There are four children who just left my office in DC. They are actual warriors and so they would probably hate being called children, but teachers and parents can call their children “children” until they graduate and then get jobs and then have children of their own – and even then they will be our children because no matter how young we were when they knew us, they will always think of us as the old guys and no matter how old they get, we will always see them with the eyes that saw them as children.
These four warrior children have been telling me how they are in DC to save lives. Maybe their grandparents’ lives. Maybe the lives of the children they hope to have someday. Maybe their own.
They are American Indian students who attend tribal schools in Idaho. They honor their community, and they intend to fight for it. They tell me a chemical company closed down and left a toxic superfund site behind. The EPA has “capped” the chemical waste with concrete and declared the problem solved. The people in the community think otherwise.
These children are standing by their parents and grandparents and neighbors to demand that something be done to remove chemicals they believe are seeping into the drinking water. They have evidence to support their suspicions.
Angel Teton tells me that she attended the EPA hearings near her home. She waited patiently as the youngest one in the irate crowd of neighbors. She listened to the adults angrily express their belief that something was terribly wrong.
She listened as they gave long speeches about the negligence of the company and the inadequate efforts of the government. She listened and listened and waited and waited. It was almost midnight before they got to her. She was determined that she would not leave until she said what she came there to say.
She told me she was embarrassed that her voice was shaking with emotion and that she spoke through tears, but she finished her testimony. She had to say how she felt as a seventeen-year-old high school student that this company had abandoned her community to its poisons and that her government was putting her in danger.
She had to say that her future was possibly going to be less than it would have been because powerful people had decided she was not worth the effort to properly clean up toxic chemicals left filtering down into the waters of sacred lands.
Each of these students, Cesilio Silveira, Deryk Broncho and Sequoia Dance, had a passionate story to tell. Each was as determined as Angel to tell it. They had made appointments with their member of Congress and their senators.
They had marched into the Environmental Protection Agency and demanded that the agency protect their environment. They understood that adults in the community were working through the political channels. They understood that lawyers were involved and that courts might have to be called on and that laws and regulations might have to change.
They understood all that, and still came, knowing that their stories must be told to become part of this messy process. They simply and elegantly wanted to do their part in the struggle of their community. What I was not sure they understood was how important their part was.
They told me that no one had organized them or instructed them to do what they were doing. They asked the adults a million questions.
They asked their tribal youth coordinator, Claudia Washakie. They asked their teacher, Mr. Lyndon Smith. But the decision to act and get involved was theirs. Wherever they went, they asked the next person, “Who else should I talk to? Where else should I go?”
These children inspire me. These children humble me. These children live what it means to be a civic, ethical member of a community. They are not waiting to grow up to be important. They are warriors today, fighting for their families and their futures. They honor us by simply being who they are.
I fed them lunch and shook their hands and left them with directions to the Metro. They had an appointment with Idaho Senator Crapo.
But they called me an hour later. Cesilio Silveira said very simply, “Lily, can you call the First Lady and see if she can meet with us today?”
The best I could do was to give these children the phone number of her appointment secretary. He thanked me and said they’d call right away. They didn’t want to leave until they had tried to talk to everyone.
And those wiser and more senior amongst us, those of us too comfortable to do more than change the channel from news show to news show, are left in awe that it is our children now who lead the way. They hold a candle to light a path to the front door of the White House, and they don’t think twice about boldly asking if Mrs. Obama is home.
And I hate to disappoint the First Lady, but I’m sure they only want to see her to ask for directions to the Oval Office.
Read Angel Teton’s EPA Testimony bellow:
MS. TETON: My name is Angel Teton, and I’m 17 years old. I want to speak out to the EPA so that you can hear the point of view from a teen from the community.
And I’ve been hearing about this FMC problem non stop. It’s a huge problem for the people, land, animals, and the air. If we don’t clean up this waste completely, it’s not going to be a problem just for the reservation and the natives, but it is going to be a problem for — it is going to affect the white man as well, because Idaho is supposedly like the — it is like a land for hunting and beautiful scenery and stuff.
And people travel here to fish, and if that gets into the water, then it is going to affect our fish and our game, and it is not going to be good. We ·are just all going to be screwed.
I want — like, you telling me that your master plan is to cap it and cover it, it’s making me think that you are just saying like — oh, they are just a bunch of country people and natives that live out there, and we can just cover it and hide it and act like it is okay. It’s not okay.
You need to completely remove it, because my dream is to have like — sorry. My dream is to — okay. My dream is to grow up and have a family, and I want healthy kids and healthy grandkids, and if you just cap it, then what if it leaks, or what if like –what if someone does forget about it and drills right through it, then it is just — we are all gone.
But my dream is to have a family and to have healthy kids and grandkids, and I want clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. And as the Environmental Protection Agency, you are supposed to protect the environment; right?
I hope you do your job. I just wanted to say that it is not just going to affect us. It’s going to affect everyone else. I just really hope that you would like just clean it — like completely remove it and do what you’ve got to do, because if there is a will, there is a way.