Dr. Kyle Whyte, White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council member, spoke to the Oceti Sakowin Caucus about environmental injustice, environmental equity, consultation, tribal regulatory authority, and President Joe Biden’s initiative to combat climate change. Whyte is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and has written numerous articles about environmental justice and settler colonialism.
A professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Whyte teaches that environmental injustice is rooted in settler colonialism, a form of domination that violently disrupts human relationships with the environment “through works strategically to undermine Indigenous peoples’ social resilience as self-determining collectives.”
Although it is a relatively new field, climate science is one of the oldest sciences among Native Americans who have long observed nature, precipitation patterns, changing weather, and have organized their societies “in a way that was adaptable to seasonal change happening around us,” said Whyte.
Indigenous people have been on the forefront of climate activism for decades. In fact, tribes in the United States held a conference in the mid 1990s on climate change and the information from that conference formed a chapter of the 2001 National Climate Assessment.
A 2018 report by the US Global Change Research Program identified over 800 actions Native people were taking to address climate change, however; it did not include environmental justice actions or anti-pipeline activities. If those were added to the report, Dr. Whyte believes the numbers would quadruple.
President Biden’s commitment to creating space for Indigenous leadership included naming Dr. Whyte and Jade Begay (Diné/Tesuque Pueblo) to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which was established to fulfill the president’s pledge to confronting long standing environmental injustices and to ensure that historically marginalized and polluted, overburdened communities have greater input on federal policies and decisions.
In this capacity, Dr. Whyte contributed to the Justice40 initiative, which was part of Biden’s executive order to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad. Justice40 established a government-wide goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. Tribes were recognized as communities within that category.
Decades of infrastructure divestment and neglect of tribal nations has resulted in a backlog of environmental and infrastructure inequity. Roads, telecommunications, broadband, electrification grids on reservations have never been fully funded, are inadequate or, in some cases, non-existent.
Tribal leaders in South Dakota have long lobbied Washington for infrastructure funding: the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe asked Congress to change to the transportation funding formula, which underfunds roads for large land-based tribes. Their requests have been repeatedly dismissed, to fatal consequences.
In July 2019, two people died after a Bureau of Indian Affairs highway on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation collapsed when flood waters inundated a culvert under the road. The culvert had been identified for replacement seven years before the tragic event.
The lack of broadband on reservations was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe built its own wireless internet network so children on the reservation could attend school virtually during the public health crisis.
National attention on infrastructure has transformed the way the public and government view what infrastructure means — environmental justice and infrastructure are now the largest forces driving environmentalism, because it’s through these investments that renewable energy and climate change solutions are being delivered.
“You can’t build renewable energy if you haven’t first addressed roads, broadband, telecommunication, and water. Tribes know this, but do other people outside of tribes understand this? They did not, but that is changing quickly,” said Dr. Whyte.
Biden’s plan to create renewable energy and resilient infrastructure on reservations also means an overhaul consultation, a process that tribal nations have denounced for decades. Some tribal leaders have called the government’s consultation policy an infringement policy because tribes have no decision-making influence on projects they are being consulted on, even when they are most affected and most at risk. And when they say no to a project, their voice is ignored by State and Federal governments.
Botched examples are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ tribal consultation for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Governor Kristi Noem’s idea of consulting tribes about fireworks at Mount Rushmore. In both instances, tribes’ religious rights were infringed, sacred sites were disregarded, and natural resources were put at risk.
Dr. Whyte shared that creating a consultation policy is essential to tackling environmental injustice, and this means that consultation is not only a consent process, but one that has veto power. Tribes should also be able to define what safe enough means, based on cultural understandings of what matters to them.
“Our knowledge holders should be able to say, this is valuable or sacred. It shouldn’t just be up to another culture to define that for us.”
Capacity is another element of the consultation process, which has sometimes hurt tribes in the past.
“If tribes say they don’t have the capacity to engage in consultation, then the US will say, ‘Well then you’re not sovereign’. Tribes have to be strategic in terms of how we talk about the needs of consultation because it can be interpreted in a deficit mode.”
Whyte says tribes need to have their own experts who specialize in fields such as historic preservation, environmental science, and legislative policy. Access to trustworthy people in State and Federal agencies who actually want to work with tribes is also vital to the consultation process.
“A true nation-to-nation relationship is one where the United States takes its consultative duties seriously, including staffing people who have career opportunities to make consultation meaningful, similar to the diplomats they have for other countries. Why don’t we have the equivalent or analogous for tribal nations?”
Another important environmental justice issue is how to actually get tribes in the position to be able to take responsibility over their own regulatory processes, which would include permitting authority and being able to determine the standards for permitting. In the past, tribal nations were often left to deal with the consequences of Federal and State regulatory gaps resulting from inadequate legislation, policy, and enforcement capabilities. With tribal involvement, regulatory gaps can decrease and result in environmental justice and equity.
Whyte explained this is already taking place with some tribes that require companies to provide information that would feed into a holistic interpretation of environmental risks, human health risks, cultural risks, and risks to future generations. Some tribes have also recognized the rights of nature.
In conclusion, Dr. Whyte shared that after decades of lived experience being disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and settler colonialism, for Indigenous people, climate change is multi-dimensional. President Biden’s climate initiative that involves Indigenous voices is a positive step toward meaningful and transformative change, and one that is long overdue.
“It is not just a matter of economic solutions that will appease and ameliorate the impacts we are facing. A huge part of dealing with climate change is to restore and recover our sovereignty and our treaty rights.”
Indigenous grassroots movements have been on the forefront of environmental justice and climate change. Their efforts have influenced and shaped environmental management for the greater good of our Nation. We, the South Dakota Democratic Party advocate for climate and environmental policies that are trust-honoring and sovereignty-affirming, that is inclusive of tribal participation and leadership.