Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Krystal Two Bulls is Oglala Lakota-Northern Cheyenne and the newly appointed executive director of Honor the Earth, a national Native environmental justice initiative. With a rich and varied set of experiences, Krystal is working to reinvigorate Honor the Earth by shifting its focus to get at the root of climate change and the intersectionality of climate justice.
Enjoy our conversation about generational organizing, Indigenous climate justice, and what rural communities can do to help, below.
Ahna Renee Fleming, The Daily Yonder: Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself, Honor the Earth and your role as executive director?
Krystal Two Bulls: I’m Oglala Lakota-Northern Cheyenne, and I’m the executive director of Honor the Earth. I’m very new to the position, I have just stepped into it. I’ve only been in this role since May of 2023. Honor the Earth was in a place where they were wanting new leadership – younger leadership – in recognizing and acknowledging that the organization had to evolve. We needed that new leadership to actually be able to continue on. I accepted the position and came on in January of 2023 as a co-executive director with Winona LaDuke. I held that position for a couple months until Winona resigned out of accountability. And then the board asked me to step in as the sole executive director.
But in terms of my background, I was raised half of my life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota, my mom’s side of the family. And then the second half of my life has been here in Lame Deer Montana, amongst the Northern Cheyenne, my dad’s community and my now-partner’s community. I reside here. I’ve been an organizer probably from the youngest age that I can remember — my parents organized in our community. They organized and fought back against what was the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine. It would’ve been the largest coal mine in the lower 48 states had it gone through. But that was a 40 year battle. Generations of my family have fought this; generations of our people have fought this. And so I was raised observing that: watching my parents organize mutual aid for our community, fight back against the coal mine, stand up for our culture, and prevent people from appropriating our culture. Just showing up for the community in so many different ways.
And then also at a very young age I was in an abusive relationship. I name that because it was pretty formative, in that coming out of that relationship taught me to really find my voice. And so I went into the school of social work so I could advocate for other women going through some of the same stuff.
But what ended up happening was coming off of that relationship, I really was craving structure and stability, and I ended up enlisting into the army. So I myself as a veteran, an army veteran, I served eight years. I deployed to Kuwait in 2009 to 2010. And it was really interesting, kind of reflecting back, seeing that that’s what I was craving was that stability and the structure that the military provided. But, also, they really get you with the catchphrases. And so when they recruited me, they were saying, ‘serve your country, serve your people.’ And that really sat with me because that’s what I was conditioned to do at home. And so it got me, but it was obviously pretty quickly that I realized that the military life was not for me. However, I had already signed a contract. When I deployed, some of the things that had happened while I was on deployment were really formative in that it opened my eyes to the fact that I actually related more to the people whose country we were occupying.
I was one of the founders of the Red Warrior Camp at Standing Rock; we were one of the first groups to hit the ground there. I ended up launching the Global Solidarity Campaign (the NoDAPL Global Solidarity Campaign), which basically moved Standing Rock from an Indigenous issue to an international global issue. For anyone that needs clean drinking water to survive or clean air to breathe or land to live on, environmental justice is our fight. And so I really developed strong politics during that time about internationalism and how we fight and how we organize.
I continued to organize on many different fronts, supporting many different communities all over the so-called United States. I started to organize a bit at the United Nations. I brought Indigenous youth organizers to the U.N. to be able to advocate, to be able to build relationships and to network. And to see how all of our struggles as Indigenous people globally are intertwined, and that we have to hold it as such. So I organized there over the years, and was recruited to NDN Collective later down the road. While at NDN Collective, I was the director of the LANDBACK Campaign. My team and I built out the infrastructure for the LANDBACK movement and really worked hard to popularize and normalize the use of the framework and the language of LANDBACK.
I am really proud of the work that we did there [at NDN], and we kind of got to the point where we were ready to do more. And so my team and I accepted the offer to move over to Honor the Earth and continue our work, and to really build out a cross-movement building organization, which is where we are now.
We are really moving Honor the Earth from solely an environmental justice organization to a cross-movement building organization. And so, rather than only organizing around environmental justice, we actually organize at the intersections of environmental justice. We recognize that climate change is the direct result of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. So because of that, environmental justice is an organizing framework that has to move across many movements for us to be effective.
DY: What does the name of your organization, Honor the Earth, mean to you?
KTB: I’ve sat with that for a while. I think it’s literally just what it says: honor the earth. As human beings whose lives are interdependent with the earth and the land, our full survival as humans depends on our relationship to the land. And I think that’s what the name means to me. It’s really about that interdependence.
DY: In your opinion, what is the largest or most pressing threat to the Earth right now?
KTB: I would say… man, there’s so many. Okay. So there’s the obvious culprit, which to me is the fossil fuel industry, the mining corporations and the U.S. military, because the U.S. military is the largest polluter in the world. So I think to me, those are the most obvious culprits. Those are the biggest threats. However, what I would say in addition to that, is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a great threat right now because they tend to be really complacent. They do not choose to go to the root of matters. They actually will invest in just transition mining – “just” transition mining – or green energy mining, and are willing to sacrifice Indigenous communities. 75% of minerals that need to be mined for a just transition to electric batteries, like Teslas, are on Indigenous lands.
DY: Have you worked on any environmental justice projects with the greater rural community?
KTB: Yes. Because Indian reservations are rural communities. I’m from Montana, so almost, I would say, almost 95% of Montana is a rural community. We have a couple cities that we call cities but are not cities compared to metro areas. So even our cities are pretty rural. But I come from rural communities. And so yes, I would say yes, I have, definitely.
DY: How is the attitude toward climate justice different and also similar between Native individuals and other individuals in rural areas?
KTB: I think that it’s a both/and situation, and so it depends. So Native communities, reservations, Indian reservations are oftentimes pretty rural unless you get to the ones that are really right outside of Minneapolis or the ones that are in California, some of the larger urban areas. But for the most part, we are rural communities. And so in our communities, of course, there’s this innate feeling that we need to protect, in that yes, there’s climate change and yes, it’s our responsibility. But on the other hand, in our communities — and my community is a perfect example of this — there’s also no jobs.
In rural communities, oftentimes there’s ranching, agriculture, firefighting. For us here, the Northern Cheyenne tribe is a huge employer in the area. Firefighting is another large employer, but the mines are the largest employer. And so for us, in our communities, if you are not getting a job at the tribe or firefighting, your other alternative is a mine.
And so I think there’s also this attitude where folks know that we don’t want these mines near us or on our lands, or we don’t want them to be digging up the coal. But also, we have to put food on the table. We have to be able to provide for our families. And so it’s a very complex dynamic. I have family members and people close to me that work at the mine, and it’s really forced me to dig in deeper and to really understand things deeper. Because I cannot blame people for taking a job when they are a single parent raising a family and that is the only job that they can get that will provide for their family and pay their bills. That is not on the individual, that is not on the person, that is on the system that creates that shit.
I actually think in rural communities too, that if there were alternatives, something that was not harmful, but it could still put food on the table, it could still give you access to medical benefits and resources, I think that the attitudes would shift.
DY: That’s very interesting. It all does seem to circle back to the system.
KTB: Yeah, it does. It does very much.
DY: So, on that note, how can rural individuals and communities help to protect the environment?
KTB: I think by educating ourselves; investing in our knowledge and really asking the hard questions. Not just taking things at face value, but really asking the hard questions. In deep Minnesota right now, for example, there’s a proposed mine, the Talon mine, in a little small community called Tamarack. Tamarack exists in the middle of Minnesota, so it’s not super deep north, but deep north Minnesota is what’s called the Iron Range. The Iron Range is like long-term mining communities that have been mining metals for a very long time. Tamarack fits kind of on the edge of that, and they’re getting ready to mine nickel. They’re going to mine nickel so they can hand over the nickel to Tesla for more Tesla batteries.
Right now, that’s what we’ve been doing, is trying to organize in those communities, and I think that we have to educate people about the harms that are caused because yes, this might provide some jobs, but corporations don’t go into rural communities and small communities and offer all the good jobs to the locals. Corporations come with their own people, and so the amount of jobs that they actually offer are super limited, probably really low on the ladder, like a labor position or things like that. So they’re not offering the good jobs to the locals. Also, when they come into these communities, they run full on narrative campaigns, propaganda campaigns that minimize and lessen the actual impacts on their communities. And so they’re basically lying to them that like, oh, your water will be fine. We’ll be here afterwards to mitigate and to clean up. That’s not true. They don’t do that. They just say that they do. Or what they end up doing is something that’s so small and insignificant that it actually doesn’t help protect anything, or it doesn’t actually heal the harm that they’ve caused.
I think that, for rural folks, it’s really important that we continue to ask the questions, that we question everything, that we educate ourselves and that we ask other communities that have been impacted what the results were, and reach out. I know in rural communities, it’s hard to do that. We often, we’re just kind of in our own little space, and the distance from us to another community is really far sometimes. But I think it’s important that we do that work.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.