It’s strange sometimes, when you start getting into activism; when you start unlearning the lies of a country founded on genocide and thievery. It suddenly turns the concept of activism into something very real, something that must be done not for special privileges but out of necessity, sometimes even for survival. As Winona LaDuke argues, “Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.” Learning about environmental issues that impact Indian reservations has made me even more wary of Indigenous/settler relations than ever before, solidifying my stance against exploitative settlers. It’s like the saying “Ignorance is bliss;” once your eyes have been opened and you learn the truth, a sense of panic sets in. There are countless incidents where corporations have set up their toxic workshops on Native land, usually without the consent of the tribe. These corporations promise the tribes jobs, while stripping the resources from the earth to gain profit. In doing so, they physically harm Indigenous people and wildlife living in the vicinity of these extraction sites, and sometimes sacred sites. According to artist Erin Marie Konsmo, “Healing is an important process for us as Indigenous communities. The violence that is happening on the land is directly connected to the violence happening on our bodies.” No truer words said.
To understand the complexity of the situation, we need to look at the relationship between colonialism development and Indigenous underdevelopment. Colonial and Indigenous ways of economic and land subsistence could not be more different. Indigenous ways of subsistence are mellow on the land; we would try to avoid over harvesting, and we only hunt what we need. Balance, because we know that tipping the scales of already delicate eco-systems can have grave consequences. Now in the colonial mindset, the land is seen as good for one thing: agricultural and economic growth, to the point of resource exploitation. The “environmentally destructive development programs,” as LaDuke refers to them, practiced by colonials end up poisoning the earth with all of its toxins, and these toxins inevitably poison Indigenous people living on reservations (the land). In this case, biology and chemistry intersect each other; the chemical toxic particles of say, copper mines, infiltrate the air and water systems on the rez, and those living in the area breathe the air and drink the water. The end result? Humans, animals, and entire ecosystems on the reservation develop irreversible biological consequences; disease and defects, infertility and population decline, and in many instances death.
Case study: In Canada, tribes downstream of the Serpent River face serious long-term impacts from the uranium mine at Elliot Lake. A study shows that “twice as many young adults (people under the ages of thirty-six) reported chronic disease at Serpent River than at two adjacent reserves,”(LaDuke). Pregnancies of those who lived at Serpent River, as well as children of male workers who worked at the mine, reported a high number of fetal death and birth defects. It is estimated that eighty times more radiation is in Native people living near the uranium mine than those living in the south. We cannot acknowledge this as a mere anecdote in the frame of colonialism; we must see it for what it really is, which is the health deteriorating of Native communities due to settler practices.
It doesn’t end there. Coal strip mining has been an issue for tribes, most notably the Northern Cheyenne. Since there is little rainfall to begin with, the strip-mining process exacerbates the problem, disrupting “groundwater systems, and contaminat[ing] a good portion of the groundwater”(LaDuke). In Grassy Narrows, Canada, there is mercury contamination due to a paper factory that used mercury and then “released it into the river to form toxic methyl mercury”(LaDuke). As a result, over 20,000 pounds of this harmful waste have been dumped into the river, and experts say it can take close to one hundred years for the ecosystem to correct itself. At the Nett Lake reservation in Minnesota, the Potlatch Timber Corporation releases pounds of unsafe formaldehyde into the atmosphere. These emissions pollute the environment as well as people that live near it with cancers and ocular damage. But wait, there’s more. James Bay, once a rich ecosystem, is now being disrupted by Hydro-Electric exploration with “four major rivers destroyed and five 735 KV power lines cut[ting] a swatch through the wilderness”(LaDuke). The amount of mercury in the reservoirs is also at an all-time high, and is contaminating human and animal life alike. As you can imagine, hunting and trapping areas have been desecrated, leaving Natives to abandon traditional subsistence ways.
See a pattern? All this is happening mainly in Indian Country. To me, it’s no accident. I see it as a modern day tactic to eradicate Native people, albeit in a surreptitious, sinister way. Why don’t large mining corporations start their sites in non-Native land? Is it because they know there are too many people living there that would disapprove, and many of them non-Native? Why is it that Natives’ concerns are illegitimate compared to that of non-Native citizens?
Settler ethnocentrism and racism allows settlers to see Indigenous people as less than, much of it having to do with the genocidal circumstances of our past. Natural resource corporations are essentially taking back the land that was “given” to Natives in an act of cultural, physical and clandestine genocide. A recent example would be the United States House passing the legislation that gave an international copper mining company sacred Apache land, Oak Flat. In my mind, I believe the U.S. government and certain corporations are cohorts, scratching the backs of each other with the same agenda: make money and eradicate the expendables by any means necessary. Guess who we are?
I know I probably sound like a crazy woman, even to the most fair-minded individuals, talking about present day genocide in the United States. But you have to really examine certain aspects of contemporary society in the U.S. to get a grasp of how ingrained this is. For example, a military term that holds settler values; the use of “Indian Country” to denote “behind enemy lines.” The term “Indian Country” is so legitimate, that it is included in military training manuals, among the likes of “collateral damage” or “ballistics”. This phrase once again exemplifies the power of words, “as well as the nature of U.S. political and social history as a colonialist power”(Dunbar-Ortiz,57).
Sick in the head can be explained in both literal and metaphorical interpretations, depending on whom we are talking about. We have the real physical sickness of Indigenous peoples’ bodies, brought on from exposure to deadly chemicals released from land exploitation. They manifest themselves in very real hospital bills, prescription medication, depression, funerary ceremonies. Then we have the sickness of the people who are in charge of these sinister operations; the corporations and nations in charge of planting these mines and pipelines thru the living rooms of Native people. Their sickness is greed, wealth, control, power, which no amount of pills can rid. Psychologists relate greed to narcissism, both of which “have their roots in profound self doubt,” (Michaelson). Narcissism is a disorder where people have such a high sense of self-importance, that they have a constant need for admiration and attention from others. They often lack empathy for other people, since they believe they are the only ones deserving of anything in the first place. Greed is not too far away from narcissism. Instead of demanding more attention, greed demands more material. Narcissism “involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, and power motives”(Pyschology Today) which are all aspects fundamental to greed, most notably selfishness. Now let me posit this: if one is selfish, they lack consideration of others’ feelings, which is another way of saying they lack empathy. Therefore, if narcissism is a mental health disorder, greed is its equally problematic twin, making it a legitimate disorder as well. Greed as a mental sickness is what drives power-hungry corporations and nations to disregard not only the sacredness of Native land, but the invaluable health of Native lives.
One of the hardest parts of talking about Indigenous environmental problems is finding solutions to them. Given the hostile history between Natives and settlers, it can seem daunting. But maybe we are over-complicating the solution. What about viewing the resolution process in the same framework our ancestors had been doing for centuries?
That is, going back to the community for answers. The community itself, in fact, is key to defeating settler imperialism and corporate greed. When I say community, I mean Indigenous people and their allies from all areas physically coming together to occupy land of proposed mines, factories, and otherwise toxic compounds, in order to show how many of us oppose unscrupulous corporations. Furthermore, we must maintain warrior practices that have been integral to many of our communities, but adjust their roles to fit the issues we face today. Warriors in our community come in many different forms; the legal practitioners who have studied laws implemented for U.S. tribes, and who write the new doctrines that assert our sovereignty; the grassroots movements which start small in communities, eventually growing, whom protest and protect ancestral land for hours and sometimes days; and the artists and activists of social media, arguably one of the fastest-growing components of Warrior culture, who are able to spread the word of Indigenous people online through art, petitions and projects, and other forms of media. Mostly, it is strength in numbers. Indigenous people and their allies need to oppose corporate establishments on Indigenous land in droves, be it through physical means or abstract, in order to send the message that we are still here, and we are still fighting for the rights to our sacred land, and the right to live healthy lives on it.
Camaray Davalos, Pecháng’awish, is an activist, student, and aspiring cultural revivalist from Southern California. Her website, Showusyourtemper.com, explores philosophy, the human psyche, and culture through personal narratives.