On Wednesday, Nov. 10, writer, organizer and attorney Tara Houska delivered the keynote address for Indigenous Heritage Month. The event, held over Zoom, was co-sponsored by the Office of Green Initiatives.
At Kenyon, Indigenous Heritage Month includes an Indigenous literature reading hosted by the Department of English on Nov. 15, as well as a month long virtual streaming of the documentary film “Young Lakota” on Kanopy.
This year, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) — which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland — is taking place during Indigenous Heritage Month. Houska chose not to participate in this year’s conference because she believes it prioritizes corporate interests. According to Houska, oil lobbyists and climate advocates show up in large numbers, along with politicians like President Biden, who Houska believes hasn’t been the climate leader many have hoped for.
Houska founded the Giniw Collective, which, according to the group’s Facebook page, is an organization that aims to “create systemic change that respects ingenious sovereignty and the severity of the climate crisis.” She has also served as an advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) on Native American affairs, and spent six months working to protest the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota.
Before Houska was warmly introduced, a host read Kenyon’s land acknowledgement out for the group.
Houska spoke to attendees about her experiences as a climate advocate and community organizer. She described her efforts to fight against the Line 3 Replacement Project in Minnesota and recounted disappointing silence from the Secretary of the Interior on recent pipeline development. Houska also described witnessing police violence at anti-pipeline demonstrations and discussed her work at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center while in law school.
After her speech, Houska answered questions and engaged in discussions about performative activism, and about colleges and universities tokenizing Indigenous voices without truly supporting the community or its interests.
“If you’re part of an academic institution, you have a powerful voice,” Houska told students, reminding them that their voices are capable of accomplishing a lot.
Houska also explained that she was not deeply involved in organizing as a student, but implored student organizers to demand “substantive” action from leaders.
Houska then congratulated Kenyon students on the College’s recent sustainability statement, and emphasized the value of holding institutions accountable. “If you’re talking about sustainability, you know … looking internally at the College’s carbon impacts and stuff like that, what efforts are being made to try to lower that? What’s the curriculum offerings in that particular type of work?” Houska said.
She connected the student struggle for sustainability back to the Indigenous community. “Indigenous peoples are definitely part of my conversation of sustainability and our survival,” she said. “There’s always more things to be done. There’s ways to be better for sure. And we haven’t won the fight against [the] climate crisis.”