One night last November, Jon Eagle Sr., tribal historian of the Standing Rock Sioux, spoke at a hearing before the North Dakota Public Service Commission. Three years had passed since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and though life on the prairie had returned to some semblance of normalcy, concerns of a potential oil spill remained. “We’re still here, an ancient people, deeply connected to our environment, deeply connected to this land, this water, and this earth,” Eagle said.
The hearing, held in the sleepy ranch town of Linton, would determine whether the volume of Bakken crude oil moving through the Dakota Access Pipeline would increase to 1.1 million barrels daily—double the flow for which it was originally designed. Two hundred and fifty miles north, in Edinburg, oil oozed from a rupture in a different pipeline.
I sat in the auditorium and took notes. For ten hours, energy company officials had assured commissioners that the proposed expansion was safe, while a group of Indigenous water protectors—many of whom had boarded a bus at five that morning to be there—waited for their turn to speak.
Eagle was the first Indigenous person the North Dakota energy commissioners had heard from all day. John Pretty Bear, a Standing Rock tribal councilman, was the second. “Since the pipeline has been operational, our community has endured the daily stress of an impending oil spill,” he said. “Doubling the capacity only doubles our distress.” It took nearly six hours more to record the testimony of every Lakota citizen present, making it the longest public hearing in the commission’s history.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, impeachment inquiries were getting underway. Through the lens of the national media, that was the only hearing that mattered. Except for a swift summary filed by the regional bureau of the Associated Press, the DAPL proceeding—a sequel to a global event that spotlighted environmental racism, Indigenous treaty abrogation, and government collusion with a corporate energy project—was totally overshadowed by the politics of Donald Trump.
Journalists were missing a critical moment for the people of Standing Rock—one arguably as important as the 2016 resistance. In this way, the established press continued its pattern of climate coverage, wherein solid enterprise reporting about environmental affairs takes a back seat to breaking-news assignments about extreme weather events. Standing Rock had been no different. Journalists only traveled to the reservation after police doused demonstrators with water on a subfreezing night, an event so shocking that it made the anti-pipeline resistance impossible to ignore.
The oversight also illustrated the media’s myopic gaze, its stubborn failure to see the importance of Indigenous stories. Within the conversation about climate change, too little attention is paid to the people who possess wisdom about sustaining the land. The catastrophic bushfires in Australia, predicted by Aborigines years ago, provide one recent example.
Another: Berta Cáceres, a Honduran Indigenous environmentalist who was assassinated in March 2016, just before the DAPL protests. I met up with Cáceres early that year, in La Esperanza, where she was hiding out from government threats. I attempted to cover her situation, but my pitches were denied; it was only after her death that editors became interested in her story.
To this day, I’m burdened by the thought that I should have pressed harder to publish before her murder. When I traveled to Standing Rock a few months later, I demanded from the start that editors recognize the importance of the demonstrations. Cáceres’s death had made something clear to me: the invisibility and violence inflicted on Indigenous peoples is inextricable from the harm inflicted on the planet.
Standing Rock represents the most vivid example in recent history of the links between aggressive natural-resource extraction in North America and human brutality, a pattern well documented since the time of the 1840s gold rush in present-day California. Then as now, women and girls have borne the brunt of the abuse. On the reservation borderlands of the Bakken oil fields, in North Dakota, the appearance, in the mid-2000s, of hundreds of male oil and gas workers—living in temporary housing often referred to as “man camps”—led to a dramatic increase in rapes, sex trafficking, and the disappearances and deaths of Native American women. By 2016, crime had gotten so bad that the FBI opened up a new field office nearby.
Only in the past year has the lopsided rate of gender violence in Indian Country finally received the media attention it deserves. But an uptick in readership, on any topic, doesn’t guarantee substantive journalism. Few if any publications have held the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation accountable for its complicity in the abuse visited upon its own women in the Bakken, or revealed that the majority of oil production occurs on the tribe’s trust lands. The Indigenous press, too, falls short; three-quarters of Indigenous media platforms are owned by tribal governments or advocacy groups. The result is coverage that tends to be dictated by political agendas rather than the facts.
Tribal citizens are among the most vulnerable people in the country to climate change. Among Native communities in Alaska, as many as thirty coastal villages will have to be relocated to escape rising ocean waters. Yet, for all the coverage addressing this slow-growing tragedy, little scrutiny has been cast on the contributions of Alaska Native Corporations—the state’s largest private property owners, established specifically to capitalize on extracting resources from their lands.
According to the Government Accountability Office, today’s tribal nations and their citizens collectively represent the third-largest owner of extractive resources such as oil, gas, and coal. For sovereign tribal economies faced with limited opportunities for revenue, these deposits are an attractive draw. This means Indigenous peoples must contend not only with encroachment from multinational corporations, but also with their own leadership’s exploitation of the land. We need clear-eyed reporting on the complexities of these actors—or we risk distorting the public understanding of communities affected by climate change, and of those responsible for it.
Tribal citizens are among the most vulnerable people in the country to climate change.
When the public hearing in Linton concluded, well past midnight, I headed back to the hotel where I was staying on the Standing Rock reservation. As I drove, I wrestled with disappointment in the industry I’ve worked in for twenty-one years. The Standing Rock protests had inspired a push by newsrooms big and small to enhance their coverage of Indigenous affairs, and yet on this day, almost no one—not even Indian Country Today, with its recent AP partnership—was present. Once again, those who raised their voices loudest in a call for environmental justice were muted by the press.
I crossed the Missouri River, vibrant in the moonlight, and thought of the poem “Anchorage,” by Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek citizen and the current US poet laureate. “Who would believe the fantastic and terrible story of our survival; those who were never meant to survive,” she wrote of Indigenous resilience. In our contemporary emergency, Indigenous peoples are, as ever, on the front lines. It will take fortitude to tell the stories of a warming planet. Unless journalists know that the climate crisis is an Indigenous story, we’re likely to receive a warped representation of it. And that is perhaps the biggest emergency of all.