Women Speak: Casey Camp-Horinek is Fighting Keystone XL in the Name of Indigenous and Environmental Justice

Casey Camp-Horinek is a Ponca Nation Councilwoman, elder and long-time Indigenous rights and environmental activist currently fighting on the front lines of the movement to stop the Keystone XL pipeline—an oil pipeline proposed from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Texas.

Camp-Horinek has spoken on panels and at marches and protests around the globe—calling for a reimagining of our relationship to other humans and the Earth, as well as an awakening to the capacity we all have to speak out and care for Mother Earth in a balanced way. As an actor, she is known for her work in Share the Wealth, Running Deer and Barking Water.

In light of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network’s new Women Speak initiative Ms. spoke with Casey on Native American rights, the rights of nature, Keystone XL and more.

Could you tell me about your spiritual upbringing and how that colors your relationship with the Earth, plants, animals, elements and systems of life? 

We were brought up in a household—I’m the youngest of six children—that allowed us to freely explore out relationship to God. We were taught within our home structure of a great deal of our tradition ways without being sat down and told, this is traditional knowledge, look at it this way. It was more day-to-day understanding of respect of relationship with God and with humans. We were also free to explore Christianity—being the largest influence in the colonization of Native Americans—and many number of other religions should we choose to. Right here on my reservation there are three Christian churches, which are stacked with incredibly strong faith, prayerful people that I respect.

But in the early 70s, along with the rejuvenation of the Native American culture in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement and Native Rights, we began looking back at out original instructions, our original relationship with Earth and God. This had been chocked out of our fabric for many years, a couple of generations. Here in Oklahoma, our way of gathering for Sundance, for instance—which is our primary spiritual expression—was literally outlawed. So to go back to what was a relearning has been reforging that relationship, restrengthening, reevaluating and finding ways to express that in a respectful way.

In this rebuilding of a respectful relationship between humans and the Earth, what makes the movements around the Keystone XL (KXL) and Dakota Access Pipelines so historical?

I find them stepping stones historical, not the pivotal event. I’ll be 70 this year, so I’ve been to many historical moments, and have been privy to many historical moments in my mother’s and father’s lifetime—even my grandparent’s and great grandparent’s, who were part of the forced removal from our homeland Nebraska, which happens to be a Ponca word meaning “land of the flat waters.” My grandfather walked to our present day area at eight years old, with a gun and knife to his back. So my ancestors come from the last strong hold where KXL has not been given its final permit to come to the United States.

That’s our homeland. That’s our ancestral territory that we still have ties to—through the spirit world, through the land itself. The historic moments come and come, but these two come at a very crucial point in determining our ability to live on this earth as human beings. These two historic moments are relevant to what were doing right now, as Ponca people and as environmentalists.

You are more than a Ponca Person and an Environmentalist, you are also an artist—you act, you dance. Could you talk about the importance of art and creativity, as well as storytelling, as it relates specifically to the Women Speak project and protecting the environment in general? 

Most of the areas that I find myself drawn into are a part of my culture, which certainly includes storytelling, dancing, singing and being around the sacred drum. I am a drum keeper for the Ponca Pa-tha-ta, Woman’s Scalp Dance Society Society, meaning I keep the sacred dum itself for the purpose of continuing the culture of the women’s portion of the Ponca culture. Keeping that alive is relevant because the Earth itself, this life itself, is a walk of beauty. It has a story to tell us everyday and we of the oral tradition know that it’s important for us to mark in our minds, out hearts, our spirits, and to sing and tell the story of the moment were living in right now.

Yesterday I was blessed to do a talk on the first amendment down at a local college that was filled with high school seniors as well as college students. And we were doing our story telling in a manner that these children were so impacted that they stood up and applauded and came up for hugs and for saying thank you, and “now i really understand why its important that we’re able to raise our voices and make ourselves heard at this time.”

Why should mothers, grandmothers, girls and women in general be involved in the movement to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline?

I think that we need to be full partners in participation with this awakening of human kind to its oneness with all living things on earth.

So often, the male voice is the one that’s heard out there. Even in my culture, which I love and respect, more often than not our men speak for us using our traditional ways. That is because we as women in our culture are strong and clear and our men folks speak the words we give them to speak, in certain instances. They don’t demean or diminish the message but rather augment and find a different way. That is the respected way that we do things.

It’s obvious in the old universal flow that theres a male and a female energy that happens—even the trees themselves have that. With birds it’s the same way and with fish and the four legged and with humans. But somehow humans have forgotten that women themselves have been in positions in which they didn’t feel there voices weren’t valuable.

I think that with our traditional knowledge we’re encouraging that voice to come forth from all women all over the earth. Because we’re the life givers, we’re the child bearers, we’re the ones who make sure that our homes have what they need to feed and care for our children, our men folks, ourselves. We’re the ones who have been nurtures. This is the same as our mother the Earth. This is us being able to give that voice.

You’ve asked for understanding to be allowed. Because as information is withheld, people are unable to protect themselves from the harm that is being done to them and the ecosystems. How can we gain greater understanding?

Seeking and sharing the information that we receive is what we really need to do. Recently movement rights are here again. We are opening our area to the idea of the rights of nature, because that is the closest way that we can begin to help human beings understand that we are part of natural cycle on this earth— we’re not separate, we’re not top of, we’re not below, but we are part of a living Earth. By including rights of nature into our laws, as Ponca people we are recognizing nature in the same way the United States recognizes corporations as having rights of personhood.

We’re suffering here in Ponca country—from environmental genocide—because the policies of those extractive industries enables manipulation through money. Our people of law have understood that that is a construct, with no viable reality, because what’s valuable is those things that grow, that we can feed our children with. Those things that are part of the sky and the air we breathe are not what we want to buy and sell. The false solution we call carbon trading has been another construct because water is not a resource but an actual source of life.

To help people reach these clear understandings of what life is, maybe we have to use things like the rights of nature—maybe we have to create laws around them. But this also is a way of helping us to go back to the time when we lived within the natural laws like all other things.

What words do you have for young girls and children who are growing up in this age of environmental genocide, who are looking for guidance and clarity to understand that water is a source not a resource? 

I think that my youngest daughter said that very well recently. She said “knowledge is power, and our powers are growing every day.” So inform yourself, and become the informer.



Jessica Merino is a former Ms. editorial intern.