Interview with North Dakota State Representative Ruth Buffalo

On October 5 2021, Yujian Tang met with Representative Ruth Buffalo to discuss her role in advocating for changes in climate policy as a North Dakotan State Representative (27. District).   She is a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.  Raised as an oldest sister in the matriarchal Nation, she considers it “in her DNA” to help and protect others.  

She recognized the fractured nature of American healthcare at a young age after one of her younger sisters almost died after being misdiagnosed at a local field clinic.  This experience, in addition to a love for her community, drove her to seek ways to simply “help people live longer,” eventually pursuing a career as a public health professional before advocating for increased access to public healthcare in several political and public roles.  In 2018 Rep. Buffalo assumed office in the North Dakota House of Representatives.

Rep. Buffalo first noticed the local effects of the North Dakota oil boom around the early 2010s, as Mandaree, ND, the unincorporated community in which she was raised, almost doubled in population due to the expansion of work on the Bakken shale fields.  

While leading the MHA Nation’s summer youth employment program, Rep. Buffalo saw firsthand the negative effects the population increase had on the area’s hard and soft infrastructure.  The oil boom put incredible strain on underserviced sewage, water, and healthcare systems.  This Malthusian strain also contributed to a marked increase in violent crime, drug trafficking, overdoses and drug-related deaths.  The Fort Berthold Reservation and western North Dakota as a whole still suffer from a shortage of law enforcement officers.

Rep. Buffalo also described the sinister ways oil companies tried to integrate their brands into the largely Native community.  Oil company representatives travel to local schools providing iPads, promoting at career fairs, and building “Head Start” buildings.  They show children jars of fracking wastewater to normalize the chemicals their potential recruits will work with.  

At the same time, these companies do not release to the public what the emissions from their production flares are, despite overwhelming evidence that proximity to oil fracking and methane flaring results in pregnancy disorders, respiratory illnesses, and cancer.   Not to mention how fracking triggers earthquakes.  

Rep. Buffalo considers these practices especially immoral as they target the poor Native population of the Dakotas, a population whose healthcare needs have never been either properly serviced or protected.  These issues are a personal issue for Rep. Buffalo: her whole family lives within a half mile from a well pad.  

Looking to the future, Rep. Buffalo is inspired by the young people she calls “fearless” who are fighting with direct action.  She considers her own experience in the state legislature and as a speaker before the US Congress only one piece of the puzzle.  Rep Buffalo pointed to the examples of the Indigenous Women’s Divestment Delegation, who met with managers from Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and UBS in 2018 to call for divestment from fossil fuels and to protest the construction of an expansion to the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline.  

“We must honor our young people and their voices,” Rep. Buffalo said.  “Because they’re going to be left with this mess.”  Society does not consider the people who are directly affected by this development.  

Since 1972, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Canada has not been able to harvest food due to the spillover effects from the pipeline.  In July 2020, the Canadian Supreme Court ended the possibility of further legal challenges to the pipeline.  And even despite the continuing pandemic, construction remains on schedule.   

The effects of oil production specifically cannot be considered an example of environmental racism.  “That term is outdated,” Rep. Buffalo said.  “It is environmental genocide… Each of us has a responsibility.”