Interview with Activist Ambrosia Yellowbird

In an October 5 interview with Yujian Tang, Ambrosia Yellowbird discussed her start as an activist and the relationship between capital and environmental policy.  Ms Yellowbird is a student at North Dakota State University and a student organizer for climate activism.  She started protesting during the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a controversial pipeline that delivers oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The DAPL now passes through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation despite the tribe’s long opposition to its construction.  The pipeline’s original path ran nearer Bismarck, but was rerouted to its current location after the US Army Corps of Engineers deemed its probable effects on wellhead water resources too risky.  Activists often cite this decision as an egregious example of environmental racism.  

Nociting Native Americans’ lack of control over the land and resources federal law accords them, Ms Yellowbird was moved to activism.  She considers it her job, as a Native woman, “to protect this Earth and the water and everything else along with it.”  Two years after moving to Fargo, she led her first climate strike.  Ms Yellowbird and other activists called for local representatives to declare a climate emergency.  They specifically called for city-level policy changes to immediately begin climate-level footprint reduction in Fargo and nearby Moorhead.  The second annual march Ms Yellowbird led took place in March 2021 with leaders consciously modelling the example of Fridays for Future, an international movement made famous by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.  This march again called for local policy changes, but added to its demands legislation that would hold public officials accountable for carbon emissions.  The protest also called for a stoppage of oil pipeline construction and a drastic reduction to commercial fishing harvests.  Ms Yellowbird and her colleagues are currently fighting the construction of a new line of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which in 1991 was the source of the worst inland oil spill in American history.  They are calling on President Biden to immediately stop the line’s production.  

Ms Yellowbird points to the colonialist and capitalist structure of the American government as a main cause of the largely unsuccessful history of climate activism.  She sees it as important “to hold oil pipeline companies and rich corporations accountable” for their oversized role in the climate catastrophe: twenty firms are responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions.  But she does not think this denies individuals the responsibility to monitor and manage their own impacts.  Not consuming single-use plastics, minimizing energy use, and trying to integrate clean energy into daily life are all actions Ms Yellowbird sees as important to reducing our individual climate footprints.  She points to self-education on climate activism and easily-googled studies that can help the average person lessen their own ecological effects.  

But of course politics are essentially the only way to truly mitigate the effects of climate change, Ms Yellowbird says.  At the local level, her and her fellow activists have filled city hall meetings.  This activism, she says, tells their representatives that climate is a crucial issue for their voting constituents.  “Everybody has their own niches,” Ms Yellowbird said.  “I'm an activist. I like to organize. I like to connect people with other people to find different routes of getting out information.”  She would like to motivate people to get involved in fighting active pipelines and those that are still being built.  These construction projects, she stresses, “not only affect Indigenous communities, but everybody that drinks water.”

Ending the conversation, Ms Yellowbird pointed to commercial fishing as one of the largest contributors to the climate emergency.  Through commercial fishing, humans have removed entire links from food chains, bleached more than 75% of coral reefs worldwide, and contributed massively to ocean acidification and general pollution.  She urged people to educate themselves on sustainable eating practices and how to limit their purchases from factory farms and fisheries, which are adding massively to both carbon emissions and the irreversible devastation of most ocean ecosystems.