Kendra Pinto is our first featured interview. Ms. Pinto is a Native American living in the Navajo Eastern Agency, and is witness, storyteller, and educator illuminating the fossil fuel industry’s impacts on lives, communities, and the environment. She recently participated in the 2016 Save Our Public Lands Tour., which traveled to Philadelphia PA for the Clean Energy Revolution March and Summit. She has also been involved in appealing directly to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. to halt fracking infrastructure on Native Lands, and has traveled to Standing Rock to participate in solidarity actions. Kendra’s first-hand account of the July 2016 explosion and fire of 36 oil tanks in Nageezi, NM, was published in The Huffington Post. To learn more about actions you can take to support Kendra’s fight, please visit Frack Off Greater Chaco for detailed suggestions of ways you can help.
Art by: Asha Canalos
NMSP: You were born in Shiprock, New Mexico, and your family (your parents and two sisters) moved to Nageezi, NM when you were a kid. Then, for a while, you lived in Chicago?
KP: For about 10 years I went up to Illinois during the summers to visit my aunt. It was fun, it was different. I grew up out here in the middle of nowhere, so the urban area was a big change. You hear that a lot from the kids out here, they want to get out, they want something else. When I was younger, I felt that way. Chicago was fun, but I needed to be home for family. And when I saw what was happening out here [more wells and more fracking] I knew I needed to be here. This is serious stuff, this is life. My family asks me if I’ll move away again, but I love this land. Some people would rather not see this place ever again, but I’m not one of those people.
NMSP: But then you went to school at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO?
KP: I started there last year. I thought maybe I should continue (to get my bachelor’s). I love the school, but I had to take this year off because, right now, this is priority. Getting this fracking out of here is priority. The classes will always be there. So I have to look at this first, and it takes a lot of time to drive back and forth, 3 hours a day, that’s a lot. Last semester I stayed in my truck, Monday through Saturday, I slept in my truck until it started getting cold. That’s something that people need to know about living out here, the majority of schools and jobs are over an hour away. When I go to events and tell people I live in the middle of nowhere, they don’t really get it. The urban people don’t understand that we often don’t even have cell phone service.
NMSP: Was it in 2013 when you began to see changes?
KP: Whenever I came back to New Mexico, it was for my grandmother. As her granddaughter, I have a responsibility to take care of her; she’s priority. So I said, ‘I’m moving home to help my grandmother.’ That’s when I started seeing how much the oil and gas industry has moved into our backyard. Seeing the physical changes woke me up.
They [oil and gas companies] don’t see these things as living organisms, and they just rip everything up, everything spilling like blood from the earth.
That happened on one of the hiking trails I use. At the end of the trail is a drop-off – you see Chaco’s Fajada Butte from here. Along this path they just ripped everything out. Now there are pipes and barrels sitting there in the middle of my hike – it had been undisturbed my entire life – until last year. Seeing all the ways this industry has moved into our backyard – it really bothers me that they don’t care about the land or about us. So I started talking about it. I think if I hadn’t said anything about the fire, it would have been swept under the carpet, because that’s what oil and gas companies do.
NMSP: You’re referring to the 36 oil storage tanks that exploded earlier this year?
KP: Gas has always been out here, but it was on the north side of the highway; in 2013 it jumped to the southern side where industry started drilling for oil and gas. People were asking questions, started seeing all these trucks, flares going up. Last year on the other side of this hill, there were 4 flares going at the same time. I had students working here, right next to the flares – that’s what happened at the explosion site. There was a flare going when it exploded. But we still don’t know anything, because industry controls the investigation.
NMSP: You mentioned that when you came back to live here, you noticed the changes – do you relate this to what happened this summer with the tanks – or did the explosion offer a different kind of change?
KP: I was already on the path to stopping the industry out here, but the explosion made so real – because families were affected. A few families haven’t moved back to the area [after the explosion and fire], and I don’t blame them, they’re scarred. One of the little boys, every time he hears a bang at night, he’s reminded of that explosion. It’s traumatic, like PTSD. They keep telling us over and over again that fracking is clean and safe.
After the explosion, it’s no longer safe. It’s no longer ‘what if’, it’s ‘when’. That’s the question that changed for us out here.
But still some people have a hard time understanding what we’re talking about – they think we’re overreacting; they tell us ‘you have a lot of space out there’. But we have houses close by; the closest one was 300 feet away.
We live next to this stuff, [our land in this area is divided up like a checkerboard], there’s BLM, allotment, trust, and state lands. So these ‘ownership’ blocks are how our land looks. So you can live at the edge of an allotment or trust land, and there’s a flare going off right next to you– if it’s not on your land, you have no say in it, and that’s what people have a hard time seeing here; they assume there’s a barrier between us and the dangers.
NMSP: Hard for some people to see?
KP: Yeah. When I started reading more about my history – I will always bring up Native American history because it’s important that people know that history, about historical trauma. That has a lot to do with how we think about now, about the future, because of that trauma, because of colonization. So you’ll hear that a lot from me. When I start taking about this even my family tells me to calm down (laughs). I say, ‘No, you should be angry about what they’ve done to us and what they’re doing now.’ I think that the biggest thing that many people don’t realize is what the industry is really doing out here.
When I went on the Indigenous Caravan in July, when I stopped in Oklahoma, they were talking about environmental racism, and at the time I was trying to understand ‘what do they mean by that?’ They took us on a tour of their area, and the plants and the rivers, the little streams where the Ponca tribe live, those little rivers are contaminated. So I tell people when I go out, when I see these places that are far worse than our home, if we don’t say anything now, we’ll get to that point, and we’ll regret it because we never said anything in the first place.
But some people have a hard time seeing it, or they think it may happen ‘eventually’, or that I’m exaggerating. I ask people if they know just how many more leases [industry is] trying to get out here? Many people don’t think about it that way; they think it has nothing to do with them. If you can’t see it, it’s not real. A lot of people don’t take time to see how the land is changing, and that’s why they don’t believe it. But people are also moving away from here and leasing their allotments.
NMSP: Is that what you mean by ‘not see it’ – because people are not here to physically observe it, or because many people here don’t acknowledge it?
KP: Both have a lot to do with it, because the land is in the middle of nowhere, they say, okay, no one’s using it. The thing with allotments, they [industry] only need 51% of people [owners] to sign on that [bottom] line, and they’re good to go; fracking can happen. And that’s a bummer for these allotment holders, because if you’re in that 49%, you have no say.
NMSP: How many people can be on an allotment?
KP: First, do you know what allotments are? Do you know why they were given? They were given to Native people to keep them in one section. That’s real history. What you’re taught in the American school system is wrong. The Allotment Act, the dirty truth is that the government gave us that land so we could stay in one spot, so they could say that they did something for us: ‘we gave you land [that nobody wanted], what more do you want?’ People need to learn more about this, they need to check their sources against their version of Americanizing us, saying that we’re landowners, so we should feel equal.
Originally, they were given to the head of the household (160 acres, 80 if you were single). Over time, this all gets divided; if they [landowner] had 8 kids, it gets divided. Over time one allotment has 100s of owners – making people’s interest so small. There’s no limit to how many people can hold part of an allotment.
NMSP: It seems like a common misconception that people will all agree what happens with the land; it speaks to the complexity of any social group out there; take any social group, and they’re going to disagree and have different opinions.
KP: Yeah, and it’s not like I blame people for not understanding, I just want them to learn about it and remember. When I connect what’s happening here to our history, it gets even louder for me. For me to not say anything about how that history affects us now, it wouldn’t make any sense. When I saw that whole environmental racism definition being played out in front of me, I got it. Now I see why they talk about it like that. Look at us out here. We don’t earn very much, we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re Native Americans, and industry thinks whatever they do is okay. That’s environmental racism.
How do people not want to fight for our way of life? My grandma’s lived out here since she was in her late teens, and now she’s 91. Two years ago we had this oil company driving around people’s yards in my area, and my dad stopped them and asked, ‘do you guys know what you’re doing? Do you know that you’re driving through people’s yards?’ And they told him, ‘Oh, we’re just getting coordinates, we weren’t aware that anyone lived out here.’ So the BLM sent people out here to mark coordinates and our houses for the 2015 map.
They were never interested in the area until they said, ‘okay, let’s tear it up.’
NMSP: So it’s about information – getting it out there, getting people to understand what’s really involved with fracking in this area?
KP: It’s also about changing minds, getting more information to the people so that they can stop believing that the world is going to end without fracking. It doesn’t provide local jobs – that’s a myth, people working out here are mostly from out of state; they build their man camps, crime is up, meth is on the rise, sexual assault is up, the roadways are dangerous; the people driving these trucks don’t care about us. This area here is 55 mph, but people fly through here going 70-75 mph. The locals turning off [the highway] into their homes risk being hit by these vehicles, these big oil trucks.
And we’ve never seen any of that industry money out here – even during the 70s oil boom in Farmington. Our ‘local economy’ is over an hour away, and we never got fresh new parks, new schools; it’s so stupid when they talk about all that. Money made around here goes to Santa Fe or D.C., it doesn’t go to us. We just live with the consequences.
Even Chaco tourism is being affected by the industry. There are fewer visitors to the park, and because of the flaring, we now have light pollution – another thing not talked about. That’s a big deal out here; it can be pitch black out here – which is why Chaco was designated the ‘night park’ – because of the low light pollution. But now that we have flaring – when you’re coming around the mountain, it looks like a city, and that affects Chaco.
NMSP: What do you think people need to know about the upcoming BLM and DOI scoping meetings?
KP: Once things go through, there’s really nothing we can do about it. It’s time to talk now; People need to share stories about how they get headaches in the morning, or when they’re out walking how they smell propane in the air; I want people to not be afraid to speak out.
We have cancer out here now; people are being diagnosed with cardio diseases; asthma cases have gone up. It’s all happening now, and if it’s not talked about it, it’s going to be pushed aside until it’s too late and people start dying. I don’t want it to go that far.
I want people to realize that the air we breathe in every day is the same air we share with these well sites.
I recently got involved in putting together a Health Impact Report, and now the Navajo Nation is conducting a study on fracking and health – which is good – but the deadline is just around the corner. It’s a short time [frame] for a study.
In May we went to speak to the Navajo Nation Council about legislation to stop fracking on the Navajo Nation, and near the end of my little speech, I said ‘you need to stop ignoring the Eastern Agency, because we get ignored a lot out here.’
NMSP: Eastern Agency?
KP: The Navajo Nation is broken up into sections. We’re on the very end of tribal lands, and then it all goes west into Arizona. We’re right at the edge, and I told them ‘you can’t keep ignoring us out here’. We’re suffering out here.
NMSP: You’ve been travelling and speaking for a while. Do you think more of this kind of information is getting out there?
KP: It is starting to spread, but it has taken years for people to open up about it. We had a meeting here two years ago, and there were 3 people; but we had a meeting here a month ago, and there were 40 people. So people are starting to realize that things are changing, and they don’t like it – or it’s different from how we grew up – because a lot of this is also new.
NMSP: What would you say to others who are just starting to learn about this, the motivation to get involved, how to stay strong?
KP: When I was growing up I had no fear, I grew up on the land, and now my little sister has fear. It’s not right what she has to deal with; it’s not fair. So I have to do something so she can have clean air – we deserve clean air. We can’t just sit here and think it is okay. I now have a little nephew who’ll grow up here; if we don’t say anything, they’ll run us over. They’ll bring in pipelines and coal plants, and I don’t want that here.
At first I wondered why me, why should I be the one talking about it? It makes me nervous. How do I say it? Am I saying enough? Am I saying it right? – That always scares me; it’s always my question to myself: am I doing enough? I want to be stronger with my words.
So when I first started speaking out, I thought that people were going to hate me, were going to stop talking to me. But I don’t care about that anymore; I don’t sugar-coat anything anymore, because I can’t. This issue is serious; when I’m asked to speak at the White House or in front of the BLM or DOI, I always say yes, I have to. I’m trying to make things right.
I think it would have helped me if someone had told me there are others out there who feel the same way. Now when I talk about these issues, I also get to talk to people from everywhere around the U.S. It’s a small world when it comes to environmentalism – if you want to call it that, we all connect somehow in our fight for a better future.
When we had our last meeting here at the chapter house, we were asked what do we need here – we were speaking spirituality, and I said, ‘unity, we need to start communicating with each other – people don’t talk to each other out here, they’re scared to talk about these issues, they’re scared to say that fracking should leave, because there are others who live around them or family or industry.’ I told them that we need to stop being afraid of telling the truth; we need to stop being afraid of each other; we need to stop being afraid of the industry.