Kayla DeVault | Appalachia

This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on October 30, 2017. Alexandra Cohen and Talia Fox contributed to the production of this story.

Kayla DeVault is a young woman from Appalachia, an engineering student, and an environmental activist. This is Kayla's story:

“My mom’s side of my family is very Scottish and Irish. My dad’s side is Eastern European, Shawnee, and Anishinaabe. But I also have Jewish and Hispanic roots, and I can trace some family to India. I’m from many places. Pennsylvania, in Appalachia, is mostly where I grew up, near where my Swiss-German ancestors founded Brethren congregations, and also in Ohio. My dad’s family is from West Virginia to Northern Minnesota. Most recently, I have been living in the Navajo Nation in Arizona.


  • "In 1952, the federal government created the Urban Relocation Program, which encouraged American Indians to move off reservations and into cities such as Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. They were lured by the hope of a better life, but for many, that promise was not realized." (NPR)

  • Listen to More Perfect's podcast about "a legal battle that entangled a biological father, a heart-broken couple, and the tragic history of Native American children taken from their families." (NPR)

When I was younger, I was caught between my mom’s side of the family, that worked in conservation, and my dad’s side, that worked in the extractive industry. My mom’s family still grows a lot of our food. They work to keep people from destroying things, and teach people to know the plants around them and only take what they need. The mines and steel mills that many members of my dad's family work in contribute to the pollution that my mom helps try to clean up. I know how important industrial opportunities can be to people, including tribal members without access to jobs or who were part of the government’s Relocation program. Having parents on both ends of the spectrum showed me the need for balance and inclusion.

When I was a kid, I would go to my grandma’s house. She had acres of gardens. She didn’t have much formal education, but she knew everything about plants. She was dedicated to plants native to the Appalachian region. We would pick our salads from different lettuces and lovage. Her basement was filled with crafts and dried flowers, and she had a canning cellar. I didn’t experience as many big grocery stores growing up because I was used to growing all of our food, buying from corn stands, and hunting.  We bought some things from the little, rundown store at the end of the valley. My favorites back then were getting Spam for sandwiches, candy cigarettes, and asking the deli lady for a slice of colby jack cheese. I’m still appalled that strawberries can be sold at a megastore outside of strawberry season. And, compared to the wild strawberries we grew, the fat, store-bought ones taste awful.

Photo of Kayla's family's orchard.

Photo of Kayla's family's orchard.

My mom studied forest sciences and wildlife management. She would go out and measure the girth of trees and check how they were doing.  She taught me why hunting is important by showing me what a browse line is and talking about urbanization displacing deer populations. In the river near our house, where there was acid mine drainage, the bank became slippery and orange. We used to tag animals, weigh animals, and take water samples to analyze the pH levels. With time, we found less and less salamanders. Anytime there is pollution in the water, the first creatures impacted are the ones that breathe through their skin.

Most of my dad’s side of the family ended up in Pennsylvania for work in the extractive industry, coal mining especially. Some worked the iron furnaces near Fort Braddock.  My great-great-grandpa died a week after suffering injuries from a mining explosion. My grandma’s brother worked in a coke oven. Her husband, my grandpa, suffered a mining accident and had to switch to working a crane to load barges.  He did know a lot, though, like he taught my dad to hunt, clean game, and tap trees for syrup. My grandma balanced working on a farm, in factories, and as a postmaster to keep off welfare after my grandpa died. Their mentality has always been ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps.’ My dad was always drilling that idea in my head. I remember when he realized, and said to me, ‘You’ve sort of become an activist now.’ It was funny to hear him say those words, the way he said it. He believes in dedicating yourself to and staying in one job, and move up the ranks. I would be in a much different place if I’d done that. But, because I didn’t, I’ve done so many things, studied different subjects, and am constantly changing, improving, and adding to the way I think.

That being said, I think a lot of climate justice communities de-prioritize the importance of making a living. Appalachia is an impoverished area similar to a lot of tribal nations that have extractive industries. People in Native communities historically don’t have the same job access because of colonization and ongoing settler-colonialism that has devastated the traditional marketplace. Many people feel that extractive industries are the only option for revenue.  Others think this is inherently contradictory to Indigenous values and argue for the complete decolonization of the systems impacting their communities. 

Kayla hiking a mountain at sunrise.

Kayla hiking a mountain at sunrise.

As a civil engineering student, my specialty is in Geotechnical and Environmental Engineering. I worked for two years designing fracking pads [laughs], so I got to see inside that world. I said I wanted to work in 'alternative energy' and remediation.  They said, well natural gas is alternative, and assigned me to remediate oil spills. I cleaned one up in a nature reserve once. There, I saw them using cheap from labor migrant workers and they prioritized profit and speed over safety. Thinking about the safety and well-being of people who work in the extractive industry is important. I see a lot of correlations to the way that Native people were hired to work in uranium mines back in the day.

Anishinaabe stories say that centuries ago there was a prophecy that said that people should move from where they lived at the time to a place where ‘the food floats on the water.’ That is where the people would find home. The people migrated until they came to the Great Lakes and found the wild rice, the manoomin, floating on the water. They began fishing, ricing, and creating maple syrup—all important traditional cultural practices. That is the Anishinaabe migration story.

I have relatives who are very concerned about water pollution and how it affects cultural things, including fishing. I also grew up eating so much fish, but no one told us I could get sick from it. I remember my grandpa would fish a lot in the lakes. He always joked about how big the fish was going to be, pretending that it was dragging him around and he couldn’t yank it out, but then he would pull out the smallest little sunfish. One time, though, he pulled out this huge fish and he could barely hold it. We had to help him. We thought he was joking when he said he had pulled a huge fish. It was a salmon. I have a picture of him standing with it and his smile is enormous.

Kayla and her little brother as kids on a fishing dock.

Kayla and her little brother as kids on a fishing dock.

Once, when I was fishing with my dad near Ontario, my dad got confronted. Apparently, we had crossed the Canadian border and we were told we couldn’t be there. We were sent back and told we couldn’t have our fish because we didn’t have a license. I was really scared and didn’t know what they would do to us. I felt guilty and ashamed that we took salmon. My dad managed to say, ‘No, this is our fish,’ because we were hunting, not sporting, and somehow they let us come home with it. When my dad fought for our fish, I was proud. He knew our rights. But, I still felt a little guilt like we had done something wrong. That made me think, ‘When did all these laws become laws anyways?’ It’s not like we overfish. Other people overfish; industries overfish. Local fishing communities and Indigenous fishing communities around the world get in trouble if they take more fish than they’re told they’re allowed to. In reality, these communities are impacted by the trawlers that can cross over international borders, overfish, and sell those fish to people around the world. It makes me wonder—‘What is law? What is legal?’ Some people need to fish so they can survive and be healthy, and to continue tradition too.

Photo of Kayla being interviewed at a UNITY event for native youth where they discussed environmental issues.

Photo of Kayla being interviewed at a UNITY event for native youth where they discussed environmental issues.

The perspective of Indigenous people in the climate dialogue is really important. For Indigenous people, there is an understanding that you have to take care of your resources because you’re going to continue to be there. We have spirituality built around the land because it’s our way of life. That’s the same with any community anywhere that has a place-based connection and understanding. With climate change, there have been a lot of problems related to keeping those traditions alive. There is a lot of pollution and contamination that’s impacting fishing. Reservations have become places where industries do things that other communities don't want to have around. They put unregulated threats on Reservations like they put incinerators and factories in the poorer parts of urban areas.

But it’s hard to just talk about climate change because it’s so interrelated with cultural damage and economic challenges. And when we talk about natural resources, there’s that commodifying language, that capitalistic imperialism again.  We’re not sure at what point Western society started to break things into categories, but interrelation and holistic thinking originate in Indigenous concepts of the environment. That’s just part of survivalism, seeing the whole and knowing how to maintain it. Many Indigenous people live in food deserts now because they can’t do traditional farming due to colonization, land ownership laws, and reservation boundary lines. At the same time, not only are people losing their knowledge and practice, but medicine men are having a harder time finding traditional plants because of changes in temperature and water sources that have become contaminated. It is a time of emergency for many tribes. 

There is cultural damage because of climate change. People talk about loss and damage a lot in traditional climate dialogue spaces, but it’s always controlled by Western thought and Western methodology. They talk about people being displaced by storms. But, for Indigenous people, when we get displaced, we’re not just displaced from our homes, we’re also displaced from our homelands, our way of life, place-based spirituality, and all the things that are ingrained in our cultures and traditions. People who get displaced in a place like Miami will miss their home if it flooded, but it’s not the same as someone who has been in their community for thousands of years, being displaced from places where their ancestors are buried and where their landmarks stand. If we have to move, it’s irreversible cultural identity loss and damage. Removed tribes, like the Shawnee, suffered that once already through federal policy in the 1800s.

Kayla speaking on a Women's Earth & Climate Network (WECAN) panel in Morocco.

Kayla speaking on a Women's Earth & Climate Network (WECAN) panel in Morocco.

It is a problem that people act like Standing Rock is only about water. It’s also about treaty rights. Environmentalists only talk about, ‘keep it in the ground,' which I think was founded in Indigenous South America but now sells predominantly white-led 'Big Green' campaigns. This doesn’t capture the Indigenous part of the movement, but Indigenous peoples might be used to sell the face of it. International law (treaties) is being violated. It is important to understand this, because the majority of untapped extractable resources west of the Mississippi are on tribal land. In order to fight climate change, we have to respect ancestral land. We must reinforce sovereignty so that Native communities can protect their own survival and the survival of their ecosystems.

I believe that if people understood tribal issues and Indigenous communities better, they would start to respect them and work with them more. I’ve started a YouTube channel, Sovereign Stories, where people can go and learn about Native American history one issue at a time. People need to understand why they need to consult tribal leaders, why they should talk about tribal issues, and how talking to tribal leaders will help climate change. I hope it can at least get the conversation started.

My advice to people is to challenge the way that they think. Actively educate yourself on different world views. Identity is a huge human need and I don’t think enough focus is put on it. People should actively think about climate change from different perspectives. That will help people understand how better to approach it.”

Kayla asks you to take the following actions:

1. Share Kayla's story.

2. Learn about whose ancestral land you're living on, and where those people are centered as a community today. 

3. Check out a map of your watershed and learn if water still flows there or not. Why?

4. Ask yourself, 'Do I really know where my food comes from? Do I know who provides my food for me? Do I know on whose land my food is produced for me?'