Native American activist speaks at the ’Hurst



Protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline have spread throughout the nation as Americans rally together to defend sacred land as well as the environment.

Julia Martino, Contributing writer

This year, Mercyhurst welcomes Tara Houska as the Sister Maura Smith Earth Day Speaker. Houska advocates a myriad of issues facing Native American communities focused on environmental justice, protection of sacred sites and institutional racism.

“We are honored to welcome Tara Houska to the Mercyhurst and Erie communities,” said Chris Magoc, co-founder and chair of the Green Team and a professor of History.

Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 due to a series of concerns about water and air pollution, the loss of endangered species, green space and more. Biology professor Sister Maura Smith, who established the first environmental studies program at Mercyhurst University, also organized the first Earth Day at the school.

Smith would go on to co-found the Mercyhurst Green Team in 2000 and remained a steadfast advocate for sustainability on campus until her passing in 2015. The campus remembers her with a perennial flower and edible plants garden in Smith’s name along the Mercy Walkway. Mercyhurst’s annual Earth Day speaker series honors her as well.

Born and raised in Minnesota, Houska is an Ojibwe First Nation Native American attorney and activist and serves as the national campaign director of Honor the Earth, whose mission is to advance strategies that honor and respect native peoples, their lands and culture.

For the past year, Houska has been heavily engaged in the ongoing struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). She has spent much time living and working on the frontlines in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where thousands of Lakotas and their allies from all over the nation have been trying to resist the construction of an oil pipeline they have argued threatens their sacred lands and water.

“The struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline has captured the nation’s attention. Last fall thousands of Americans from around the country — Native American, white, black, veterans and human rights activists — joined the Lakota and other native peoples in peacefully resisting construction of the pipeline,” said Magoc. “Although DAPL is now moving forward in this new administration, their dramatic and desperate struggle to protect native lands and water reflects a larger democratic struggle of people around the nation and world for a more just, secure and sustainable future.”

Houska has worked for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, lobbied on Capitol Hill and last year served as a key adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign on Native American issues. She has appeared on MSNBC, RT America, Comedy Central, Democracy Now! and CCTV. She also contributes to major newspapers including the Huffington Post, the Guardian and Indian Country Today to talk about religious rights, police brutality, destruction of native lands and other threats to native communities.

Houska’s Mercyhurst visit is sponsored by both the Evelyn Lincoln Institute for Ethics and Society and the Mercyhurst Green Team with support from the Mercyhurst University Office for Academic Affairs.

“Tara Houska will bring a timely and powerful Earth Day message to our community,” Magoc said.