campaign. Daphne’s group hosted a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the stove. Together, we were able to make it work, and the stove is now out there helping support the health of the community. While as a 501(c)3 cannot take a political position, we can reach out with empathy and generosity. We support the health of America’s first peoples as they fight for environmental justice. They are protecting the rights of generations to come from the shortsighted greed of this one.

Cooking on renewable energy is not only act of rebellion against the energy status quo: it has spiritual and cultural dimensions.

What Daphne shared with me as a stover was something about cooking I hadn’t thought of. For this community, there are cultural and spiritual dimensions to efficient cooking with wood:

“Our people are using open fires in tipis. We need something to protect children from burns, reduce respiratory issues, use less fuel, but still maintains the beauty and the spiritual quality of a fire in the middle of your home.” -Daphne Singingtree

Oregon Country Fair has also committed $3,000 to supporting the Standing Rock Community. My father Wally would be proud, as I am, that our Oregon community is mobilizing and standing together in defense of environmental justice.

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