One of the key concerns in much of WEA’s work is around the continued presence of environmental racism and environmental violence in Indigenous communities around the world, and how that presence impacts women in particular. We see this appear in many ways: the siting of hazardous waste facilities, American corporations’ sale and exportation of poisonous pesticides otherwise banned in the U.S., mining and exploitation on Indigenous lands, and much more.
To illustrate this point, here’s an infographic specifically highlighting the impact of hazardous and toxic waste facilities, and abandoned or working mines in racially, ethnically and socially underrepresented communities in the United States.
In an effort to tap into domestic oil supplies between the United States and Canada, the construction of a massive pipeline to transport the oil from the tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico has been underway since 2005. But brave opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline—led by Indigenous groups and leaders, environmental and social justice organizations, and community activists—has grown with increased public awareness about the environmental and social impacts it poses.
In recent weeks, and after years of organized resistance, prolonged reports, and court rulings, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that its final decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline has been delayed indefinitely by the State Department. This announcement came in the midst of the Reject and Protect rally in Washington DC, and signified a new opportunity for continued and amplified resistance to dirty oil.
The rally and accompanying encampment, which ran from Earth Day, April 22nd, through Sunday, April 27th, was the result of a fierce and historic partnership between tribal communities, ranchers, and farmers from Nebraska, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota living in the pipelines direct path who came together to form the Cowboy Indian Alliance. Their unified mission is to reject the pipeline and protect the sanctity and well-being of their health, livelihoods and traditional lands. Among the thousands of allies, supporters and demonstrators who stood in solidarity with the Cowboy Indian Alliance was their own Dallas Goldtooth, representatives from the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Yankton Sioux Nation, Honor the Earth, Bold Nebraska, musician Niel Young and actress/activist Daryl Hannah, and many more.
Reject and Protect kicked off with the establishment of the encampment at the National Mall. Over 24 ranchers and tribal members from the Cowboy Indian Alliance rode on horseback from the Capitol to the encampment to signify the official start of the five-day event. Members of the alliance helped to construct a hand painted tipi as a gift to President Obama, which was presented to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Saturday, April 26th. The tipi’s adornment of blue and green lines, trees, horses, stars and fingerprints were representations of the sacred connection between people and their environment, and the Cowboy Indian Alliance’s hopes for protected land and clean water.
Each day of the encampment was initiated with a Traditional Water Ceremony in the morning to highlight the threat the Keystone XL poses to our waters, and consisted of various forms of action against the pipeline. This included meetings with environmental leaders and the White House, where members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance were able to voice their concerns about the pipeline and the use of tar sands; a projection of comments against the pipeline across the Environmental Protection Agencies offices; a protest at the Lincoln Memorial meant to demonstrate the injustice tribal community members and ranchers face when speaking up for themselves and the earth, while corporations such as TransCanada are able to operate with little accountability for their environmentally destructive practices; and an interfaith prayer ceremony which was brought to Secretary of State John Kerry’s front yard.
The closing ceremony at the White House on the encampment’s final day allowed all of those involved with the resistance to the Keystone XL to be heard. The ceremony signified the end of one chapter of strong and unified resistance against the pipeline, as well as the opportunity to increase resistance and our alliances in the coming weeks and months.
Reject and Protect truly was a call to action and a chance to begin building even stronger partnerships to protect communities and the earth as we move forward toward a future that respects our communities and our joint responsibility to care for and safeguard our planet.
WEA is humbled and inspired by the work that was done in Washington DC, and offers our heartfelt thanks and support to those involved.
“Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.”
— Article 29, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The physical health and cultural well-being of Indigenous communities are threatened by increasing environmental degradation. Negative ecological impacts from extractive industries, energy plants or refineries, and the contamination of hazardous waste on Indigenous lands compromises the survival of Indigenous communities both globally and locally. Indigenous communities are in an ongoing fight to restore their ecosystems to meet their present needs, but they are also challenged with ensuring the integral parts of the environment remain intact for future generations.
The continued degradation of each component of our ecosystem has serious implications for the species and cultures that inhabit them. Of these impacted components, water—which for many Indigenous cultures in inextricably linked to subsistence, spiritual practices, and traditions—has become increasingly threatened by prevailing long-term issues and the emergence of new ones. Along with long-standing water related issues like contamination, Indigenous communities are also faced with increased threats to water supplies from climate change. This is especially true in California, where the third year of drought has created a state of emergency. The effects of the drought combined with California’s attempts to follow the national push towards energy independence through increased fracking poses an even greater threat to the vitality of Indigenous lifeways and the ecosystems we all depend on.
Mercury Contamination in California
“Indigenous women are life givers, life sustainers and culture holders. Our bodies are sacred places that must be protected, honored and kept free of harmful contaminants in order for the new generations of our Nations to be born strong and healthy.” — Declaration for the Health, Life and Defense of Our Lands, Rights and Future Generations, Report of the International Indigenous Women’s Environmental and Reproductive Health Symposium, 2010.
For California Indigenous communities, the fight to protect the quality and supply of water has been a very real threat for centuries, particularly due to the regions history of mining and gold extraction. Sediments and other hazardous materials like methylmercury have contaminated land and aquatic habitats and have had adverse health effects that vary based on the age and level of exposure an individual has. This exposure can cause damage to both the nervous and immune systems, with the worst case scenario being death.
Indigenous communities have experienced the impacts of mercury poisoning first hand, with deaths among older generations who had been chronically exposed without their knowledge. Unfortunately, the threats of contamination are still present, especially for future generations. For pregnant women, mercury can cause irreversible damage to unborn children, inhibiting normal brain development, and in more severe cases causing developmental and mental birth defects. For Indigenous communities in which fish is a traditional food source and whose cultures cannot be separated from this critical relationship, the tragic choice becomes one between health and identity.
These issues of water contamination in California are also not isolated, with high levels of mercury found in waterways such as: Lake Berryessa, Clear Lake, New Almaden and New Idria, the American, Bear, Feather and Yuba Rivers, and the San Francisco Bay. The international and regional response by authorities to the contamination issues California tribes such as the Pomo, Maidu, Yurok, Karuk and Winnemem Wintu face has been minimal in comparison to the scale of the problem.
Indeed, while EPA clean ups have been more frequent since the 1990’s and advisory warnings about fish contamination have been issued, this has done little to address the fact that tribes are unable to exercise their traditional fishing treaty rights—and the threat of further pollution is ongoing. To this end, in 2005, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) filed an international complaint against the United States asserting that the contamination Indigenous communities faced was a human rights violation. In the complaint, the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) provided testimony which stated:
“The proposed UMR [the EPA’s Utility Mercury Reduction] rule fails to protect and preserve federal treaty trust resources, such as hunting and fishing rights, which are considered integral to many tribes continued existence…Instead, EPA instructs these groups—and particularly children and women of childbearing age—to reduce or eliminate fish from their diets in order to ‘avoid’ the risks of mercury contamination. Thus, rather than take steps to reduce meaningfully the sources of these risks, EPA shifts the burden to those who are exposed and asks them to protect themselves.”
While these and other efforts are critical and ongoing, some communities fear that the response—if any— will be too slow to address the severity of the issue. California’s Indigenous tribes are at an extremely high risk for ongoing contamination, with some estimates stating that the current rate of clean up will leave the land and water contaminated for the next 10,000 years. Despite the slow progress of the State and Federal governments, organizations like IITC and the California Indian Environmental Alliance, alongside a network of Indigenous and environmental groups, have helped communities fight for the right to information about contamination, and to expedite the process to have their ecosystems and traditional ways of life protected.
Climate Change and Drought in the West
For Indigenous communities, the fear of losing traditional ways of life connected with water is further exacerbated by another devastating issue. The third year of drought in California has forced Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. As a result of water resource allocation focused on supplying both Southern California’s reservoirs and the water needed for the State’s massive agricultural industry, much of the limited water supply in Northern California’s reservoirs has already been drained.
For tribes in Northern and Central California, this means that traditional species of fish like steelhead and chinook salmon will no longer be protected as their habitats shrink to meet the demands of the rest of the state’s water needs. Indeed, proposed solutions to meet the state’s water demands include constructing large underground pipes to transport water from the top of the state to the bottom. The Winnemem Wintu have been some of the strongest voices opposing this plan because it threatens the survival of salmon and other native fish populations that many in California—Native and non-Native alike—rely on.
Don’t Frack California
Indigenous communities often face more than one threat at a time to their ecosystems and cultural survival. Instead, we see the threats to traditional ways of life coming from multiple directions at once. Thus, along with efforts to reduce contamination and water supplies, tribes must also resist the forces of extractive industries, which leave ecosystems traumatized. Some of the most recent national and local resistance against extractive industries has focused on hydraulic fracturing, the high pressure blasting of water and chemicals in the earth in order to produce gas and oil—commonly known as fracking.
Not only does fracking contribute to water, air and land pollution, as well as climate change, but the human health hazards are equally frightening, with chemicals used in the blasting being linked to birth defects, and even infertility. In California, though resistance is gaining in strength, the mainstream debate as to whether or not to continue fracking is still underway.
In recent months, the Don’t Frack California campaign has gained significant momentum, with over 4,000 people—including Indigenous community members, environmental advocates, and concerned citizens—expressing their opposition to fracking in Sacramento on March 15th. As a result of the efforts leading up to this rally, in February a moratorium (SB 1132) was introduced to prevent continual and future extractive industries like fracking from operating in the state. California’s resistance to fracking is only part of a national resistance movement that is supported by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates and activists alike.
Women’s Earth Alliance encourages all our friends to be good allies: learn more about these critical issues California Indigenous peoples face and do your part to support efforts to end the destruction of their traditional lands, waters, and ways of life.
“[Tar sands oil] is not a future issue, it’s causing the land to be inhospitable, both on the reservations and for the surrounding area… There’s no way we’re going to change the surrounding area once it’s destroyed.” — Naomi Oderman, Media Liaison with Indian People’s Action (source)
There are many equally important facets of the Keystone XL and tar sands opposition in which communities are waging non-violent direction actions. These include Honor the Earth’s Ride for Mother Earth, last year’s cross-movement #ForwardOnClimate Rally in Washington DC, and the petition’s campaigns urging the public to seize their final opportunity and submit comments to the Secretary of State on the Keystone XL pipeline. One such action is currently taking place in Missoula, Montana, where an Indigenous organization is leading the charge by literally stopping chaos and environmental destruction in its tracks.
Indian People’s Action (IPA) is an Indigenous-led organization aiming to build the voice and power of Montana’s urban Indians. To do this, they rely on strength in numbers, and organize direct actions to achieve systematic change to improve the health and lives of their Indigenous membership. In early December 2013, IPA’s Director Michaelynn Hawk (Crow) and other citizen groups learned that the Oregon-based company Omega Morgan intended to haul several megaloads—trucks typically the size of, or slightly longer than, a football field—of tar sands mining equipment through Missoula on their way to Alberta, Canada in January 2014. Immediately, and not for the first time, the groups began organizing. IPA, which had brought Moccasins On the Ground—a non-violent direct action to movement to protest sacred lands and waters from environmental abuses—to Montana for a 3 day training in August 2013, became a driving force behind the push to stop the transports.
The reason behind IPA’s determination to do their part to stop these hauls is that, simply put, megaloads present a mega problem for our future. According to the Tar Sands Solution Network, “If we extract all the know tar sands oil the Earth’s temperature will substantially, leading to complete climate catastrophe. [Additionally,] development also pollutes the land, air, and water with dangerous levels of toxic chemicals in northern Alberta and along leak-prone pipeline routes that carry this highly corrosive cargo through communities and waterways across North America.” Those communities, including First Nations communities in Canada, are having their rights infringed, their health and well-being jeopardized, and the lands and waters they have relied on for traditional food sources destroyed.
“We are also acting [on] behalf of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the First Nations communities in Alberta who have been affected most directly and severely from the contamination of their water, air, and wild natural food sources, although we also expressed that all life on Earth is being deeply affected and endangered by this filthy and completely unnecessary business.”—George Price, Police Liaison with Indian People’s Action
The protests took place in the late night and early morning hours of January 22-24. In total, three megaloads drove through the Missoula route. On January 22, the first load was greeted by 40 protesters, most of which were IPA members. “It was our intention to enter Reserve street together in front of the megaloads and halt the movement of this tar sands-bound equipment however long we could by leading ourselves and our non-Indian allies in a traditional round dance, which is a form of prayer and a symbol of unity, in the middle of the street, while carrying our signs with words describing our opposition…” wrote IPA’s Police Liaison George Price in his editorial comment to the Missoula Independent. The round dance, as well as the arrest of an elder ally, delayed the trucks passage. A second, smaller megaload quickly passed through the city on the following evening at speeds too fast to allow for safe and responsible blockades.
IPA and allied groups like Blue Skies Campaign, Northern Rockies Rising Tide, Spokane Rising Tide, and Wild Idaho Rising Tide held a second, larger action on January 24, where Indigenous members numbered roughly 60 of the 70 protesters. During this action, IPA led a round dance that stopped the megaload transport for 12 minutes. This was then followed by a speech by IPA member Charles Walking Child (Anishnabe), which caused further delays. Finally, three elder women allies held up the load by sitting in the stree and refusing to be moved. One was arrested, the two cited.
Each of these tactics—distributing press releases to the media, holding signs, handing out informational leaflets, holding a round dance, giving speeches, the arrests and the citations—played a critical role in delaying the transport, thereby increasing the cost to the company hauling the loads. They also served as a way to increase public awareness of the megaloads and tar sands in general. These direct actions provided an opportunity for IPA and allied groups to focus public attention on climate change and the destructive practices of the extractive industries, while making it clear that Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike would stand alongside one another to stop fossil fuel projects where they could.
“During this whole experience…many, mostly young, Native American people, learned much about the issues facing out planet and became first time public activists for the Earth, and they will be back again, in greater numbers, as long as all life on Earth cries out against this most grave injustice, corruption, and destruction. That was our primary success in these actions…” George Price, Police Liaison with Indian People’s Action
Indian People’s Action continues to keep an eye on and prepare for any future megaloads which plan to travel through Missoula en route to Alberta. We at Women’s Earth Alliance encourage our friends and partners to learn as much as you can on this critical issue, including more about the many Indigenous communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere currently standing on the frontlines of megaload protests, and then go forward and share that information with your friends and partners.
The above article was reviewed by and posted with the permission of Indian People’s Action. The Women’s Earth Alliance Advocacy Network has allied with Indian People’s Action to facilitate advocacy support around their efforts to oppose tar sands oil.
By: Kahea Pacheco (Advocacy Network Coordinator) and Sophie Sparksworthy (WEA Intern)
“[We recognize] that the tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada is one of the largest remaining deposits of unconventional oil in the world, containing approximately 2 trillion barrels, and there are plans for a massive expansion of development that would ultimately destroy an area larger than the state of Florida[.]”
The expansion of crude oil pipelines carrying Alberta tar sands from Canada to the United States is arguably one of the largest environmental concerns in North America in recent years. The human and ecological damage these developments–as well as our populations continued dependency on fossil fuels–will cause is no longer something that can be ignored. For years now, Indigenous advocates, activists, and local community leaders have fought on the frontlines of campaigns to stop these pipelines, and while efforts around the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline have thankfully garnered much-needed attention and public interest, it is only one of the highly destructive pipeline proposals Indigenous communities currently face.
“[We recognize] that tar sand development has devastating impacts to Mother Earth and her inhabitants and perpetuates the crippling addiction to oil of the United States and Canada[.]”
In Alberta, Minnesota and Wisconsin, communities and tribes are also facing the proposed expansion of Enbridge Energy’s Alberta Clipper and Sandpiper pipelines. The Alberta Clipper expansion will run 1,000 miles from Alberta, Canada, across Minnesota and into Superior, Wisconsin, and will increase the flow of crude oil from 450,000 to 570,000 barrels per day. An additional expansion is proposed to bring flow up to the pipeline capacity of 880,000 barrels per day. If the expansion is approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Minnesota, Enbridge will begin construction this year.
“[We are concerned] that Indigenous people are most vulnerable to the social, cultural, spiritual, and environmental impacts of climate change[.]”
One of the voices leading opposition against the Alberta Clipper and Sandpiper expansions is Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), Executive Director of Honor the Earth. Honor the Earth’s 2013 Ride for Mother Earth campaign was both a show of strong solidarity with the Lakota Nation as they fight the KXL which will cross into their territories, and opposition to tar sands and fracking imports into Minnesota, where lakes, rivers, wetlands and communities are already over burdened by high rates of toxicity and health issues because of hazardous chemical exposures from polluting industries like Big Oil. The ride–during which Anishinaabe, Lakota and Ponca riders traveled over 200 miles along the pipeline–aimed to bring attention to the Enbridge pipelines and the destruction they will cause if built, including the threat to women and children as a result of the influx of pipeline workers into the surrounding areas.
“Therefore, we are united on this Mother Earth Accord, which is effective immediately, that it be resolved as follows: We support and encourage a moratorium on tar sands development; We insist on full consultation under the principles of ‘free, prior and informed consent,’ from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples both in the United States and Canada[…]”
WEA encourages all our friends and allies to talk to your friends, family and colleagues, and share as much information as you can about all dirty oil pipelines–the Keystone XL, the Alberta Clipper, the Sandpiper, and others. For more information, and for ideas on how you can get involved and make your voice heard, visit Honor the Earth’s website. Public education is crucial; it will take our shared efforts to recognize the threats we face, and to find the solutions to protect our communities and planet from these destructive developments.