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Indigenous Economics Part 1: Native Americans and Environmental Protest

Thing About Skins: Indigenous Economics Part 1: Native Americans and Environmental Protest
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"We know our lands have now become more valuable. The white people think we do not know their value; but we know that the land is everlasting, and the few goods we receive for it are soon worn out and gone.”

Canassatego, circa 1740

“…your money is not as good as our land, is it? The wind will blow it away; the fire will burn it; water will rot it. Nothing will destroy our land.”

Crowfoot, Siksika, 1877

Indian Affairs Archives

Quick Story: I saw some images today of the direct action going on at the Sacred Stone Camp in Hunkpapa territory right now, where Native people are organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Powerful images, powerful movement. And although I was going to write about something else, Hunkpapa made me realize how long Native people have been organizing against these dirty energy projects—choosing to turn down huge sums of money—to protect the earth from folks who would tear up our homelands. Those photos made me realize that we’ve been doing this for a long time. From Northern Cheyenne to the Blackfeet Nation to Lummi to Standing Rock, so many of our folks simply will not take a few bucks in exchange for destroying our relationship with Earth. Please look at these images—pray for these warriors on the front line right now, in real time, in Hunkpapa territory. Send some thoughts, prayers and food. Share the images; it all helps. But there is a reasonable question of why do Native people keep on fighting against what the white folks call “progress” and “economic development?”

Why can’t Native people just take the money and run?

Photo Credit, LaDonna Allard

Sacred Stone Camp,

Why did I tell you that? When one thinks of a Native Americans relationship to the Earth, there may be an instant thought of the unattractive old Native man in the canoe who happens upon some trash and starts crying. That image—The Crying Indian”—was very common on television in the 1970s and 80s. The reality was that he wasn’t Native; Native people knew that, although many non-Natives did not. Native elders tend to age much better than he did. In reality, “Iron Eyes Cody” aka “The Crying Indian” aka Espera DeCorti was really an unattractive Sicilian-American actor who was acting as a Native person (and likely taking opportunities away from Native actors who could’ve done his job much better). 

Still, that image was powerful and as a result many Americans began to associate Native people and environmental protest together. Although the Crying Indian was fabricated, that association between Natives and the Earth is very logical and very real. The record is full of Native people, since the very first contact with Europeans, vocalizing and working against Europeans assaulting our homelands. There have been those, like Shepard Krech in his goofy book “The Ecological Indian,” who have tried to downplay that relationship between Native people and the Earth. Still, history and contemporary life shows that Krech and his ilk were simply trying to salve their guilt about white capitalism’s role in making this Earth uninhabitable. 

Crying Indian? Native people have protested destruction of the Earth WAYY before this character was on the scene. Ad Council environmental ad with Iron Eyes Cody

Native people have been doing this. Native people are the godparent of every single white person and organization protesting against environmental destruction in America; Crowfoot is your daddy; Canassatego is your granddaddy. In fact, if it weren’t for Native people’s sustained fight against unbridled, uncontained capitalism, the environment would be even more compromised here in the US. 

You’re welcome.

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And let’s be clear—that’s not some romantic notion that is rooted in antiquity. No, today in 2016, Native communities that many would consider to be poor opt NOT to take hush money in exchange for tearing up the land (there are some Native nations that do, by the way, choose capitalism over culture and life)! Many of the energy-rich Native nations have 60, 70, sometimes 80% unemployment and could desperately utilize those monies that exploiting their natural resources would bring them. Still, they choose to hold off. 

But why? Why do so many Native people and nations (certainly not all) opt to eschew material wealth and economic development? Fair question. 

Sure, the land is sacred. Sure, the Earth is where we come from. Sure we need clean water for our generation as well our kids. That’s obviously very important. But if one reads the entire story of Canassatego or Crowfoot’s negotiations with the Europeans, they’ll understand what Native people have known for a long time: Native people have a deep, deep understanding of economics. Money gets spent, loses value via inflation, and is worth at best the number printed on it. But land gets more value—it increases every single day. Therefore, the notion of trading one thing, money that has inherently limited value, for another thing that inherently produces more value is just bad economics. 

Our folks have always known that.

Of course, Native people made deals at the end of a gun where we didn’t have much choice. And also of course, there have been Native people who haven’t understood this relationship and economic principles and therefore made bad deals to exploit their resources for some quick money. It happens. But the fact is that Native people, through prophecy and good economic sense, foresaw the short-term gains with extremely long-term consequences that come from treating Earth as just another commodity to be traded and exploited. And so history shows that we always protested, spoke out against, gave up life and limb and worked against those sort of dysfunctional and destructive relationships.

It’s in our blood. 

So if there’s ever any question about why it’s crucial that Native people continue to work against this wanton and gratuitous exploitation of Earth, that’s your reason: it’s not politics. It’s what we have always done. Because of our spirituality. Because of our children. Because of the future. Because we understand economics better than you.

Pick your reason. They’re all good.

To donate to the food and water supply for the warriors on the frontline of the Sacred Stone Camp fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline, go here.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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