Can Rights of Nature Help End Environmental Genocide on Ponca Lands?

By Movement Rights co-founders Pennie Opal Plant and Shannon Biggs

 

thThe wind blows powerfully in Oklahoma. It is part of the Great Plains and is also home to “tornado alley.” But today the state is known more for a human-made feature, a geological by-product of the petroleum industry: Oklahoma is the earthquake capital of the world. Ask anyone in the state if they had ever felt a tremor before fracking and injection wells became part of the northern Oklahoma landscape in the mid-2000’s and the answer is unequivocally, “NO.” Over Labor Day weekend, Ponca City and nearby Pawnee were the epicenter of the world’s largest manmade earthquake, registering a 5.8.

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photo credit Movement Rights

Rather than address the issue of fracking and its dangers, the Governor and state legislature passed two senate bills banning residents from banning or limiting oil and gas operations.  Movement Rights’ board member, Casey Camp Horinek a Ponca elder and elected Tribal Council member spoke at a 2015 Senate hearing, explaining how the Ponca people—who are concentrated on the south side of town where the refineries chemical plants and injection wells are largely sited—are being fracked to death:

“We’re now having a funeral a week from cancers and autoimmune diseases. In 2015 we had 907 quakes of a 3.0 magnitude and above. If the governor won’t call for a stop to fracking, the sovereign Ponca nation will.”

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Ponca Business Council members with Movement Rights co-founders and Tom Goldtooth of IEN following our presentation.

Movement Rights co-founders, Shannon Biggs and Pennie Opal Plant, along with Michael Horse, traveled to Ponca City and the Ponca Nation from October 14-16, 2016 to introduce Rights of Nature to the Tribal council, members of the Ponca Nation and non-native residents as a way to ban fracking and injection wells on tribal lands. Our trip there was full of joy and tears, inspiration and devastation.  Fracking sites and injection wells dot the landscape, and the telltale signs of leaking well pipes are easy to spot.   The tips of wheat fields are black-tinged, and there are dead areas in farm fields where nothing grows.  The day before we arrived, the Governor had proclaimed an “official day of prayer for the oil industry and the oil fields.” We were not sure what to expect when we arrived or how our visit would be recieved.

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Oily muddy water like this bubbles up from the ground all over Ponca City likely indicating pipe leaks below the surface. Photo credit Movement Rights.

While most Americans have now heard of fracking and its seemingly endless harms to the air, soil, water, climate, property values, human health and all life—injection wells are often less understood. Essentially it’s this: the millions of gallons of toxic fluid used in fracking, plus radioactive materials and metals found in the deep shale brought to the surface by the fracking process are too dirty, too dangerous to pour into rivers, aquifers, on to leave on land (though all of that happens). Injection wells cram that toxic stew back into the earth as storage, causing a slew of problems not the least of which are earthquakes. In 2015 Oklahoma even received 2.5 million barrels of injection wastewater from other states that deem it too dangerous to site.

In 1877, part of the Ponca Tribe was forced to leave their ancestral home in Nebraska on foot, to be resettled in northern Oklahoma.  About 20 years later, the City of Ponca, OK developed around the tribe, and today is home to 26,000 people including 3,500 members of the Ponca Nation. Over the next hundred years the economy of Oklahoma would be shaped by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry.  The Ponca tribe has not benefitted from oil. They don’t have oil leases, and there are no oil jobs for the Ponca people despite being surrounded by oil infrastructure. Racism and harassment against the Ponca Nation is an open secret in the town that bears their name, with some businesses refusing to serve Ponca people, while welcoming other tribes who are invested in the oil industry.

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Pennie Opal Plant, Suzaatah Horinek and her daughter Lola, who were part of the 30 person organizing team making signs, handing out campaign shirts and other preparations for the prayer walk and the community event.

Despite this background, the Ponca Nation and local allies of the Nation were welcoming and interested in what Movement Rights has to offer, which is a way forward to stopping the devastation by recognizing the Rights of Mother Earth—the right of the land air, water and all life to be free from the toxic infrastructure.   Movement Rights’ board member and Ponca Tribal Councilmember, Casey Camp-Horinek, took us on a toxic tour after our presentation to the Ponca Business Council.

Pennie Opal Plant and Michael Horse live near the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California.  They are accustomed to occasionally smelling toxins come from that refinery and the other four refineries along the San Francisco Northeast Bay.  Shannon Biggs has traveled the world visiting toxic sites from South Durban South Africa to the oil and gas fields of North Dakota and Pennsylvania, but nothing prepared us for what we witnessed.  Driving past the Conoco Phillips refinery on the south side of Ponca City was an entirely different experience.   When the pungent and toxic smells hit us we immediately rolled up the windows on the car.   We could taste the toxins as they hit our systems and some of us had difficulty breathing.

There are homes and a park where children play directly across the street from this refinery.  And, of course, people of color and the working poor are the residents of the homes on the south side of town near the refinery. We saw uncountable fossil fuel holding tanks, more than any we had seen along the refinery corridor in the Bay Area.   Acres and acres—and acres—of huge tanks.

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DANGER Pipeline! Cows graze and drink polluted water. Photo credit Movement Rights.

We stopped at several injection well sites, mostly those that were the easiest to access just off the side of the road. Getting out of the car, the smell of chemicals curled in our noses, instantly shooting  into our heads like a toxic-ice cream headache. We witnessed the “produced water” leaking around the injection well machinery at every stop.  Produced water is a by-product of fracking which has undisclosed toxic chemicals, salt and radioactive materials  from the natural radiation and metals that live in the deep shale two miles below the ground surface.   We saw injection wells in agriculture fields of wheat and soybeans, onions and crops that are in many of the food products that we eat and assume are not poisoned.  We stopped at the place where the lower leg of the Keystone pipeline flows in the ground under where cattle graze, and drink from the open pits of toxic water above the pipeline.

14702432_1140644946021111_1678195815010591114_nOn Saturday, October 15th, we participated in a prayer walk, led by Casey Camp-Horinek, from a local park to the Conoco Phillips refinery.  About 60 people joined us—we were told this was the first direct action at this facility.  We circled up in front of the refinery for prayers for the community members, the refinery workers, the air, water and soil.  There were many families with children who participated and one woman came out of her home to join us.  Another women told us she keeps her pool filled with water (even though most pools are earthquake-damaged) to help out the local deer, coyotes and foxes who know not to drink from the rivers anymore.

People driving by honked their support and the Ponca City News gave us small but favorable  front page coverage. Yes, the time to shift the system from devastation toward health has arrived and we can’t assume that anyone is against us.   Even in this town with so much fossil fuel infrastructure there was a lot of support.  As we left, every single person on the prayer walk shook the hand of the police officer who was there to monitor us and to keep us safe.

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The Brown family farm, red circle indicates the field with an active injection well, one of 4 sites you can see from their porch. Photo credit: Movement Rights

A former oil worker, James Wesley Brown took us to his family homestead which has supported four generations of Brown farmers.  His daughter, Temperance, played on the swing about 100 feet from an injection well in the middle of their onion field.  “This land is not a wasteland, and I hope someday my daughter will farm on this land.” But right now he acknowledged, it’s a toxic mess.

He cranked some water from the hand pump next to the swing and suggested we cup our hands for a sip, laughing, He took a mouthful and immediately spit it on the ground. “They say it’s safe, but you can smell the gas in it, and some days you can light it on fire.” 

The members of the Ponca Nation and allies make many connections to the water protectors and land defenders at Standing Rock.  Casey Camp-Horinek’s family members have also been very involved on the frontlines in North Dakota.  Many of the homemade signs on the prayer walk were in support of the people protecting the water along the Missouri River.

After the prayer walk was the Movement Rights presentation at the community meeting at the Ponca Nation community center.   Native American actor, jeweler and artist, Michael Horse, most well-known for his role as “Deputy Hawk” in Twin Peaks, was the Master of Ceremonies.   Shannon spoke first about fracking and injection wells, their impacts on living beings, the earth, air, water and soil, as well as the effects on climate change and spoke about rights of nature as a legal tool.  Pennie spoke about the origins of the Rights of Mother Earth, Indigenous people’s original instructions on how to live within balance within the sacred system of life, as well as the importance of an immediate transition off of fossil fuels.  She shared examples of Native American communities which are working on renewable energy solutions on their territories such as the Firsts Nation’s Lubicon Solar Project and The Solutions Project which has the data which shows how each State can transition off of fossil fuels and on to renewable energy by 2050 while creating jobs that last 40 years.

Throughout our visit the sun was strong, and the wind blew mightily, iurreminding us that there are clean renewable options for Oklahoma. The state blows 6th highest for wind potential in the United Sates, offering a lasting economic energy strategy for the state. Even other states are investing in Oklahoma wind power.

What is happening in Ponca, Oklahoma and at Standing Rock, North Dakota is a SIGNAL, not simply a symbol.  It is time for all communities to stand for the protection of the Earth in the places where they live.  As Indigenous people rise up to protect the sacred system of life they are serving as a beacon to all of those who have been complacent while Mother Earth has suffered grave violations by members of our human family.   These violations are threatening the sacred system of life that is necessary for life to continue in any way close to what those alive right now have experienced.  There is not a moment to waste in our protection of the air, water and soil.  It is time to heed the call to action to preserve life as we know it.

I am River & blogAs Movement Rights travels to Maori territory in New Zealand next week we will be exploring a ground-breaking law to protect the sacred Whanganui River.  Keep an eye out for our next blog which will be full of inspiring stories of how the Maori people, working with the Federal Government of New Zealand, have not only recognized the spiritual and holistic rights of the River and the life within and around it to exist in a clean and healthy environment, but have also recognized the sacred rights of the River.


In memory of Betty Lee Brown who passed away on the family farm we visited on October 27 with her grandson, Wes Brown. 

MovementRigts-Colour-sq-ncMovement Rights assists communities confronted by harmful corporate projects to assert their right to make important decisions that impact them by passing new laws that place the rights of residents (and nature) above the claimed legal “rights” of corporations. At the heart of our work is the belief that asserting our right to create the kind of place we want to live and reining in corporate power is the next evolution of the civil rights movement. Over 160 communities across the United States have already asserted their right to local self-government and stopped unwanted harms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media Release: PONCA NATION CONSIDERS Rights of Nature FRACKING & INJECTION BAN

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 8, 2016

Contact:

Shannon Biggs, Movement Rights (415) 841.2998 Shannon@movementrights.org

Casey Camp Horinek, Ponca Tribal Council (580) 716.7015 caseycamphorinek@yahoo.com

PONCA NATION CONSIDERS FRACKING & INJECTION BAN

Hosts Public Events October 15 to Explore ‘Rights of Nature’ Ban on Tribal Lands
t-shirt-designPonca City, OK – One month after the human-made 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Oklahoma, a growing number of residents are questioning whether fracking and injection wells are good for the state. Along with becoming the “Earthquake Capital of the World”, water contamination, cancers and air pollution have all been linked to the 30,000 active wells, compressors and processors statewide.

Despite mounting scientific data and public outcry, in 2015 state legislators passed two bills (SB 809 and SB 468) outlawing communities from banning or regulating fracking activities locally. Casey Camp Horinek, Ponca OK Tribal Council member, spoke at a Senate hearing before the bills were enacted, stating, “If the state refuses to protect residents from fracking and injection wells, the sovereign Ponca Nation will.”

Camp Horinek, who also testified on fracking at a Rights of Nature th-1Tribunal in Paris, France during the UN Climate talks last December has been working to make good on that promise enlisting rights-based group Movement Rights, BOLD Oklahoma, and the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) to come to Ponca for a series of public events and private meetings with the Ponca Tribal Council. Says Camp Horinek, “All of the Ponca people who live within the area of the Conoco Phillips 66 refinery and the other fossil fuel extractive industries have family members who have cancer or who have died from cancer, or are suffering from autoimmune diseases such as lupus. It’s time to take a stand for our people and defend the Earth.”

Ponca tribal members, neighboring tribes and community members are all welcome to hear a presentation about how other communities, and most recently the Ho-Chunk tribal nation have recognized legal standing for ecosystems—also known as the rights of nature—to ban fracking activities.

Shannon Biggs, director of California-based Movement Rights says, “Dozens of US communities, a handful of countries and now the Ho-Chunk Nation have passed laws that stop treating nature as property to be destroyed, and recognize the right of ecosystems to exist and regenerate their vital cycles. They have used this new legal framework to protect their communities from harmful activities including fracking.”

tom-goldtooth-ron-memeTom BK Goldtooth, IEN Executive Director adds, “The Rights of Nature provides an ethical and spiritual relationship to the Earth, and places human law in balance with Natural Laws.” It’s time we all throw our support behind tribes fighting overreaching energy development, says Ariel Ross, Payne County resident: “Stop Fracking Payne County stands with the Ponca Nation for their right to decide what happens on their tribal lands.”

Two public events take place Saturday Oct 15:

Click here for more information or to make a donation. 


 

Lessons from #NoDAPL: We are More Powerful than the Fossil Fuel Industry

By Pennie Opal Plant, Movement Rights co-founder

Cover photo “Night time in Sacred Stone” (Oct. 2016) by Camille Seaman

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Sami delegation from the Arctic in Norway & Finland presenting gifts and yoiking at the Sacred Stone Camp, Oct 2016 Photo Credit: Camille Seaman

There is something powerful rippling through humanity right now.  It is more powerful than the fossil fuel industry that is harming the system of life that we need to simply exist.  It is more powerful than the government officials that have allowed these harms to be committed.  It is more powerful than the legal and economic  system that cultivates greed and consumerism.  This power is the spirit of remembering how we are to be on our beautiful Mother Earth.  This power is reminding us that even though many of our human family have been seduced by “shiny objects” that we ourselves have created; our true responsibility is to ensure the future of the unborn generations to come.

We are witnessing the culmination of Indigenous prophesies that are hundreds of years old.  Prophecies that spoke of the Eagle and the Condor reuniting after thousands of years—which refers to the Indigenous peoples of North America (represented by the Eagle) reconnecting with our Indigenous brothers and sisters of Central and South America (represented by the Condor) to work together.

The ancient prophecies of the 7th Fire and the the 7th Generation iupredicted the time would come after 7 generations of European settlement to Turtle Island when the waters, land and air would be so polluted that the animals and plants would become sick and begin to die.  The prophecies also say that when young Indigenous people will retrace their steps to find the Original Instructions and remembering the true responsibilities of being a human and help others remember that they too are Indigenous to Mother Earth’s belly, and that we must act now.  Prophesies of the Black Snake that would go across the land spilling poison, which Indigenous people understand are the oil pipelines that have already destroyed miles of many rivers including the Athabascan, Kalamazoo and Yellowstone Rivers.

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Havasupi delegation with Benjamin Conrad of the Wind River Arapaho, Sacred Stone Camp, Oct 2016 Photo Credit: Camille Seaman

Everyone who cares about what is happening to our climate and environment has been moved by seeing thousands upon thousands of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous allies living in tents, teepees and out of cars at the Sacred Stone Camp and overflow camps in North Dakota to protect the water by putting their bodies on the line of the Dakota Access Pipeline.   Caro “Guarding Red Tarantula Woman” Gonzales, a 26-year-old Standing Rock protector and co-founder of the International Indigenous Youth Council, told ThinkProgress, “When people are chaining themselves to bulldozers, that is prayer.”

Hundreds of people have been arrested or have risked arrest to protect the water in the Missouri River.  Protectors and Defenders have been bitten by attack dogs urged on by corporate private security.  The whole world is not only watching, but inspired to action, creating a growing stream of delegations to the camps.  Among the delegations this last week were the Saami from the Arctic Circle and the Havasupai from the Grand Canyon.  What is happening in North Dakota is powerful.  It is important.

But Standing Rock it is not just a single action, rather, It is a signal for people everywhere to take a stand in their communities for the health and safety of water, soil and air.  This great power is moving through us and it will only grow.

The Role for Rights of Mother Earth  

t-shirt-designIn mid October 2016, Movement Rights co-founders will be in Oklahoma to meet with members of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma  about how to recognize legal standing for ecosystems (rights of nature) to protect their citizens from fracking and injection wells. (You can donate to the Ponca campaign here.)

Injection wells forcefully insert toxic fracking wastewater deep into the ground and is the cause, along with fracking, of the thousands of earthquakes in Oklahoma.  The toxins from the fossil fuel industry have deeply impacted the Ponca Nation and have caused an epidemic of cancers, autoimmune and respiratory diseases.

According to Ponca Tribal Council member, Casey Camp-Horinek, who is also on the Board of Movement Rights, “All of the Ponca people who live within the area of the Conoco Phillips 66 refinery and the other fossil fuel extractive industries in the area have family members who have cancer or who have died from cancer, and/or who are suffering from autoimmune diseases such as lupus.”

Rights of Mother Earth (or nature) recognizes the right of ecosystems to “exist, persist and maintain their vital cycles.”  But while that may seem like common sense, it is actually a powerful legal tool to confront existing human law that “sees” ecosystems as property to be destroyed at will.  The concept was spelled out in the Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth and has been gaining momentum around the world in order to protect communities from the continued devastation of corporate greed. These ideas have been used by Ecuador, Bolivia, New Zealand, the Ho-Chunk Nation and many non-indigenous US communities to not only ban dangerous practices like fracking and injection wells, but also to write into law what is to be protected so that future generations can exist in an environment that is, hopefully, similar to the one which we have enjoyed in our lifetimes.  In the United States, rights of nature ordinances have been passed in over 80 communities.  It has been said that citizens of the United States live in a democracy, but, as the Director of Movement Rights, Shannon Biggs, is fond of saying, “If we can’t determine what happens where in the places where we live, then we don’t really have a Democracy—it’s time to rewrite the rules for people and the planet, not corporate profit.”

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The Whanganui Iwi (people) have been fighting for 150 years for the spiritual recognition of the river “Ko au te awa, Ko te awa ko au.” (I am the rover and the river is me).

In November of this year, Movement Rights will also be in New Zealand.   The Crown government of New Zealand, working with traditional Maori leaders, have recognized the rights of the Whanganui River and Te Urewera, a national park.  These two entities now have the same standing under the law as human persons.  This means that the “government gave up formal ownership, and the land became a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” as the statute puts it.

Shannon Biggs and I will be meeting with Maori leaders and New Zealand government officials to lay the groundwork for taking a delegation of Indigenous and environmental leaders of the Americas to learn how these two revolutionary agreements came to be.  We are excited to begin to understand what it takes to recognize the rights of what is now called “ecosystems”, but is traditionally understood by Indigenous people as communities of life, no less significant than human communities.

Living in the San Francisco East Bay, not too far from the one of the largest estuaries in western North America, the San Joaquin/Sacramento Delta, I am excited about the possibility of working on recognizing the rights of this important body of water and all of the life it supports.  The Delta has suffered immeasurably from toxins introduced by the California Gold Rush, agricultural and chemical industry toxins, the siphoning off of its water for corporate agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and populations in Southern California.  Imagine friends of the Delta being able to speak on its behalf in a court of law, speaking for the endangered Delta smelt, and being not only heard by the court, but actions to protect this magnificent being mandated by law. Earlier this year, Movement Rights and our partners at the Bay Area Rights of Nature Alliance held a Delta Rights of Nature Tribunal to showcase how this framework of ecosystem rights could apply to California’s most important waterway.

Movement Rights is working with communities to change the law of the land to understand that Mother Earth has inherent rights, the sacred system of life has inherent rights and that human beings are only a part of the system of life and must respect and restore it.  Mother Earth does not negotiate and the sooner our human family understands that, the sooner future generations will be safe from the idea that we can continue to destroy our home.

We live in powerful times with great responsibilities.  It is up to us to determine whether the lives of future generations will be viable.  It is up to us to imagine a future that is sustainable, healthy and safe for all of life as we know it and to act now to create that future.  It is time to push our own personal boundaries of what we are comfortable doing and step up to these responsibilities.  The people alive right now will either be seen as heroes who recognized our place in history, or as complacent and selfish people who did not care about the future generations.  It truly is time to choose.  I ask you to join us in our campaign to create the future we are envisioning.  It is beautiful.  Can you see it?

You can help fund Movement Rights and our trip to Oklahoma here: Ponca Nation Protects Mother Earth

 


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Movement Rights promotes community, indigenous, and nature’s rights by: 

Empowering communities to write new rules. Providing organizing and legal support, we assist communities confronted by harmful projects to pass new laws that place the right of residents (and nature) above corporate profit. Building a vibrant movement for the rights of nature. Through savvy media campaigns, deep education and organizing, Movement Rights is a leading advocate recognizing legal standing for nature. Advancing Indigenous rights and traditional knowledge. Our organizing, research and reports highlights that as the defenders of the most diverse places on Earth, Indigenous peoples have a leadership role to play in the transformation of our culture and law toward ecological balance.

Movement Rights is a fiscally sponsored project of the Oakland Institute. We are supported by individual donations and small foundation grants.  Please consider supporting our work and joining our list serve to keep up to date on the movement for rights-based change.   Thank you!