How Standing Rock inspired this Indigenous youth activist: 'The first time I ever saw any Native-led issues in mainstream media in my life'

·5-min read
Oglala Lakota activist Leala Pourier. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Oglala Lakota activist Leala Pourier. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference. In honor of Earth Day 2022, Yahoo Life speaks to Indigenous youth activists fighting for climate justice.

For Oglala Lakota activist Leala Pourier, the idea of climate justice goes beyond protecting the Earth and its resources. It also includes bringing attention to a crisis many don't know about, let alone connect to environmentalism: the murders and disappearances of indigenous women living near oil pipeline camps.

"I'm really passionate about it because it shows that climate change is not just crazy weather events — that it's affecting our communities in very different, very unique, very painful ways," Pourier, a 21-year-old University of Denver student hailing from Colorado's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, tells Yahoo Life about a devastating issue that has Indigenous women targeted by oil company workers who are set up in remote temporary housing areas.

"They've kind of been labeled as 'man camps,' because they are usually all men, set up in an isolated area where these drill sites are going up ... often on reservations or areas near large Indigenous populations. There's not a lot going on," explains the Indigenous youth committee member and co-director of communications at Earth Guardians, which trains and empowers youth to be effective climate justice leaders. The crisis she refers to is one that's been tracked and spoken about by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and one that lends itself to the remoteness of such camps.

"That's when we start to see a spike in violent crimes — robbery, drunken assault, things like that. And that's also when we start to see a spike in missing and murdered Indigenous women, is in those areas. It kind of started becoming an issue during the oil boom [in the early 2000s] in North Dakota," Pourier says.

Pourier, who followed her activist father into standing up for Indigenous rights in general, says she sharpened her focus on climate justice after being inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many tribes that joined them in 2016 in trying to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred land (a process that has been officially halted, pending further environmental analysis, after a hard-won four-year battle).

"It was kind of the first time I ever really saw any Native-led issues in mainstream media in my life. So that was really empowering to see that, like, this was something that everybody was watching. And that just got me looking more and more into environmental racism," she says, referring to the form of systemic racism that puts people of color at a disproportionately high risk of being hurt by pollutants and toxic waste.

The way that all made sense, combined with what her dad had taught her since she was little — "that we're not the owners of the land, but that we're the stewards of the land" — made environmental activism a "natural fit" for her.

Hundreds of protesters hold signs aloft in front of the U.S. Capitol, some of which read: We exist. We resist. We rise.
Protesters march at a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017, media coverage of which had a huge effect on youth activist Leala Pourier. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"I think the connection between Indigenous people and environmental activism is very, very intertwined," she says. "The more I educated myself, the more I realized: You can't have Indigenous justice without climate justice and you can't have climate justice without Indigenous justice."

It's because of some very fundamental, nature-connected ways of seeing the world, Pourier explains. "We've always viewed the earth in a way that she's one of us: She's not one that we're supposed to take from, and that's a core teaching of many, many indigenous cultures … We have this belief that you have to look seven generations behind and seven generations forward and just, like, make sure you're keeping the land and the world as a safe, viable place for the generations to come."

But with so much of Western culture not subscribing to this belief system, saving this planet could prove difficult, if not impossible, many indigenous activists fear. Luckily, Pourier is hopeful, when it comes to seeing that shift take hold in society.

"Honestly, I think it's kind of already starting to happen," she says.

That's because, as Pourier sees it, the "only" communities being obviously affected by climate change up until pretty recently were indigenous or coastal or poor. Now, she says, the "richer, more developed" regions and countries are being clearly disrupted.

"We're seeing these devastating fires here. We're seeing these floods," she says. "And I think people are starting to realize that climate change is an everybody issue — not just something, you know, you turn on the news and hear about. It's something that we all have to come together for. And I do think people are starting to understand that."

She also believes the obviousness of the situation is what’s driving some climate deniers. "I think that's a reason why others are really buckling down and trying to say that it isn't an issue — trying to keep the status quo," the activist explains. "Because the second we, as a whole, acknowledge how detrimental climate change is to our survival," we'll have to truly change our ways, which will also be the moment "that a lot of systems change," specifically "capitalistic, money-driven sort of systems," she says. "And I think that scares a lot of people."

But for Pourier, who is double majoring in creative writing and strategic communications in school, her activism will continue to be at center stage for the sake of climate justice — something she believes is worth fighting for, as it's "at the intersection of so many issues affecting everybody in the world."

She explains, "It's not just extreme weather events. It's not just like our ozone and pollution and things like that. It's so many other things ... including missing and murdered Indigenous women."

It's why climate justice, to her, is the future. "It's the future for my baby niece and my baby nephew, and it's hope for all these other generations," she says. "And it's hope that, you know, for my generation, all our hard work is going to pay off, and our voices will be heard."

Find all of Yahoo Life's Earth Day profiles here.

Video produced by Olivia Schneider:

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