Christine Hanna: Casey, what has your community directly experienced that compelled you to join this movement?
Casey Camp-Horinek: Our people, the Ponca Nation now living in Oklahoma, were forcibly removed [from Nebraska] in 1877. My grandfather was on the Ponca Trail of Tears [as a child]. He was forced to walk more than 677 miles, along with all of our relatives, to this area, and 1 in 3 died during that removal. We are a tribe that has struggled, and given, and remained. I’m not going to go through all the acts and things that happened—the graft, the theft, the killings—but where we are now is living in a forced environmental genocide.
This area has a Phillips 66 oil refinery, pipelines, storage areas from World War II munitions, and factories that are creating stuff for biological warfare. We have a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips that produces carbon, where the particulates are so fine they destroy your cardiovascular system and joints. A disintegrating OG&E power plant is leaking cadmium and mercury directly into the rivers. The refinery is polluting the air as well as the earth and water. Now all our wells are shut down because the water is so polluted.
There is also a giant landfill that is leaking methane gas. And now fracking and injection wells have created a new monster here: manmade earthquakes. From 2009 to 2016 we’ve had over 10,000 earthquakes. You can imagine what that is doing to the thousands of pipelines under here [in addition to] poisoning [our water with] fracking fluids.
Virtually every Ponca family has multiple cases of cancer. Everybody’s got asthma. Autoimmune diseases are rampant. Every family has someone with lupus or some related thing. These diseases are directly related to the fossil fuel industry.
Hanna: So the petroleum industry, among other things, has turned your home into a toxic, deadly place. When did the connection to plastics really come into view for you?
Camp-Horinek: All this time, we were not connecting the dots between plastic and petroleum. Plastic was simply a part of our everyday life; we didn’t think of where it came from. Then a few years ago my granddaughter, Casey Mi’tainga, and I were invited to a Break Free From Plastic gathering, so we could learn more about petroleum and plastics. It was a brainstorming group of front-line organizations talking not only about what was going on within their territories, but also globally. And the global look is pretty scary.
You know, we all think we’re gonna recycle it all and it’s all OK, but that’s not going to work. There is no way for us to deal with all of this. So we went from “How do we help people?” to “What should we do about this?” And I remember my granddaughter said what we have been saying for many years about petroleum, “Keep it in the ground.” Break free from plastics means break free from fossil fuels. It’s that simple. It doesn’t mean carbon trading scams or net zero—that just delays things for 30 years.
The little tiny plastic pellets from the fracking fluids that were in our rivers are piling up in the oceans down there on the Gulf Coast. So I finally connected all those dots. And if you look at the causation of everything, it comes down to the fossil fuel industry. Petroleum equals plastic equals poison.
Hanna: How did making that connection change or redirect your efforts?
Camp-Horinek: We began with Movement Rights, an Indigenous-led organization run by two women, Shannon Biggs and Penny Opal Plant. I traveled and learned about the Rights of Nature Movement. For instance, in New Zealand, the Maori say, “We are the river and the river is us,” so they recognized the rights, the personhood of the river. … A guardian was appointed and has the ability to bring a lawsuit against the polluters. As a sovereign tribe, we have a nation-to-nation relationship with the government. So in 2017, we adopted a Rights of Nature law for the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, and put a moratorium on fracking and injection wells. We’re currently in the process of recognizing the rights of the two rivers in our territory as well. We’re seeing this in many places—Europe, the Arctic, Chile. There’s now a Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. But it’s a constant battle and challenge. And I’m up for it.
Hanna: How do you stay up for it? How do you not feel exhausted by the trauma and broken trust over multiple generations, and daunted by the power of capitalism that finds ways to continue to extract, to exploit?
Camp-Horinek: Is there a choice? My mother didn’t give up. My grandfathers and grandmothers didn’t give up. I’m a great-grandmother myself. It’s also an honor and a responsibility. It isn’t something that you can walk away from. You have two children. Do you ever just walk away? I believe that there is an innate will to live within all living things. We’re in this remarkable position to assume our natural spot within this life cycle.
Hanna: Comprehensive federal legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, has recently been introduced in the House and Senate. What do you make of it?
Camp-Horinek: This is an example of what we can do to set up a way forward for generations to come. And it will help educate people about why plastics can’t be a part of our lifestyle in the future, why we have to pay attention to what the petroleum industry is doing. We have laws that ban carcinogens. We don’t want lead in pipes. We don’t want plastic in our food or in our water either. … So this is just one more thing.
But finding our way back to the balance is something that’s going to require all hands on deck and for all of us to restructure our minds and our spirits into a way of saying, “I have this gift. And I can do this. And I recognize in you that gift. Can you do that?” I think we’re seeing it, and it’s our children who are hearing this rebalance. And it’s our children who are breaking free of gender roles and breaking free from racial stereotypes. So why can’t we break free from plastic? Why can’t we break free from fossil fuels? Well, we can. Let’s just do that.
Hanna: Yes. Let’s just do it.
Camp-Horinek: Warrior up.
Read More: The Work of Breaking Free