A red-tailed hawk circled, clouds parted, and sunshine broke through early-morning fog along the San Francisco Bay, the rays illuminating an altar where a bucket of sacred water from the Northeast part of the bay sat upon a traditional Native blanket, a hand-drum resting against the bucket.
Circling the altar were 450 participants who prayed, sang and offered words of support. They included members of Idle No More SF Bay and its Los Angeles counterpart, as well as allies, supporters, environmentalists and concerned Bay Area citizens. Then, on foot, they traced the 12 miles from the Conoco Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, California to the Chevron refinery in the neighboring Bay Area city of Richmond. Thus began the latest in a series of healing walks along the oil-refinery corridor of northeastern San Francisco Bay.
"As you walk, know that your ancestors are walking with you, supporting you with each step you take,” said Idle No More co-founder Nina Wilson, Nakota and Plains Cree from Kahkewistahaw, Treaty 4 Territory in Southeast Saskatchewan, who walked along with her daughter, granddaughter, son and son-in-law. “We are all supporting one another as we heal ourselves, our communities, and our Mother Earth.”
Photo: Charles A. Lopez Sr.
The walkers wended their way through the streets of several communities.
Wilson had brought water from Canada to unify with the water in the San Francisco Bay bucket, as well.
"We are walking to bring attention to the high rates of cancer, autoimmune diseases, risks to our water supplies that these potentially explosive trains will bring into our communities," said Pennie Opal Plant (Yaqui, Choctaw, Cherokee descent), who launched the initiative last year along with Alison Ehara-Brown (Iroquois).
Plant noted that the refineries are extremely close to homes, schools, parks and churches.
"Clean air, clean water, clean soil, and safe jobs are what we need,” she said. “We are walking for a just transition to a future that is healthy, with sustainable systems that protect the rights of Mother Earth to be restored to a natural, clean state, because that is what will support a healthy future for our children, and non-human relatives.”
The walks began in early 2014, when the women, part of the Idle No More SF Bay movement, decided to organize a series of healing walks along the refinery corridor. They joined with activists, community members and supporters living along the corridor to create the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition (BARCC).
Together the groups coordinated a series of four walks to draw attention to the many health risks and dangers their communities face from the crude being shipped by rail from the Alberta oil sands in Canada and the Bakken oil fields in the U.S., to be refined in the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area. Refineries along the route include the Wes Pac Terminal in Pittsburg; Tesoro and Shell oil in Martinez; Valero in Benecia; Conoco Phillips 66 in Rodeo, and Chevron refinery in Richmond.
Wilson brought strong words of support from up north.
"This pipeline and fracking for the Bakken oil is another form of economic violence for our Native people,” Wilson said. “Here in the SF Bay area, these refineries are located in poorer communities, and in communities of color. It is the same old form of colonialism that has been occurring for centuries.”
Her words were prescient in light of the massive emulsion spill that would take place just a few days later in Alberta.
Tribes across the Pacific Northwest are opposing the increase in rail transport of oil, especially the extra-flammable crude from the Bakken oil fields in North and South Dakota.
Photo: Charles A. Lopez Sr.
The walkers crossed rail lines, some of which will be used to transport highly flammable Bakken crude.
Wilson drew parallels between what is happening in the Bakken oil fields to what is happening in the Alberta oil sands in Canada, especially regarding Native women’s susceptibility to human trafficking, and the rise of crime in general.
"In our indigenous territories in Canada, hotels are being built for the men who work on the oil rigs. Housing and rents have increased two to three times what they were,” Wilson said. “The same thing is happening on reservation land here in the U.S., in North and South Dakota, and in other states. They are even proposing a ‘man camp’ in our territory, much like the ones now on reservation land here in the States.”
The increase in crime that this brings has been well documented.
“We know what this means for our young women," Wilson said. “Man camps and trafficking of Native American young women has become a problem on many reservations where the pipeline has already begun.”
Photo: Charles A. Lopez, Sr.
Participants created artwork envisioning a sustainable future, to be sewn into a quilt.
Nanette Deetz, Dakota/Cherokee, is a journalist, poet, and educator. She writes for Native News Online, Alameda Journal (San Jose Mercury News), and her poetry is published in several anthologies. When not writing she tutors for the Department of Rehabilitation, California.