Kandi Mossett grew up running wild among the spectacular peaks and valleys of the North Dakota Badlands. She remembers spending most of her childhood days on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation swimming and climbing with friends. “I guess that’s probably why I’ve had this passion for doing something outdoors,” Mossett, 29, says.
But among the deep canyons and rolling hills, there were also oil rigs that changed the smell of the air, and the taste of the water, and it wasn’t unusual for students at Mossett’s high school to come down with some form of cancer. Talk of weekly chemotherapy and radiation treatments seemed commonplace. Mossett knew three kids at her high school who had brain cancer. In 2000, while studying at the University of North Dakota, she, too, was diagnosed with cancer after finding a stage four sarcoma tumor on her stomach. Mossett says she knew right away what it was.
“I thought it was normal to have that many people you knew around you who were sick, until I went to college,” Mossett says.
Mossett and others were certain that the high incidence of cancer was caused by oil wells on the reservation and a refinery built close by in Mandan. But there was no scientific report, she says, to confirm what people had experienced.
She decided that if she couldn’t change the past, she would at least try to empower people’s futures. In February 2007, after earning a degree in earth system science and policy, Mossett joined the Indigenous Environmental Network. She now works with tribal high school and college students, helping them plant gardens, install solar panels and educate their communities on what it means to have a sustainable lifestyle.
Mossett says that getting people to think and talk about the issues can go a long way in changing behavior. “When people don’t know about these things, they don’t have to carry that weight of having some responsibility for how our planet is doing.”