Rattler is an Oglala Lakota Tribal member who spent three years in federal prison for charges related to protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he wants you to know one thing: he would go back to prison in a heartbeat.
“It was worth it because it was the right thing to do,” said Rattler, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who grew up on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and worked in an oil field until he witnessed the water pollution it was causing.
In fall 2016, Rattler (whose given name is Michael Markus) joined the pipeline protests near Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. He served as Akicita at the Oglala Lakota camp, a traditional role of peacekeeper who holds community members accountable to their responsibilities to the collective. During a standoff between police and water protectors, he was charged with civil disorder and use of fire to commit a felony. Rattler said he was trying to put out a fire someone else started.
“I was always within my rights as far as the Constitution goes as a peaceful protester,” Rattler said, but he was certain he would not get a fair trial in Bismarck and reluctantly took a plea deal. After serving three years at the Sandstone federal prison in Minnesota, he was released on January 6, 2021.
“I went to prison for something worth fighting for,” Rattler told UU World.
“Don’t be afraid of the consequences. If you’re doing what’s right, you’re fighting not for yourself but for future generations—your kids, grandkids, their grandkids.”
Unitarian Universalists in Bismarck, North Dakota, and elsewhere have been supportive of Rattler and other Indigenous water protectors who were imprisoned and needed bail money or assistance finding work upon release. In addition to financial and ideological support, Rattler urges everyone to take the moral position. “Don’t be afraid of the consequences,” he said. “If you’re doing what’s right, you’re fighting not for yourself but for future generations—your kids, grandkids, their grandkids. Because these pipelines are polluting.”
Tracey L. Wilke, a member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said, “It’s in our prophecy that Indigenous people will lead.” Wilke is protesting Line 3 and Line 5, which run through Wisconsin and neighboring regions. “I think with colonization, some people have a tendency to want to take charge, but now it’s time to let Indigenous people lead the way in protecting Mother Earth.”
Wilke and UU minister the Rev. Karen I. Van Fossan have paddled the Shell Creek in North Dakota to emphasize the importance of clean water in an effort to try to stop Line 3. They also seek to bring attention to the ongoing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. “I’m thankful that I have a friend like Karen, a sister,” says Wilke. “We are going to keep protesting fossil fuel lines and keep supporting the harnessing of the energy of the sun and the wind.”
Van Fossan, who was minister at the Bismarck-Mandan UU Congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, during the height of the Standing Rock uprising and who was arrested for protesting, said, “For me, being involved in movements that are led by Indigenous people who draw on ancient knowledge and contemporary experience while making space for the experiences and the knowledge of all of us, helps to sustain my energy and my commitment to the work.” Van Fossan now lives in Fargo, where she remains “very, very close” to the Line 3 resistance, she said.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has stated its commitment to following Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) leadership on social justice issues, including climate justice. UUs working closely with Indigenous people on climate change emphasize that among the hundreds of Tribes and Nations in the United States, there is no one voice or perspective on dealing with climate change—nor is there one voice or perspective within most of these individual groups.
Karen Wills, executive director of the Minnesota UU Social Justice Alliance, says that Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg, and the Ware Lecturer at UUA General Assembly 2010, advocates for a yes/yes approach to saving the earth.
“What we need to do as organizers is to provide a broad and deep menu that allows everyone to get involved in every way they can.”
“What we need to do as organizers is to provide a broad and deep menu that allows everyone to get involved in every way they can, and that it really isn’t at all an either/or,” said Wills.
Among the initiatives in which UU climate justice activists are heavily involved are Build Back Fossil Free and Citizens' Climate Lobby, which take different approaches to addressing climate change.
Build Back Fossil Free
Build Back Fossil Free (BBFF) is a coalition of more than 1,200 groups fighting for climate, racial, and economic justice. Emphasizing that BIPOC and low-income communities are bearing the brunt of climate change, it wants President Biden to declare a climate emergency and to deny approval of new fossil fuel projects. On June 6, Build Back Fossil Free scored a major victory when President Biden announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act to speed the transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. Build Back Fossil Free led online campaigns and organized mass demonstrations at the White House to urge the president to take this step.
One hundred UU congregations; five national UU organizations, including the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Ministry for Earth; and eighteen state action networks have signed on to BBFF, said Rachel Myslivy, the UUA’s climate justice organizer.
Last October, BBFF organized the People v. Fossil Fuels Week of Action in Washington, D.C., an Indigenous-led action in which hundreds of protesters, including more than thirty UU clergy and more than forty UUs overall, participated. At least 655 people were arrested during the week, according to People v. Fossil Fuels, including some UUs and fifty-five Indigenous activists who occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the first time since the 1970s.
Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador for the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and one of the leaders of People v. Fossil Fuels, was among 130 people arrested. Although they were not tear-gassed and beaten by police like they were at the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, their arrests “certainly were a mistreatment of Indigenous rights and human rights, just to arrest us for being there and raising our voices and saying it’s time to declare a climate emergency,” Camp-Horinek told UU World.
In the coming months, BBFF plans to continue with high-impact direct actions and with pressuring Biden to stop new fossil fuel projects. At least 44 percent of signatories to BBFF are UU congregations or affiliates, including the Texas UU Justice Ministry, said the Rev. Erin J. Walter, TXUUJM acting executive director.
“It’s really important for us at TXUUJM to take our invites and leads from people on the front line, so this campaign seemed like that to us,” Walter said. TXUUJM also engages in legislative advocacy on a variety of social justice issues, including transgender rights. “TXUUJM's perspective is that we need a breadth of approaches,” Walter said, “and that we are going to engage with that spectrum or breadth of approaches to the extent we have capacity.”
Citizens’ Climate Lobby
Many UUs are involved in legislative advocacy through Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), a nonpartisan organization working for bipartisan support in Congress for solutions to climate change. The group advocates for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (EICDA), a market-based solution that would put a price on carbon usage and return the dividends to American households. Proponents say the EICDA will drive down America’s carbon pollution at least 40 percent in the first twelve years and 90 percent by 2050, improving public health by reducing pollution and boosting the economy due to the monthly dividend it will pay Americans.
So far, ninety-five members of Congress have signed on in support, as have more than 1,500 organizations and individuals, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Currently, CCL members and friends, including UUs, are contacting members of Congress to garner more support, said Diane M. Duesterhoeft, a member of First UU San Antonio, who is actively involved in CCL. Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27), who is a Unitarian Universalist, is a lead co-sponsor of the bill (see profile, “If Our Voices are United, We Can Make a Difference”).
“A carbon fee is a simple, effective solution to ensure that carbon-intensive products are priced properly, allowing Americans to make more climate-friendly purchases while keeping more money in their pockets,” Chu told UU World. “And just as important, the revenue of the carbon fee proposed by this bill would be returned in monthly checks to every taxpayer” so that the lowest-income families who are most sensitive to price increases would end up with more money for groceries, childcare, and other essentials every month. “That is crucial to a fair energy transition.”
Chu sees the EICDA as “one available tool in our toolbox, and it does not take options off the table,” she said; it is “part of a comprehensive solution to the climate crisis. If we enact this legislation and it works alongside other tools like clean energy tax incentives and emission-free infrastructure funding, we can meet President Biden’s goals of a net-zero economy by 2050, and we can protect our planet from the worst effects of climate change.”
UUs are the largest faith group within CCL, said Duesterhoeft. Fifty-four UU congregations representing approximately 11,552 members have endorsed the EICDA, and several others are working on endorsing it, Duesterhoeft said, while twenty-seven UU ministers and at least two UU state advocacy networks (in Florida and Maine) have done so. UUs are a strong presence in many local CCL chapters, and prior to the pandemic, a number of CCL chapters met at UU congregational facilities, she said.
“As a Unitarian, it is so important to me that we take this opportunity to address environmental justice,” Chu told UU World. “Vulnerable communities have borne the brunt of pollution for decades, which is why we must ensure they are not only protected, but also empowered through this process.