The New Icons

The Defender: Tara Houska

Activist and lawyer

outside magazine

   Photo: Annabel Mehran

Tara Houska has been involved in a dizzying number of efforts. The tribal-rights attorney is the national campaigns director for the indigenous-led environmental-justice organization Honor the Earth
has served as adviser on Native American issues for Bernie Sanders’s campaign, cofounded Not Your Mascots to fight the appropriation of indigenous culture, and protested the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

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Her work embodies the notion that we can’t treat environmental and social injustice separately. “These issues indicate race, economic disparity, and income inequality,” she says. “You don’t see a pipeline going through Beverly Hills. Keeping that issue of justice at the forefront is really important to me in everything I do.”

Houska, a citizen of the Couchiching First Nation, grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, across the Canadian border from the tribe’s reservation. While working at a Washington, D.C., law firm in 2014, she protested the Keystone XL pipeline and ­orga­nized efforts to rename Washington’s NFL team. “The mascot movement showed me the power of extremely marginalized voices coming together to be heard,” Houska says. 

In February 2016, she joined Honor the Earth, where she works with noted environmentalist Winona LaDuke on Dakota Access and other issues. “It’s a long way from practicing law in D.C. to protecting yourself with a car mat against rubber bullets and mace,” LaDuke says. “Tara stood up for our people.”

Recently, most of Houska’s efforts have gone toward building a support network to defend the nearly 700 protestors who’ve been detained and arrested at Standing Rock, as well as divesting from banks that fund the pipeline. “It was huge for the environmental movement,” Houska says, “because people all looked to Standing Rock like, What’s happening? This is police brutality at the hands of the state over the creation of a pipeline.”

One of the best ways to help those protestors, Houska says, is to donate to a legal fund like the Freshet Collective. As for the bigger picture, Houska hopes that more people resist injustice every day. “How you judge your most vulnerable citizens is how we should all be judged,” she says. “We have to hold ourselves accountable, and we cannot allow anyone to be oppressed and forgotten.” 

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