This is a story of justice – environmental, social, racial, economic, and climate. It’s a story about the power of truth in the quest for justice. And it’s a report from the front lines of a grassroots, global movement for Indigenous leadership in the making of justice, a story of Indigenous truth rising.
For four days in July, I took part in the Protect Our Public Lands Tour – a caravan to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, starting from Santa Barbara, California with stops in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Illinois. An invention of the creative minds of Julie Maldonado of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network LIKEN, and Becca Claassen of Food and Water Watch, this was an opportunity to travel together with twenty Indigenous activists of all ages from youth to elders and diverse tribal affiliations for intergenerational knowledge exchange, gathering testimonies along the way from members of communities adversely affected by fossil fuel extraction and the many other forms of blatant injustice that they still endure at the hands of the settler colonial process and global and U.S. corporate elites. There is much blood on those hands, and much complicity.
Becca Claassen and Julie Maldonado on the POPLA Tour
Our journey took place against the backdrop of a federal settlement with Navajo communities agreed in July that commits the U.S. government to clean up several dozen of the over 500 mines and other toxic sites – many of them uranium mining operations – on Navajo lands. It took place just after the Republican and just before the Democratic national conventions, and an increase in the number of Indigenous candidates for local and national political office in this election season (Indigenous Americans did not get the right to vote until 1924). And as Grist journalist Ben Adler, reports in a recent piece “Bernie and Hillary supporters come together to push for a Democratic climate caucus” a meeting of activists with climate policymakers from both the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democratic Party.
Rebecca Sobel, a climate activist from the Santa Fe-based group WildEarth Guardians, which focuses on wildlife and land conservation in the West, called for more grassroots pressure on President Obama over fossil fuel leasing on public land. “The Obama administration has leased more than 10 million acres of public land for fossil fuels,” Sobel noted. “The president could stop that with the stroke of a pen.”
Clinton has not embraced a ban on federal fossil fuel leasing, calling instead for a phaseout with no specified timeline. If fossil fuel leasing continues under a Clinton administration, the activists gathered in that room will be sure to push back, from inside and outside the party.
Rebecca stood with us a week earlier in front of the Santa Fe Bureau of Land Management offices as we delivered a number of documents and reports about the harms done to the land and its nearby inhabitants by those fossil fuel operations, while members of the group told their own stories of cancers, uranium poisoning, coal dust, and now fracking taking the lives of family members.
Protest at the Santa Fe BLM. Photo: Julie Maldonado.
One of the local activists, Angele Kunkowski of Earth Care, used the metaphor of a family living in a house using energy from one of these mines. “When we turn on a light, we’re actually poisoning the air, the water, the earth. Each and every one of us is being sacrificed for the narcissistic interests of these corporations.” Since we all live on Mother Earth, our very way of life is killing us and those we hold dear. And in a sense, this is true, at least until we make the transition beyond fossil fuels and nuclear power to clean, renewable energy.
Margaret Montano, an elder with Voices of the Sacred, told us how her father, a uranium miner, had died of thyroid and pancreatic cancers. She and two siblings lived downwind from the Nevada nuclear testing site; all three suffered from juvenile diabetes, a fact that her doctor, one of the best in the country, considers statistically impossible without taking this location into account. She called on the government to stop being complicit in its past dishonesty and deception in the poisoning of hers and future generations.
The activists demanded that the Bureau of Land Management place a moratorium on oil and gas extraction on public lands until a report is carried out on their effects, as has already been done for coal.
This was a primary demand of the Protect Our Public Land Tour as well, in support of the Protect Our Public Lands Act – a bill before the U.S. Congress that would stop all fracking on U.S. public lands.
The Word is Hope
On one long stretch of route I-40 in Texas, we passed more windmills than I have ever seen in my whole life. My eyes grew wider and wider as the miles passed by. I didn’t count them at first, but I know that we travelled a full twenty miles with a long row of tall windmills just off to our left, from somewhere before mile marker 25 to marker 43. In fact, they never really ended, they just veered away from the road till I couldn’t see them anymore.
This was more than inspiring to see, and gives the lie to the wealthy of the global north who fight the construction of solar and especially wind power in their backyards as an eyesore, so well captured in British filmmaker Franny Armstrong’s 2009 cautionary tale The Age of Stupid. But who owns these windmills? And who profits from them?
Hope lies not just in clean energy, but in community and cooperative forms of ownership, not the present monopolies enjoyed by the utility companies and the fossil fuel majors. This is a model already widely adopted in Germany, so far ahead of the United States in its Energiegewende (Energy Transition), and is being actively studies in a number of communities in California and across the U.S., including my home town of Santa Barbara.
Unnatural Injustice, Truth, and Heart in Shawnee and Ponca Oklahoma
Our next stop was at Lake Thunderbird, outside Norman, Oklahoma. Located in a pleasant green woods, the lake stretched out like a blue jewel under equally beautiful skies. The testimony we heard there, however, took some of the shine off this scene. Ashley McCray, a local historian and activist with the Absentee Shawnee tribe, told us how a primarily Indigenous community’s houses lay at the bottom of the lake, which the state created by damming the Little River in the early 1960s to create a water supply for Norman and other nearby communities, including Tinker Air Force base.
There is a seventy year-old pipeline under the lake, and a second is proposed. In laying the first of these, a Shawnee burial ground was dug up and their ancestors’ bodies placed in a mass grave. While we were learning this, the park service showed up to ask our group to pay a sum we didn’t have for the privilege of sitting at picnic tables under a pavilion roof so we didn’t expire from the heat, kicking us off sacred land yet again.
One of our hosts, Paulette Blanchard, also of the Absentee Shawnee, lives just a few hundred yards from the lake that buried the houses of members of her community decades ago. She spoke eloquently about this history and our purpose:
Since contact, our voices have been the target for silencing for the greed, consumption, and power of the colonial settler society. Time has come for us to be silent no more. This is an opportunity for our voices to not only be heard, but amplified to stop the environmental and human injustices related to fossil fuel energy, while joining with people across this land to become one voice against the violence to us and all our relations.
In White Eagle, north-central Oklahoma, we met with Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Tribe, whose ancestors had been moved en masse in the late nineteenth century, with only 537 surviving the journey. In a welcoming prayer, she told us:
We’re beyond that. We are nature’s children. The movement and the rhythm of the moon – that’s us. Despite the shaking of the earth by these pipelines, our umbilical cord is firmly attached to our Mother. What’s going to happen to the seventh generation?
Her son Mekasi Camp also spoke to us:
We – all of us – are on a spiritual journey. We are all fighting for our land, our air, our children…. And it’s a global movement.
We are experiencing environmental genocide. And our own city government – from them we are experiencing environmental racism. Because everything toxic is sited here, on the south side of town.
We can no longer drink the water from the springs, as I used to do when I was a child. Now we have to carry water with us when we go out into nature. Maybe my son’s son will be able to drink the water someday. It takes people like you to stand up to change this.
We have the highest rate of cancer in the state of Oklahoma. Yesterday, I found out that two of my relatives have cancer. There’s not a family on this reservation that hasn’t experienced cancer. We checked thirty wells with Earthworks, and every single one was leaking methane – Earthworks had found this to be the case in only one of every eight wells elsewhere.
Casey Camp-Horinek after meeting with the POPLA group. Photo: John Foran.
One of Ponca City’s Indigenous heroes was Standing Bear, who in a famous legal case, Standing Bear vs. Crook, had given a powerful testimony, resulting in the 1879 decision that for the first time Indigenous Americans were humans. His , words: “This hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”
Ironically, the city later built Standing Bear Park on top of a toxic area. Mekasi refers to it as “Contaminated Park,” just another instance of what we might call “casual” environmental racism.
Source for both pictures of Standing Bear: Wikipedia.
Before the Ponca were removed from Nebraska to just south of what would be called Ponca City, they sent eight chiefs to look at the land. When the chiefs refused it, they were left by the federal government to walk the 600 miles home, arriving with bloody feet.
Casey, whom I had seen speak eloquently in Paris at the International Tribunal of the Rights of Nature during the COP 21 UN climate summit, told us that Oklahoma now has 3,000 earthquakes a year, up from just three in all of 2008. The largest man-made earthquake ever happened here, at over 5.5 on the Richter scale.
Now, these earthquakes are shaking pipelines across the state that have been built since the 1920s at the start of the oil boom. In the local river, there were five fish kills in the past year. Oklahoma’s 10,000 injection wells, each using up to one million gallons of water laced with some 500 chemicals of unknown origin, are “a form of rape, of defilement. And violence done to the earth is done to women. The frackers are breaking the bones of Mother Earth.” Meanwhile other states from Arkansas to Pennsylvania send their fracking water to Oklahoma!
Phillips Conoco refinery in Ponca City. Photo: Julie Maldonado.
Mekasi pointed out that since cities are virtually powerless to ban fracking, it was up to the first nations to do so; if each of the thirty-nine tribes in Oklahoma followed the Ponca and the Pawnees and banned it on their territories they could save the state. A resolution is circulating to do just this. If successful, it could raise the average life span, which in certain communities is in the forties due to the extremely toxic environment that fossil fuels have crated all around them.
Oil well in farmer’s field, Oklahoma. Photo: Julie Maldonado.
Excavating History and Truth in Illinois
In Illinois, just outside the huge St. Louis arch, lies a wide park punctuated with a number of mounds, the highest of which rises over one hundred feet (St. Louis was once known as the city of mounds). Cahokia was an Indigenous city of 10-20,000 people that thrived a thousand years ago in this place near the Mississippi River. In 1100 A.D., when the population of London stood at 10-20,000 or in 1200 when the population of Rome was 20,000, the knowledge and culture of this people supported a city of equal size. Yet practically no one knows about it, rendering it yet another story of human accomplishment – like so many others – that has been silenced by the histories we tell ourselves.
Monks Mound in summer. The concrete staircase follows the approximate course of the ancient wooden stairs. Caption and source: Wikipedia.
An 1887 illustration of Monks Mound showing it with fanciful proportions. Caption and source: Wikipedia.
Many hours later, we arrived at our destination, a community center in Philadelphia, which would be our base for a weekend at the Clean Energy Summit and the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, against the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention that took place in Philadelphia for four days at the end of July. But those are the subjects of other stories.
This is a story of the power of Indigenous voices – of youth, women, elders – rising, and challenging and changing the discourses and practices of the climate justice movement on Turtle Island/North America.