This Thanksgiving is different. Too much has happened in the past year for me to sit down at the same table and give thanks through the same lens that I have in the past. The events of this year have compelled me to action. I live on the Osage Reservation in the Pawhuska Indian Village located within, but not under the jurisdiction of, the state of Oklahoma. Our local economy depends heavily upon oil and natural gas production. Many people in my community depend on royalty payments from oil and gas leases, as well as jobs and businesses associated with the oil and gas industry. Osages and oil go together like peanut butter and jelly. During World War I, our Nation bought war bonds with its oil money to show our support. During World War II, the Burbank oil field just to the west of Pawhuska produced so much oil for the Pacific theater they nicknamed the it “the Pacific.” Conoco and Phillips 66 were founded on our eastern and western reservation borders respectively. I spent a summer in college building a natural gas pipeline and, in addition to my own employment, used money either directly or indirectly from the oil and gas industry to get through college. Without a doubt, the oil and gas industry helped me, my family and my community live our lives comfortably. I’m neck deep in it.
That being said, in the past year, three things changed the way I view the world.
1. I was in Pawnee, Oklahoma staying at my in-laws’ brick house this fall when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit; its epicenter, only 2 miles away. Like many people I was shaken from bed as I watched everything fall off the walls. And with the knowledge that I was in a brick house, I had but one thought: Get my family outside. I think I was shook more than the house was.
Earthquakes in this part of the country are caused by deep salt-water injection wells that lubricate the Arbuckle layer below us. What once didn't move, now moves. A man in Pawnee was sent to the hospital after he jumped on top of his daughter to protect her from falling chimney bricks. Additionally, the side of a downtown building sent a car-sized chunk of its stonewall directly onto the sidewalk. Ironically, the town was immediately swarmed with oil and gas pipeline staff to check for leaks in infrastructure.
2. I am the Vice Chairman of the Pawhuska Indian Village, a sub-governmental structure under the Osage Nation. Last year in our village we oversaw the USGS test our water after a deluge. We tested two places on Soldier Creek, as well as some open water wells with the hopes of finding a reliable source of water to use for community gardens. USGS had offered to drill a well for such a purpose; however, upon testing, the water registered too salty for agriculture. The USGS didn’t want to drill the water well for fear of contaminating the good aquifer with the bad one. This prompted me to file a Freedom of Information Request with the Osage Nation and BIA that revealed that an oil producer in the quarter section directly north of our village has been given several cease and desist orders in the last five years for, among other things, “DISHCHARGED OIL FIELD BRINE FROM POINT SOURCE TO SOLDIER CREEK.” Soldier Creek is a tributary to Bird Creek, the source of Pawhuska’s drinking water. Bird Creek feeds the Arkansas River, the source of drinking water for Tulsa and countless other municipalities. According to paperwork I received, there was yet another spill at the same site less than two months ago.
I grew up playing in this creek. My dad did the same, as well as countless other kids, including my own kids. This creek runs within about 100 feet or so from the house I live in. My kitchen window overlooks it, and when I sleep at night, I can hear the pumpjacks fire and misfire. To say that I am furious about this is understatement, because to my knowledge this producer still maintains this lease.
3. For anyone who has been on Facebook this year, you may have noticed what is going on in Standing Rock in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. If you only get your news from the TV or newspapers you likely have seen absolutely nothing. My brother Dallas Goldtooth has been up there fighting the good fight, trying to get the word out for the people as well as independent journalists, citizens with phones, and people with no agency at all except their own bodies and prayers. I have watched (through Facebook live, and not TV) people I know, and people I don't know who look like people I know, get blasted by militarized police and private security with mace, rubber bullets, water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, attack dogs, tear gas and concussion grenades. Why? Because they were willing to stand up for something that everyone needs to live. CLEAN WATER. To add insult to injury the pipeline was supposed to go near Bismarck but was rerouted when the community raised concerns about their drinking water being contaminated. In addition, the reroute has destroyed gravesites along the Missouri river, which are well documented and known to the Army Corps since the creation of the Oahe Dam. Burial sites in these areas should come as no surprise to any NAGPRA related official in the area.
I've been to Standing Rock several times—three times between seven and ten years ago and once last week. Historically this community has been adversely affected by federal policy, the cumulative result of which had left their youth in a suicide epidemic. Since the start of the water protector camps, the cloud of hopelessness has lifted and the suicides have basically stopped. Crime in general has flat-lined.
As a country we need to ask ourselves, why confrontation with our own government is able to do what millions in dollars in grants could not accomplish? That all the elements needed to improve spirits in a community would be galvanized and fall into place through conflict with government. Or we can ask what would compel Osage Nation tribal citizen and Afghan war veteran Chris Turley to walk 846 miles from Pawhuska to Standing Rock? If you ask him he will tell you. He’s walking to raise awareness of the suicide epidemic among veterans and his belief that everyone has the right to clean water. So far on his journey he’s been assisted by veterans and law enforcement alike. Why are these things connected? All of this would seem to run counter to what you’d expect. It’s us versus them right? Wrong. As long as everyone has to drink water to live, it’s us versus us.
Around two weeks ago, I pulled into a gas station in Pawnee, Oklahoma. I placed the pump nozzle in and started the gas. As I stood there, I became sick to my stomach. I didn't want to do this anymore. It's not worth it. It's never going to be worth it. I wish to not support this anymore. I’m tired. I’m tired of seeing my friends and relatives shipped off to war to fight for it. I’m tired of watching my friends arrested, maced, hosed, attacked, and shot at while trying to stop it. I’m tired of those who were pushed to the middle of nowhere being burdened with the infrastructure requirements of those people that live somewhere. While the oil and gas industry has undoubtedly allowed Osages to be shielded from effects of poverty and colonization it also made us targets for outright murder and became a colonial accelerant. The side effects of this development can still be seen today. So… I’m done.
Just leave it in the ground. We can find a better way.
I called my wife, and in the rarest of events, shared my feelings and emotions on a subject. I told her I wanted to buy an electric car. We decided on a Chevy Volt. It took me a full day to locate one. Apparently this car is tough to come by. According to the dealership the longest he had one on his lot was 5 days. The one I purchased had been there only one day. The car is an electric and gas car (not a hybrid like the Prius). If your daily commute is less than 60 miles then you will likely won't dip into your gas tank. Most users get 1000 miles to a tank. But the gas allows me to still make trips to Tulsa or Pawnee until the electric infrastructure catches up. We went to OKC this weekend and used a free charging station located, predictably, next to a Whole Foods. I'm currently pricing solar panels for office and home. I know not everyone has the capacity to make these kinds of purchases. But I'm actively choosing to opt out of supporting one flavor of energy infrastructure for another, in the hopes of helping to drive down the latter's cost so the market can give access to an untapped set of consumers who believe as I do. That we should protect our water, our air, our land from what will kill us.
The oil and gas industry has helped me in my life more than it has most people. But I can also tell you what it will do to the lives of my children if, as a country, we continue to invest in oil and gas infrastructure while denying environmental impact. This is about LOCAL CONTROL. No corporation or person in the federal, state or tribal government should have the right to put your life, my life and the lives of our families below the interests of a corporation or its government lobby. I say this as a currently elected official who will do everything in my power to make sure the water in our village is clean, our energy is renewable, and our traditions and food ways are made safe.
What is happening in Standing Rock is not a flashpan incident. The tribes there are talking to each other and they realize that there are a 1000 Standing Rocks in this country. Tribal communities and non-tribal communities have had similar experiences in the way they are treated by extraction industries. These communities deserve a say in their own lives, and shouldn’t be excluded because they don’t live how or where the majority of people live.
Today as a country we will collectively sit down across the table from one another. And while most of us will be looking forward to turkey, or stuffing or sweet potatoes, some of us will be giving thanks for clean water and those people who fight, pray, and bleed for our right to drink it.