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.
The Ponca Trail of Tears and the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline are expected to intersect on the land of Mekasi Horinek in South Dakota, of the Lakota nation. Horinek has led an effort to bring back sacred and native plants and, in the process, combat poor health in tribal communities, and take a stand against the Keystone XL. In this way, Horinek, along with his sons, other tribal members and more than 60 volunteers hand planted more than 3.5 acres of corn on a stretch of land in Nebraska.
Together with the sacred red corn, the Alliance also planted Hopi sweet corn (white), and Ponka grey corn (blue) to symbolize the group’s independence and freedom.
In it’s recent report, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that “Indigenous communities in the Southwest are more vulnerable to climate change than ever before. 30% of the Navajo population not served by municipal systems like water will face even greater challenges with increased threats from: drought, higher temperatures and severe storms.”
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.