Environmental Activist and Native American Scholar Kyle Whyte of Michigan State University addressed the issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and other Native American environmental justice movements at Allegheny College on Tuesday, April 18. In the Henderson Auditorium of Quigley Hall, Whyte presented a lecture titled “Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Health: From the ‘Right to be Cold’ to Defeating the Dakota Access Pipeline” for the Allegheny community.
Despite the protestation of hundreds of Native Americans in North and South Dakota, President Donald Trump has continued to encourage the advancement of the Dakota Access Pipeline to add thousands of miles to the United States’ oil network. As the pipeline construction has been rerouted, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is now subjected to potentially severe environmental consequences, and President Trump’s executive action has consequently become an international cry to protect the land and rights of all indigenous people.
“[Whyte] was actually personally affected by the topics he discussed since he is a member of an Oklahoma Native American tribe,” Brittani Vesico, ’17, said. “The presentation was interesting because he’s a scholar beyond expertise, he has real involvement in his studies.”
Whyte is an associate professor of philosophy and community sustainability and a faculty affiliate of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies and Environmental Science programs at the Michigan State University. He is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
“[Whyte] focused on sustainable development and its implications on Native American health,” Ananya Yerramreddy, ’17, said. “Through his involvement with Native American tribes nationwide, he could first-hand explain the detrimental effects of forcing tribes to relocate. Indigenous tribes are forced to adapt to new environmental and cultural landscapes.”
Throughout the lecture Whyte conveyed that indigenous people are negatively impacted by the effects of climate change. For instance, Whyte elaborated on how the rising sea levels have financially and emotionally damaged tribal communities. The flooding has displaced many tribal members from the land they once inhabited; the majority of the time the land hold cultural significance to the population and when they are forced to leave it hurts their community.
Whyte said that climate change also threatens the agriculture indigenous communities depend on for their nutrition. The warm temperature destroys the harvest of plants like rice, corn and grains. This occurrence drastically depletes their food source. Additionally, fish are another source of protein that Native Americans depend upon, but fisheries have been limited because of the rising temperature of the ocean.
Whyte also commented on the emotional strain climate change has on indigenous communities. Elders within the community often experience depression and other mental health issues because climate change has altered their understanding of weather patterns and agricultural practices. Whyte said they are saddened by the fact that they can no longer impart their wisdom to others residing within their tribe.
“In my environmental science class we are currently discussing how pollution and climate change disproportionately affect lower-income individuals and developing countries. The talk was interesting to me because it discussed those same themes, but in the context of indigenous people,” said Amasa Smith, ’17. “It went farther to discuss how colonialism, change in environment and forced migration of native tribes has directly impacted their health.”
Students and faculty of varying departments attended the lecture Tuesday night, and left with a new perspective regarding environmental justice.
“While we may not recognize it, government actions force tribes to adapt to new climates, new societal norms, and these people have to alter their entire way of life,” Vesico said.