• Tribal Attorney Tara Houska was on the ground at Standing Rock for many months and learned some tough but critical lessons (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Tara Houska, an Ojibwe woman enrolled in Couchiching First Nation, a tribal attorney in Washington, D.C, National Campaigns Director for Honor The Earth and Native American Affairs Advisor to Bernie Sanders, was recently in Australia and spoke with NITV about the biggest challenges and lessons from her time on the frontline at Standing Rock, and what is next in the fight against corporate environmental destruction and systemic racism.
Emily Nicol

18 Jun 2017 - 12:46 PM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2017 - 10:49 AM

It was the 'peaceful' protest that gained worldwide attention and saw a new level of resistance towards environmentally and culturally damaging construction projects. 'Standing Rock' and the #NoDAPL camp, which hosted thousands of 'Water Protectors'  managed to obstruct the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access Pipeline for a time and though construction has not completely halted, the movement has much to teach us about the future of environmental activism.

After several years of saying 'No' to the companies that were planning on routing oil pipes through their tribal lands and putting drinking water at risk, and the construction going ahead regardless, thousands started to gather to physically stand in the path of bulldozers. 

Houska became aware of the growing movement whilst in Washington DC and decided to join the community on the ground. Having just finished up her role as Native American Affairs Advisor to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the contrast was stark.

"That’s what brought me from DC,  I saw that these kids had run all the way from Cannonball, Nth Dakota to Washington DC to protest the pipeline, then I saw that people were taking a stand and putting themselves in front of the machines and I was like 'alright we are finally standing up and saying no and. We’ve told you no, yet you are doing it anyway and we are all sick of this we are sick of treated like sacrifice zones and being treated like we don’t matter. It grew into this massive thing which was incredible. I never thought that I would go from working on a presidential campaign and being a lawyer in Washington D.C to living outdoors in North Dakota for that many months.

Houska was on the ground at Standing Rock from August 2016 right up until February 2017, when they closed the camp. Her time there brought valuable insights and lessons for the fight against corporate greed and environmental destruction.


Connect with Community

Engaging in local governance and being conscious of what is happening around you, and also within the global community, is vital for anyone that is interested in being an effective voice against corporate greed, climate change and other social issues says Houska, with the rise of social media being a powerful way to connect with community for change. "Social media has been an incredibly powerful tool for Indigenous folks across the board. We are able to have a voice and a platform that we have never had before in a public space." 

Social media played a huge role in the protest movement at Standing Rock. WIth mainstream media largely ignoring the growing number of people who were turning up at the camps, Facebook videos and photos became a main source of information, eventually trickling out to alternative news sites. The protest community was built upon this means and became an important part of sharing vital information. 

Social media has been an incredibly powerful tool for Indigenous folks across the board. We are able to have a voice and a platform that we have never had before in a public space


Know the system that suppresses

WIth a degree in Environmental Law and a Masters in Intellectual Property Law, Houska found her experience invaluable in supporting the tribal council in their fight against Keystone XL and Energy Transfer Partners, who were not expecting the size of resistance to the pipeline. "Because I’ve been in DC and worked on policies that are national in scope, I already knew about corruption and the influence of corporations in our governance systems. It was shocking still to me to be in a situation like that and to see militarised police and tanks and missile launchers, helicopters and water cannons and attack dogs and all these crazy things being used on unarmed citizens, that was insane."

One woman almost lost an arm, there were hundreds of arrests and some were left permanently blinded after the ordeal.

"It should be a wake up call to a lot of people realising this is what happens when you stand up against a corporation. Another aspect of working in legislation is seeing how corporations will go after and lobby to get these regulations basically taken out. They don’t want these protections in place because it makes it harder for them to put their environmentally harmful project through."

 Houska says that we are at a critical point in history. "The time of the 7th Fire is basically where mankind has a decision to make. Are we going to go down the path of destruction and greed or are we going to go on the path of green and brotherhood -to light the next fire for the next generation?  I definitely feel like we are in that right now we are in the time of the 7th Fire, because we are seeing climate change happen so rapidly,  and with the ascension of people like Donald Trump, these really far right conservatives, we are seeing kind of this all out war being waged on people and future generations. So right now as citizens living on this planet - we have to make the decision. That's kind of whats happening at Standing Rock."

The time of the 7th Fire is basically where mankind has a decision to make. Are we going to go down the path of destruction and greed? Or are we going to go on the path of green and brotherhood -and light the fire for the next generation?

Take action anyway that you can

Though protesting and camping out is not for everyone Houska says that there is several ways that we can have just as much impact and top of the list is divestment from banks that fund these kinds of projects. "I think apathy is going away. As much as I don’t like President Donald Trump that’s one thing that I ll give him, he’s spurred a lot of people into action. Coming from the Standing Rock ground fight we are moving into the divestment area. And we have been very successful with that. We are almost at 4.5 billion dollars that we have pulled out of the banks that are funding these projects - It's our money and we have that power and banks don't like that. So they are starting to listen."


"The beauty of something like divestment is being able say 'I'm going to take my money out of your bank cause you are funding Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline and funding things that are destroying Indigenous communities that is not okay.' That is a direct way to do something. We have had people do direct actions, not chaining yourself to anything, but just walking in to a bank and taking their money out and going on social media and posting a status. In that way you are part of this movement."

Burnout is a very real thing. I learnt that at Standing Rock.

The next level of this kind of protest is educating these companies on the bad investment that is fossil fuels. 

"Fossil Fuels are currently doing very poorly in the economic sphere.  What we are saying to these companies is not so crazy. Renewables have increased by 5000% in the last year, so we ask them, what are you doing? Why are you continuing to invest in this, knowing that you are putting us at risk. Something that is just horrible for your fellow human beings?!"

Stay focused on the goal

Houska says that her time at Standing Rock, as with thousands of others was intense and took it's toll. But remaining focused on why she was there was her saving grace.

"Burnout is a very real thing. I learnt that at Standing Rock. There is only so much one person can do in a single day and people need to sleep and rejuvenate. For me, I just went home this last week and spent time with my elders and family, and that’s what keeps me mentally okay and gives me a lot of strength to be in that situation. I see that this is who I’m fighting for, and this is who I’m protecting. Also being around youth is amazing. All these beautiful babies that are coming up. This is exactly who I’m trying to do this for. Regardless of the sometimes awful people I have to hang out with and try to convince that what they are doing is wrong, at the end of the day it’s about these guys, so staying connected to that is really important."

What now?

Last July the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, with claims that the environmental and legal review process was incomplete, rushed and undertaken without the input of the Indigenous owners of the land. After months of appeals and orders from both President Obama and most recently President Trump, last week a district judge ruled in favour of the lawsuit, saying that the agency in charge of the environmental risk assessment failed to consider the impacts on tribal fishing and hunting lands and the peoples if there were to be a leak. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and supporters are one step closer to a victorious outcome.

Tara Houska appeared at Deadly Voices Live as part of the Sydney Opera House’s First Nations program, curated by Rhoda Roberts AO. For more information about the program, visit: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/sydney-opera-house-presents/first-nations.html