Protecting Native Resources through Education and Outreach

For the RedTailed Hawk Collective (Collective) in Pembroke, North Carolina, funding from First Nations couldn’t have come at a better time, says RedTailed Senior Campaigner Donna Chavis. “We are facing an onslaught from just about every angle in terms of environmental degradation,” she says. But now, they are able to ramp up outreach and community education, taking advantage of a lull in corporate activity to get people more informed and to stop further damage to their land, air and water.

An Environment Under Threat

The Collective operates in a coastal area of North Carolina that is characterized by high poverty and extreme underservice by the state and economic developers. It is an area where Native tribes are fragmented, with many members having moved away over time. The ones remaining often have minimal knowledge of their tribal rights, or ways to unite together to stand up for them.

When companies and developers start advancing projects, there is little organization of Native populations to come together in opposition. Many Native landowners have already been talked into selling or leasing their properties, and tribal members in the area face ongoing threats against their rights, homes, and health that they may not even realize – land degradation, deforestation, fossil fuel pollution, and an increase in chicken and hog farms that produce biofuel from animal waste.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is being proposed to transport liquified natural gas across 600 miles from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina. The path of the pipeline will cross streams, forests, swamplands and even graves, causing direct damage to culturally important areas and the Native resources of four tribes – the  Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie, and Meherrin.

Organized for Action

To activate a voice for these tribes, the Southeast Indigenous Climate Change Working Group was formed under the RedTailed Hawk Collective. This group provides a unified base for the four tribes to collectively oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and raise awareness about the impact the pipeline – and all corporate undertakings – will have on the environment.

A member of the Lumbee Tribe and an anti-pipeline activist, Chavis is leading the group’s efforts, with support from the Hawkeye Indian Cultural Center and Friends of the Earth. So far, progress has been made in developing a Memorandum of Agreement to formalize a tribal partnership and generate attention to tribal, cultural and natural resource concerns, which have been greatly ignored by politicians, the media, and even mainstream environmental organizations. Through the working group, the four tribes are reaching out to the additional tribes of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, Sapony, and Waccamaw Siouan. They are bringing in Native leadership from North Carolina State University and drawing from the large Native population at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, a school steeped in Native allegiance based on being the first state-supported four-year college in the country to accept American Indians.

Through this involvement, Chavis says, the group is doing the important on-the-ground work, organizing, and mobilizing volunteers all in an effort to amplify the Native voice – a voice that is crucial for not only protecting Native rights but ensuring tribal determination for Native health and welfare.

Perfect Timing

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had been expedited through environmental review under the Trump Administration, and, based on this, did not follow federal law requiring tribal consultation. Construction began in West Virginia in May 2018; however — to the benefit of the working group — development was halted in December 2018 in response to concerns over federal permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of which would have allowed the pipelines to cross two forests and the Appalachian Trail. The court vacated this permit, but now the developer is appealing to the U.S Supreme Court and lobbying Congress to override the court’s decision.

To advance education and outreach efforts during this delay in political and environmental activity, the Collective applied for and received funding through First Nations Development Institute’s Broad Reach Fund, a grant program designed to support Native American-led community efforts pursuing environmental justice.

“The timing is perfect,” says Chavis. “It’s like a train got out of control and is now off the tracks. We can use this time to ramp up our local organizing surrounding the pipeline and the LNG facility.”

Indeed, funding from First Nations will allow the group to identify and develop materials that will help expand the knowledge base of tribal communities. The scope of work is large. Project objectives include:

  • Reaching out to Southeastern Indigenous Peoples and letting them know that, despite the claims of developers, the pipeline is neither necessary to meet the energy needs of the community, nor economically or environmental responsible.
  • Providing training opportunities for people to connect and strengthen their efforts to protect Native resources.
  • Leading strategies to unite the Native population and mount an opposition to pipeline developers and legislators.
  • Investigating legal remedies, including how the pipeline abuses eminent domain and uses misleading information to apply for and obtain permits.

Chavis asserts that outreach like this is costly and would not be possible without the help of First Nations.

“A lot of times funders won’t support conferences and convenings, but First Nations recognizes the importance of bringing people together,” Chavis says. “With the infusion of these resources, we’re able to focus more directly on our organizing.”

The need to organize is growing by the day, as there are already ramifications of “dirty industry,” Chavis explains. There have been increases in toxic elements from animal waste and a surge in respiratory illnesses. And without a proper opposition, the damage from both the pipeline and the LNGs will only continue. The area, known as the “Amazon of North Carolina” for its diversity in  waterways, plants, animals, and other lifeforms, will become a cesspool, says Chavis.

“It really is that serious,” she says. “This is everyone’s issue, not just one community’s.”

Going forward, the group hopes to create a ripple effect of education and awareness about the pervasive power of energy companies, the true footprints of proposed pipelines, and the effects that all pollutants have on the environment, whether it’s biofuels in North Carolina or fracked gas coming down from Pennsylvania.

“These threats come in all forms, and we do not differentiate,” says Chavis. “They all impact our resources and rights, and we’re here to address them all.”

While there is an uphill climb ahead, Chavis says Native people are becoming much more informed and empowered about their rights and ready to stand their ground when it comes to land ownership and federal laws. She is also optimistic about the mobilization of Native peoples and what it can mean for Native communities, perhaps even laying the groundwork for tribal nations to get control of their own energy sources. “We’re excited about the possibilities and the interest that the tribes have already shown,” she says. “And without funding from First Nations, that sort of thing couldn’t happen.”

By Amy Jakober

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