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Women Saving the Planet: Kayla DeVault, Advocating for Navajo Nation

The scholar and indigenous activist explains how tribal communities can help solve the energy crisis.
Kayla DeVault

Kayla DeVault. 

Activists and protesters have occupied the Standing Rock Sioux reservation for months in opposition to the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Stephen Yang/Getty Images)

In a last-ditch effort to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, local Sioux tribes argued that the pipeline represented a long-prophesied “black snake,” come to wreak havoc on the tribe’s homeland. Its presence below the lake soiled its sacred waters, the tribes said in early 2017, and thus interfered with their ability to use the water in religious ceremonies. In March, United States District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled against the tribe, rejecting their contention that construction of the pipe infringed on their religious freedom.

Throughout most of the U.S., the Dakota Access pipeline has become a symbol of reckless environmental policy, and a rallying point for environmentalists working to protect our nation’s waterways. But if you think Standing Rock is just about protecting the water, you’ve largely missed the point, according to Kayla DeVault, a graduate student at Arizona State University and an indigenous rights activist who delivered a fiery speech at a side panel during last year’s United Nations climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco. With her long, dark hair twisted into two neat braids that fell over her shoulders, DeVault radiated a fierce confidence and delivered a rapid-fire catalogue of hundreds of years of human rights violations — a task she completed in just around five minutes. (DeVault herself is Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee.)*

“If you know a little about the history of the Navajo Nation, the government we currently have operating actually is not a traditional government; it’s essentially a puppet government by the federal government that dissolved our traditional leadership to replace it with something that would sign over oil leases for them when they discovered oil on our lands in 1923,” DeVault says. “We have to undo that.”

In other words, Standing Rock — like any of the many development projects that encroach on tribal land — is largely about sovereignty, and the impossibility of climate justice without it. “It can’t really be about the water if the federal government is still going to have a say about what happens to our water,” DeVault says. “It can’t really be about creating a green economy if the federal government is going to continue to have the last say.”

For DeVault, that was one of the most frustrating aspects of her work as a COP22 SustainUS Delegate at last year’s U.N. climate conference: As a member of a sovereign tribe within the U.S., there weren’t many people she could lobby. “You know, we don’t have any representatives at the U.N., except the U.S. representatives, who aren’t supposed to be representing us. That’s what made it really difficult for me to be in the COP space,” she says. “I want to be pushing U.S. officials for this, that, and the other thing, but I live on the Navajo Nation, and really why should I be coming to them about these decisions? I should be sitting down with the president of the Navajo Nation.”

DeVault visited Standing Rock in September, but she lives on Navajo Nation, and is all too familiar with the environmental and human impacts of development projects. She lives between two of the largest coal-fired power plants in the nation — the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station — both massive contributors to U.S. emissions. Then there are the mines: “We have to fight the uranium mines that come in, that hire local people and don’t tell them, ‘If you work in our mines, you’re going to get cancer and you’re going to take contamination home to your family and it’s going to be in your water and its going to kill your sheep.’”

According to DeVault, any reform efforts have to look at the tribal communities and determine which parts of Western culture and governance should stay, which need to change, and how to incorporate more traditional elements to create programs and services that better serve the people.

DeVault stresses that natives and Westerners can, and should, learn a lot from each other. “Navajo culture is very absorbing. In recorded history at least, it’s changed a lot in the last few centuries, and even the oral traditions talk a lot about the different cultures that were encountered, and the things they learned from them.” And that’s not always a bad thing. DeVault recognizes that there are things from other governments that the tribes absorbed that are actually beneficial; for example, after the Spanish introduced sheep to the Southwest in the 16th or 17th century, the animals became central to Navajo life.

In many cases, Navajo knowledge and philosophy offer better climate solutions than any Western framework — and, often, Western intrusions go awry. Take the housing program that the Department of the Interior manages on Navajo Nation, for example. “[The U.S. government] says ‘we’re going to provide funds and resources to provide Indian people with adequate housing that they need,’ but the housing that they built is just generic, Westernized housing,” DeVault says. By contrast, every native tribe has its own traditional housing style, which has been more or less optimized over time — designed, according to DeVault, around each tribe’s culture and ceremonies, their location, and the resources that are available. Those styles also happen to be much greener than standard-issue American homes.

“With the exception of people that have been relocated, for the most part, traditional housing is a lot more energy-efficient,” DeVault says. The finding emerged from one of DeVault’s research projects for her master’s at ASU, in which she analyzed the thermal efficiency of traditional Navajo houses, or hogans.

“I think it’s important for the Navajo Housing Authority — the Navajo housing program that is taking over a lot of those responsibilities — to recognize that maybe we need to blend the structure, decolonize it to some degree,” she says, “not necessarily by putting everyone in a hogan, but finding something that’s suitable that follows the natural pattern of Navajo culture.”

DeVault says that, through her work as a student and an activist, she’s learned to navigate between her own culture and the values of other indigenous communities around the world. As a lead engineer on a project in Cameroon, for example, she came up against male leaders who weren’t used to female peers — an attitude that didn’t square with Navajo culture, where women have a lot of power.

“This is a really weird space because if you want to work in indigenous communities, those [gender] roles are often still very specific — sometimes very religiously connected. So at what point do you say, this is their right to have their culture, and at what point is it treading on oppressive structures against women?” DeVault says. “I’m trying to walk this fine line between how do I respect their culture and how do I also promote equality.”

These cultural and religious differences are what make indigenous communities distinct; at the same time, DeVault feels a kinship with indigenous women all over the world for their shared objection to the exploitation of their land and resources. In Morocco, she visited Imider, a municipality in the Atlas Mountains where the women have spent nearly seven years camped atop a hill, blocking one of the main water supplies for a nearby silver mine, which the women believe is slowly poisoning the village.

“When I spoke to the women there, I would tick off every single problem that I could think of that we had — our sheep, our water, our jobs, our cancer, and violence against women — and every single thing I said, they all shook their heads, ‘Same here, same here, same here,’” she says. “I know that’s the same around the world with indigenous people.”