The Frontline Oil & Gas Conference was an indigenous-led environmental organizing summit held in Ponca City, Oklahoma, one of America’s most intense oil and gas extraction zones. While the area is home to fracking towers, oil refineries, fracking-induced earthquakes, and billion-dollar corporations, during the conference, it was also home to a growing resistance. 250 people from indigenous, frontline, and grassroots groups gathered to have ceremony, learn lessons, and make friendships.
More than three-quarters of the people who attended the conference were indigenous. They brought tribal concerns and wisdom from all parts of our nation — from the Arctic Circle to the Bayou of Louisiana, from the Texas border to Standing Rock.
These portraits were taken at the conference and the quotes are stories, lessons, and notes of hope that these brave activists shared.
Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Councilwoman and Drumkeeper of the Ponca Pa Tha Tah
“We want to share our story with others.
“Our tribe has banned fracking and injection wells on our land, and in 2018, we took the historic step of writing a statute to recognize the Rights of Nature. This seeks to make a cultural and legal change to the way humanity ‘sees’ nature — aligning human laws with the natural laws of Mother Earth, and in alignment with indigenous cosmology that places humans as part of the natural world, not as owners of it.
“The Ponca are experiencing environmental genocide as a result of the practices of the extractive industry in our territory. They have poisoned the Air, the Earth, and the Water. We are fighting to survive in every way possible. Part of our fight to survive is connect with others, to share, and learn.”
Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Tasiget Band of Northern Paiute, Western Shoshone Nation
Carl ‘Bad Bear’ Sampson
“I am on a walk to save what we have left of our tribal sovereignty.
“A group of indigenous people and allies are taking a spiritual walk across America to confront anti-Indian bills in Congress and to raise awareness about threats to indigenous people, our environment, and our way of life.
“This is about protecting sacred sites, saving mother Earth, the survival of our culture, and the empowerment of our youth. Walking is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”
Iñupiat People, Enrolled Member of the Native Village of Barrow
“I didn’t want a nice car, or nice clothes or other expensive things. I felt like a failure for not wanting those things or not feeling happy when I got those things. Now I’ve learned that this was done on purpose. It is a systematic way to make us feel bad about the way we used to be. Capitalism and corporations have strategically taken communal efforts and communal values away from people and have instilled a belief in individualism. They have done this for their own benefit and at the detriment of humanity.
“But now, people are being awoken, that this is not the way that we are supposed to live. I think this is because climate change is so obvious and because of the way this administration dehumanizes us. White supremacy was hidden really well in the Obama admin. Now with Trump, the hidden people are coming out, and people are waking up and saying, ‘Oh, this was bad and is bad, and we have to make it better.’ It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. It’s a call to action for the world.
“I think of my fight in three layers. The outermost layer is the climate crisis. We cannot take any more destruction of our land. The second layer is political corruption due to oil and extractive industries in Alaska. The third and closest to me is health. In my village of Nuiqsut, the asthma, cancer, and heart disease rates are on the rise. It can be overwhelming to do this work, but it is important.
“In Alaska, I am working to help people, animals, and places impacted by mining, climate change, and oil drilling. So please check in on Alaska, and remember we are here.”
First Nations Cree-Métis
“Become aware — read, research, talk — and then when you can intelligently express what is happening, approach others with differing opinions and have a conversation.”
Member of the Ponca and Pomo People
“Always be ready to answer that call when it comes.
“There are so many people who are coming into awareness of the powers we have in solidarity with each other. Creator will honor our sacrifices.”
Richard Ray Whitman
“Use your art as activism. I was at Wounded Knee in 1973, and my first gun was a Pentax camera. Every generation has their time, so find yours and join.”
Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation, and direct descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Cedar Wilkie Gillette
“There are many ways to help, choose something meaningful and get involved.
“I am the Earthjustice Legal Fellow for Native American Partnerships, helping to provide regional legal advocacy in tribal communities who are facing challenges from fossil fuel development and other environmental justice concerns.
“I chose this work because it is important for tribal members to still have a voice in protecting our homelands.”
(Editor’s Note: Cedar was a law fellow at Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office from 2018–2019.)
Yaqui from Sonora, Mexico, and Undocumented Choctaw and Cherokee
Pennie Opal Plant
“I avoid using the word ‘fight.’ It is a word that has led to much disharmony in the world.
“I prefer to speak to what I am for: clean air, water, soil, and a safe, survivable world for life. It will take millions — hopefully, a billion — people in the streets around the world to force the policy changes necessary to survive.”
Enrolled Member of the Native Village of Barrow
Stanley Frank Aksiatag Riley
“My friend and I started a march against fossil fuels on Fridays. We are holding meetings and talking about solutions.
“I’ve learned to take action instead of standing back and accepting what the fossil fuel industry wants you to do.”
Sac and Fox Nation
“To win, we will need every person’s skills and voice. If you find your voice and your story, the movement will grow. We have indigenous knowledge that flows through our veins and gives us wisdom. We have to use this wisdom to protect the environment.”
Member of the Diné and Dakota People
Tom BK Goldtooth
“We are not reformists. We are in for systems change. As indigenous people, we have to be involved in the decolonization process. This modern world that is part of an industrialized society has systematically removed people from understanding their relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth.
“We created a campaign for humanity to recognize Earth jurisprudence, recognize the territorial integrity of Mother Earth and Father Sky. It challenges a system that has been created by industrialized society that looks at nature from a property rights perspective.
“We are recognizing that part of our struggle is fighting a colonial governmental system of laws that grant more rights to corporations than they do to nature. So, if nature is looked at as a property right, then what’s an alternative to that? It’s an alternative that recognizes that Mother Earth is a living spiritual entity, that Mother Earth has a value system that gives life.
“The Rights of Nature says nature is a person and has a soul. It is not a thing to be commoditized. The rivers, the Earth, the trees, the mountains, all life — they have personalities. We have to recognize that.”
Standing Rock Sioux Nation
“We have future generations who deserve a just and healthy future. It is up to us as Native people to remember our original instruction to protect unci maka (our mother earth) and respect all life. Government does not care what happens to the people who are forced to live with fracking.
“I have learned that if we come together and stand for the people, we can move mountains. It is up to all of us.”
Sicangu Lakota, Advisory Council for L’eau Est La Vie ‘No Bayou Bridge Pipeline’ Resistance Camp
Anne White Hat
“One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a tremendous amount of technology now that can help us grow and be effective in our movements.
“I’ve been doing this for about 30 years. I was mentored by indigenous women leaders across the country in how to do human rights and social activism work. Before it was old-school — sending smoke signals to get the word out. But now things can move quickly, and people can be involved.
“I’ve learned that there are a lot of really strong, brave people out there in the world. When I see victories from these brave indigenous groups — groups that have sacrificed and lost relatives in their fight — that gives me hope. We have strength in our communities.”
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
Cody Looking Horse
“It gives me hope when the youth speak up with a sea of love in their hearts and wisdom that is so old that is given from creation. Wisdom and indigenous knowledge have been passed through generations and will be passed on through me. So, support the youth — they are the future.”
Member of the Yuchi and Annishaabe People
Ozawa Bineshi Albert
“At this conference we created a place for people to gather and build relationships across communities of color. We have to try to understand each other’s culture and the different ways that the oil and gas industry is impacting each of us. How people experience colonization in their own communities is different, and when we create spaces to have those difficult conversations, it creates better understanding. That understanding creates better relationships and solidarity that can sustain for the long haul.
“Be aware. Be engaged. Ask questions. Support indigenous communities when they are standing up for something.
“If you are in a position of privilege, make your voice heard, especially when it can counteract things that are trying to shut down the native voice.”