by Abaki Beck
With the U.S. presidential election raging on - or droning on, depending on who you ask - an important question is: who is actually running things? Tara Houska, a Native American policy adviser for the Bernie Sanders Campaign, is one of those people. A triple threat (indigenous, attorney, activist) and member of the Couchiching First Nation, Houska was hired in February as an advisor to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In this position she will field press inquiries, help recruit voters, and assist with developing Senator Sanders’ Native American policy. Nicole Willis of the Umatilla tribe was hired earlier this year as well. Senator Sanders has been the only politician to speak about Native issues on a fairly regular basis, saying that as President he would support tribal sovereignty, tribal culture, and traditional ecological knowledge, as well as fight against treaty betrayals. But Houska was making waves long before being named Bernie Sanders’ new Native American adviser.
Houska is the National Campaigns Director for Honor the Earth, a non-profit environmental justice organization focused on developing financial and political resources for tribal communities. Honor the Earth has done work to stop oil pipelines crossing through tribal areas, has worked against hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil across North America, and highlights the disparities of sexual violence against Native women in oil extraction zones - which are becoming increasingly violent spaces for the surrounding communities. The work of Honor the Earth recognizes the intersectional nature of environmental justice: environmental justice simply cannot exist without including indigenous communities, perspectives, and needs.
Houska is also one of the founding members of Not Your Mascots, an education and outreach organization formed to combat stereotypical and racist representations of Native Americans. Houska has helped to organize demonstrations across the nation. Not Your Mascots is not simply focused on sports mascots, but all forms of cultural misappropriation and stereotypical imagery of Native Americans. Though work against “images” is often looked down upon as “less important” than other political or social issues, a recent White House Initiative on Native American and Alaska Native Education report found that mascots and racist imagery of Native Americans was one of the top issues making schools unsafe or unsupportive environments to Native students.
Houska’s activism addresses the needs of indigenous peoples on many fronts: deeply personal, like the impacts of racist imagery, or broadly political, like campaigning for tribal and Native American rights with Bernie Sanders. This Friday, we celebrate Houska’s dedicated work to Native peoples, the environment, and the United States as a whole. We thank her for helping to bring Native American issues into the national conscious and on the national stage. When Native Americans are empowered, the country benefits.