Native Americans urge Deb Haaland to help tackle pollution in communities of color
As Native peoples and stewards of Mother Earth, we celebrate the recent confirmation of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as the first Native person to lead a cabinet agency. For the first time in U.S. history, a Native leader will oversee the Interior Department’s responsibility for the well-being of the nation’s 1.9 million Native people, along with about 500 million acres of public land, federal waters and the endangered species who share our home.
This historic moment comes at an especially difficult time, however, as our communities continue experiencing some of the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the face of disproportionate and devastating harm, we are choosing to help our communities coexist and share life in a healthy environment.
For the unhoused members of our communities — whom the government has labeled “homeless” and tossed aside without relief — we’re delivering fresh produce, hot meals, and basic hygiene products. For our wisdom keepers, elders and those with underlying health conditions, we’re delivering “Elder Kits” (as we call them) that include N95 masks, gloves, sanitizers and first aid essentials. For our young leaders, we are providing the computer tablets that allow them to continue their education from home when their school is lacking those vital resources for socially-distant learning.
The Society of Native Nations supports our community in these ways with a zero-waste approach that reflects our deepest values in harmony with Mother Earth. In response, many people call us environmental activists.
If you want to understand the indigenous perspective on environmentalism and activism, you have to understand that this is a part of our culture, spirituality, teachings and way of life since long before those words existed. Our actions are nothing more or less than our spiritual traditions in practice told and passed down by the elders with the understanding that we are supposed to leave a place better than the way we found it, so our next generation has a future to look forward to and not one to dread.
By teaching families how to work with clay and make reusable resources for their daily lives, we reinforce the importance of using natural materials to preserve and maintain our environment and ourselves. By making earthenware for our kitchens and for the altars of our homes, we reconnect with our ancestors and honor their traditional ways of living in harmony with Mother Earth. By working with earth, water, air and fire — all the elements working together — we generate awareness, connection and respect for our environment. By creating our own handmade clay plates, cups and utensils for shared meals, we also break free from plastic.
Right now, we are fighting to stop the development of fossil fuel infrastructure that would cause untold devastation for the sake of producing more single-use plastics. Many people don’t realize that the plastic straws, plates and cups from their food deliveries are produced using fossil fuel byproducts from fracking and other harmful methods. At least five different pipelines are being planned through the backyards of under-represented and under-resourced communities who are totally unaware of the pipeline routes. People know in their hearts that we do not need these pipelines, but the challenges we face are systemic.
In addition to strong leadership from Haaland to protect our communities, we need Congress to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to address the crisis with meaningful, proven solutions. The bill was reintroduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) Thursday.
We need to pause the buildout of new and expanding petrochemical facilities so we can understand the consequences on human health and the environment. We need to reduce plastic production before it ever has a chance to pollute by phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic, holding companies accountable for their products, and expanding reuse and refill programs. We need to protect the health of our communities during the ongoing pandemic and for future generations.
During the pandemic, our communities will continue to feed the unhoused, care for the elderly, and encourage our young leaders to thrive. We do so with zero waste even now as a reflection of our continual appreciation and love for Mother Earth.
Still, it is an undeniable fact that plastic production disproportionately affects Indigenous communities and communities of color by polluting the air, water, and soil. At a time when more Native peoples are in positions of leadership, we call on the U.S. federal government to honor its obligation and protect all people, living beings and our shared planet from the scourge of plastic. Congress, please pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act now.
Frankie Orona is the executive director of the Society of Native Nations, an organization helping to protect and preserve the way of life, culture, spirituality, teachings, and medicines of the Native indigenous people of North and South America.