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TEDWomen 2017

Tara Houska: The Standing Rock resistance and our fight for indigenous rights

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Still invisible and often an afterthought, indigenous peoples are uniting to protect the world's water, lands and history -- while trying to heal from genocide and ongoing inequality. Tribal attorney and Couchiching First Nation citizen Tara Houska chronicles the history of attempts by government and industry to eradicate the legitimacy of indigenous peoples' land and culture, including the months-long standoff at Standing Rock which rallied thousands around the world. "It's incredible what you can do when you stand together," Houska says. "Stand with us -- empathize, learn, grow, change the conversation."

- Tribal attorney and advocate
Tara Houska is an attorney who fights for indigenous rights and justice. Full bio

[Ojibwe: Hello.
00:13
My English name is Tara;
my Native name is Zhaabowekwe.
00:14
I am of Couchiching First Nation;
my clan is bear.
00:17
I was born under the Maple Sapping Moon.]
00:20
My name is Tara Houska,
00:23
I'm bear clan from
Couchiching First Nation,
00:24
I was born under the Maple Sapping Moon
in International Falls, Minnesota,
00:27
and I'm happy to be here with all of you.
00:31
(Applause)
00:33
Trauma of indigenous peoples
has trickled through the generations.
00:39
Centuries of oppression,
of isolation, of invisibility,
00:43
have led to a muddled understanding
of who we are today.
00:48
In 2017, we face this mixture
of Indians in headdresses
00:51
going across the plains
00:55
but also the drunk sitting on a porch
somewhere you never heard of,
00:57
living off government handouts
and casino money.
01:00
(Sighs)
01:06
It's really, really hard.
01:07
It's very, very difficult
to be in these shoes,
01:09
to stand here as a product
of genocide survival, of genocide.
01:12
We face this constant barrage
of unteaching the accepted narrative.
01:19
87 percent of references in textbooks,
children's textbooks, to Native Americans
01:23
are pre-1900s.
01:28
Only half of the US states
mention more than a single tribe,
01:30
and just four states
mention the boarding-school era,
01:34
the era that was responsible
for my grandmother
01:37
and her brothers and sisters
01:41
having their language
and culture beaten out of them.
01:42
When you aren't viewed as real people,
01:45
it's a lot easier to run over your rights.
01:48
Four years ago, I moved to Washington, DC.
01:52
I had finished school
and I was there to be a tribal attorney
01:55
and represent tribes across the nation,
representing on the Hill,
01:57
and I saw immediately
why racist imagery matters.
02:01
I moved there during
football season, of all times.
02:04
And so it was the daily slew
of Indian heads
02:08
and this "redskin" slur everywhere,
02:11
while my job was going up on the Hill
02:14
and trying to lobby for hospitals,
for funding for schools,
02:17
for basic government services,
02:21
and being told again and again
02:23
that Indian people were incapable
of managing our own affairs.
02:25
When you aren't viewed as real people,
02:29
it's a lot easier to run over your rights.
02:31
And last August, I went out
to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
02:36
I saw resistance happening.
02:40
We were standing up.
02:42
There were youth that had run
2,000 miles from Cannonball, North Dakota
02:44
all the way out to Washington, DC,
with a message for President Obama:
02:49
"Please intervene.
02:53
Please do something.
02:54
Help us."
02:56
And I went out, and I heard the call,
02:59
and so did thousands
of people around the world.
03:01
Why did this resonate with so many people?
03:04
Indigenous peoples are impacted
first and worst by climate change.
03:07
We are impacted first and worst
by the fossil-fuel industry.
03:12
Here in Louisiana, the first US
climate change refugees exist.
03:16
They are Native people
03:20
being pushed off their homelands
from rising sea levels.
03:21
That's our reality, that's what we live.
03:25
And with these projects
comes a slew of human costs
03:27
that people don't think about:
03:30
thousands of workers influxing
to build these pipelines,
03:32
to build and extract from the earth,
03:36
bringing crime and sex trafficking
and violence with them.
03:40
Missing and murdered
indigenous women in Canada
03:44
has become so significant
it's spawned a movement
03:47
and a national inquiry.
03:50
Thousands of Native women
who have disappeared,
03:52
who have been murdered.
03:55
And here in the US,
we don't even track that.
03:56
We are instead left with an understanding
04:00
that our Supreme Court,
the United States Supreme Court,
04:03
stripped us, in 1978, of the right
to prosecute at the same rate
04:06
as anywhere else in the United States.
04:10
So as a non-Native person you can walk
onto a reservation and rape someone
04:13
and that tribe is without the same level
04:17
of prosecutorial ability
as everywhere else,
04:19
and the Federal Government declines
these cases 40 percent of the time.
04:22
It used to be 76 percent of the time.
04:26
One in three Native women
are raped in her lifetime.
04:30
One in three.
04:33
But in Standing Rock,
you could feel the energy in the air.
04:35
You could feel the resistance happening.
04:41
People were standing and saying, "No more.
04:44
Enough is enough.
04:48
We will put our bodies
in front of the machines
04:49
to stop this project from happening.
04:52
Our lives matter.
04:53
Our children's lives matter."
04:55
And thousands of allies came
to stand with us from around the world.
04:58
It was incredible, it was incredible
to stand together, united as one.
05:02
(Applause)
05:08
In my time there,
05:16
I saw Natives being chased on horseback
by police officers shooting at them,
05:19
history playing out in front of my eyes.
05:24
I myself was put into a dog kennel
when I was arrested.
05:27
But funny story, actually,
of being put into a dog kennel.
05:30
So we're in this big wire kennel
with all these people,
05:34
and the police officers
are there and we're there,
05:37
and we start howling like dogs.
05:41
You're going to treat us like dogs?
We're going to act like dogs.
05:43
But that's the resilience we have.
05:46
All these horrific images
playing out in front of us,
05:49
being an indigenous person
pushed off of Native lands again in 2017.
05:52
But there was such beauty.
05:57
On one of the days that we faced
a line of hundreds of police officers
05:59
pushing us back, pushing us
off indigenous lands,
06:02
there were those teenagers
out on horseback across the plains.
06:06
They were herding hundreds
of buffalo towards us,
06:10
and we were crying out, calling,
"Please turn, please turn."
06:14
And we watched the buffalo
come towards us,
06:18
and for a moment, everything stopped.
06:20
The police stopped, we stopped,
06:22
and we just saw this beautiful,
amazing moment of remembrance.
06:24
And we were empowered.
We were so empowered.
06:31
I interviewed a woman
who had, on one day --
06:34
September 2nd,
06:37
the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation
had told the courts --
06:39
there's an ongoing lawsuit right now --
06:41
they told the courts,
06:43
"Here is a sacred site that's in
the direct path of the pipeline."
06:46
On September 3rd, the following day,
06:50
Dakota Access, LLC skipped 25 miles ahead
in its construction,
06:52
to destroy that site.
06:56
And when that happened,
the people in camp rushed up to stop this,
06:58
and they were met with attack dogs,
07:02
people, private security officers,
wielding attack dogs in [2016].
07:05
But I interviewed one of the women,
07:11
who had been bitten on the breast
by one of these dogs,
07:12
and the ferocity and strength of her
07:15
was incredible,
07:19
and she's out right now
in another resistance camp,
07:20
the same resistance camp I'm part of,
07:22
fighting Line 3, another pipeline project
in my people's homelands,
07:24
wanting 900,000 barrels
of tar sands per day
07:28
through the headwaters of the Mississippi
to the shore of Lake Superior
07:32
and through all the Treaty
territories along the way.
07:36
But this woman's out there
and we're all out there standing together,
07:38
because we are resilient, we are fierce,
07:42
and we are teaching people
how to reconnect to the earth,
07:44
remembering where we come from.
07:48
So much of society has forgotten this.
07:50
(Applause)
07:52
That food you eat comes from somewhere.
07:57
The tap water you drink
comes from somewhere.
07:59
We're trying to remember, teach,
08:03
because we know, we still remember.
08:05
It's in our plants,
in our medicines, in our lives,
08:07
every single day.
08:10
I brought this out to show.
08:12
(Rattling)
08:14
This is cultural survival.
08:15
This is from a time that it was illegal
08:17
to practice indigenous cultures
in the United States.
08:20
This was cultural survival
hidden in plain sight.
08:23
This was a baby's rattle.
08:27
That's what they told the Indian agents
when they came in.
08:28
It was a baby's rattle.
08:31
But it's incredible what you can do
when you stand together.
08:36
It's incredible, the power
that we have when we stand together,
08:39
human resistance,
people having this power,
08:42
some of the most oppressed people
you can possibly imagine
08:45
costing this company
hundreds of millions of dollars,
08:48
and now our divestment efforts, focusing
on the banks behind these projects,
08:51
costing them billions of dollars.
08:55
Five billion dollars
we've cost them so far,
08:58
hanging out with banks.
09:01
(Applause)
09:02
So what can you do?
09:07
How can you help?
09:08
How can you change the conversation
09:10
for extremely oppressed
and forgotten people?
09:11
Education is foundational.
09:15
Education shapes our children.
It shapes the way we teach.
09:18
It shapes the way we learn.
09:21
In Washington State,
09:23
they've made the teaching of treaties
and modern Native people
09:25
mandatory in school curriculum.
09:29
That is systems change.
09:31
(Applause)
09:33
When your elected officials
are appropriating their budgets,
09:36
ask them: Are you fulfilling
treaty obligations?
09:39
Treaties have been broken
since the day they were signed.
09:43
Are you meeting those requirements?
09:45
That would change our lives,
if treaties were actually upheld.
09:47
Those documents were signed.
09:51
Somehow, we live in this world
where, in 2017,
09:53
the US Constitution is held up
as the supreme law of the land, right?
09:56
But when I talk about
treaty rights, I'm crazy.
09:59
That's crazy.
10:01
Treaties are the supreme law of the land,
10:02
and that would change so much,
10:04
if you actually asked
your representative officials
10:08
to appropriate those budgets.
10:12
And take your money out of the banks.
10:15
That's huge. It makes a huge difference.
10:16
Stand with us, empathize,
10:19
learn, grow, change the conversation.
10:22
Forty percent of Native people
are under the age of 24.
10:26
We are the fastest-growing demographic
in the United States.
10:32
We are doctors, we are lawyers,
10:37
we are teachers, we are scientists,
10:39
we are engineers.
10:42
We are medicine men,
we are medicine women,
10:44
we are sun dancers, we are pipe carriers,
10:48
we are traditional language speakers.
10:52
And we are still here.
10:54
Miigwech.
10:56
(Applause)
10:57

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About the speaker:

Tara Houska - Tribal attorney and advocate
Tara Houska is an attorney who fights for indigenous rights and justice.

Why you should listen

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal attorney based in Washington, D.C., the National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth and a former advisor on Native American affairs to Bernie Sanders. She advocates on behalf of tribal nations at the local and federal levels on a range of issues impacting indigenous peoples. She recently spent six months living and working in North Dakota fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. She is a co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit committed to educating the public about the harms of stereotyping and promoting positive representation of Native Americans in the public sphere.

More profile about the speaker
Tara Houska | Speaker | TED.com