Historic conference asserts Indigenous peoples’ rights as a climate change solution.
This piece was published first in EcoWatch and syndicated on Salon.com
*Co-written with Jade Begay
Even as the Trump administration rolls back regulations meant to protect Americans from pollution, the EPA recently released a report that finds that people of color are much more likely to breathe toxic air than their white counterparts. The study’s basic findings—that non-whites bear a higher burden in terms of pollution that leads to a range of poor health outcomes—is supported by other similar studies, and underpins the issue of environmental injustice that impacts many politically marginalized communities.
It’s these communities that are hardest hit by the climate crisis––even though they are the least responsible for causing it. In addition, these communities, by design, are most imperiled by environmentally devastating extractive industries like coal mining, tar sands, fracked gas, and more. Let’s be clear: Climate change isn’t just a scientific issue—it’s an issue of racial inequity, economic inequity and cultural genocide.
Indigenous peoples around the world are quickly becoming the generation that can no longer swim in their own waters, fish in their rivers, hunt their traditional foods or pick their traditional medicines. The climate isn’t just changing the landscape—it’s hurting the culture, sovereignty, health, economies and lifeways of Indigenous peoples around the world. Yet despite the immense impacts climate change and fossil fuel industries have on Indigenous cultures and ways of life, Indigenous communities are tremendously resilient.
This was strikingly clear at the 17th Protecting Mother Earth conference, where tribal leadership and environmental activists called for a unified front to help find solutions. Hosted by the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Indigenous Climate Action, the conference provided a space for hundreds to come together to share lessons, celebrate victories, and build stronger alliances to defend and protect land, water, the climate, and Indigenous rights.
“We Native people will always be here, standing up to protect the land and water,” said Nisqually Tribal Councilman Hanford McCloud during the conference’s opening ceremony. “We will always be the voice of those on the frontlines who continue to fight against the violation of Indigenous treaty rights, self-determination, environmental justice, and climate change.”
It’s essential to note that Indigenous vulnerability and resilience to climate change cannot be detached from the context of colonialism, which created both the economic conditions for climate change and the social conditions that continue to limit the capacity for Indigenous resistance and resilience. Both historically and in the present, climate change itself is thoroughly tied to colonial practices. Greenhouse gas production over the last two centuries hinged on the dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources.
Since the fracking industry began on Casey Camp-Horinek’s reservation in Ponca, Oklahoma, tribal members have experienced a spike in cancer. She says that since fracking began there, her small community averages a death per week. The water wells on her reservation are now too toxic to drink. “They need to understand that what they call resources, we call life sources. We all know that water is life. The years of fish kills related to the fracking and injection wells amount to environmental genocide.”
Eriel Deranger, Executive Director of Indigenous Climate Action, expressed during a press conference that the U.S. and Canada, by further investing in dirty energy projects that infringe on Indigenous rights of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (like Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners’ Bayou Bridge pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, and TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, to name a few) are making decisions and policies that move society further away from a climate-stable future. “They aren’t adhering to international climate commitments,” said Deranger, who is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “This is an indication that we the people, Indigenous peoples, must be prepared to take real action on climate change and be the leaders for the protection of Mother Earth.”
The conference was held in an especially significant location: Frank’s Landing, named after the late Billy Frank Jr., who led the historical stronghold where the Nisqually Tribe stood up in non-violent direct action during the 1960s and ’70s to defend their way of life and their inherent treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather. The Fish Wars stand today as one of the most important civil rights moments for Indigenous rights in the Pacific Northwest. “We watched our elders get beat up right here. Hauled off,” said Don McCloud Jr., father of Hanford, and the oldest son of Don McCloud Sr., a central leader of the Fish Wars. “We suffered many things. But we’re not here to complain. The struggle still goes on. The battle is still here. We might have won one fight, but we’re here continuing the fight for Mother Earth.”
The event, which ran from June 28 through July 1, included plenary sessions with key speakers and break-out sessions addressing themes ranging from Just Transition, Climate Justice, Environmental Health, Rights of Mother Earth and more. One particular session, which featured a delegation from Alaska, demonstrated just how dramatic an impact climate change is having on the landscape and traditional lifeways.
Adrienne Blatchford, a member of the Inupiaq Tribe living in Unalakleet, Alaska, said:
“The cost of development is the land. And that right there is so profound to me, because no amount of oil money can pay to relocate our villages or subsidize any kind of living in the way that we have done since time immemorial, it can’t compensate for that. Indigenous people are connected to the food and to the land. Without it we get sick. It’s genetic. It’s something we have to have to provide for ourselves through the land. There is a spiritual connection that we have to these animals and what it provides.”
According to Blatchford and her team at Native Movement, climate change is drastically changing the landscape, which translates to major disruptions of deeply rooted cultural traditions. There are fewer moose, beavers and salmon, which are traditional sources of food. In the fall and winter, due to starvation, wolves began to attack dogs and people. The rapidly melting permafrost is causing trees to fall down, and fewer trees mean less shade, which causes more melting. Even flowers that are supposed to be pink and blue are now turning up white. Blatchford’s colleague Misty Nickoli, a member of the Denaá and Tsimshian tribes, adds that “those details are important because it’s everything. From our land to animals to our weather to our water. When all those things are upset, the people, our health, gets out of balance and we get sick too. And when we don’t have our food to take in as our medicine, we stay sick and we get sicker.”
Indigenous communities around the world have struggled to maintain their cultural identity and cultural practices through initial and ongoing periods of colonialism, genocide and forced assimilation. A USDA report, “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: A Synthesis of Current Impacts and Experiences,” notes that “this history has provided many indigenous communities with valuable adaptation experience to inform climate-change adaptation, resilience and resistance.”
Once such instance is the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which first formed in 2001 to address issues of water depletion, natural resource exploitation and public health within Navajo and Hopi communities. “Our emphasis is on healing and decolonization––as individuals, communities and as our culture,” said Jihan Gearon, a member of the Diné nation and Executive Director of Black Mesa Water Coalition, during a plenary presentation. “How can we transition our economy to reflect those things? We have a term ‘Just Transition.’ We know the situation we’re in right now is bad, and we know where we want to go. Culture revitalization. Healthy communities, lands and water. Just Transition means how do we get from A to B.”
Even the seemingly groundbreaking Paris Agreement neither includes human rights in its text nor acknowledges Indigenous rights—even though lands and waters stewarded by Indigenous communities make up 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. What we need is for climate policy and the overall climate movement to address problems of inequality, because climate change is just as much a social issue as it is an environmental issue.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. And who is going to lead us into that world? Sadly, we cannot count on the Trump administration. We also can’t look to so-called climate heroes such as California’s Governor Jerry Brown, whose climate policy leans on the market-based carbon trading systems, which are widely criticized as false solutions that further exploit Indigenous lands and peoples.
From Standing Rock to the pipeline fights happening across the U.S. and Canada, Indigenous peoples are leading the resistance to extreme fossil fuels. We all need to stand with them and call for grassroots solutions that center Indigenous traditional knowledge. Our next opportunity to do this is in September during the Global Climate Action Summit, where grassroots groups from across the nation and world will host a week of action to counter the false solutions being celebrated there.
Indigenous activists are using solar-powered tiny houses to block the proposed path of the oil pipeline across Secwepemcul'ecw territory. Could this become the 'Standing Rock of the North'?
*Originally appeared in ColorLines.
“We thought we’d only spend a few days at Standing Rock. Instead we were there for months,” recalls Kanahus Manuel of the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia. “That’s the story of thousands of Indigenous peoples who touched down there at Oceti Sakowin camp. I know the same thing is going to happen here.”
The “here” Manuel is speaking of is the Tiny House Warriors Resistance camp in what is now known as Victoria, Canada. The 10 homes, which Kanahus says were inspired by the camps at Standing Rock, will be strategically placed to block Kinder Morgan Canada’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (The Canadian company is a unit of the eponymous Houston-based corporation.)
If the Trans Mountain expansion, which the Secwepemcul’ecw Assembly calls the “Standing Rock of the North,” succeeds, it would nearly triple the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of crude tar sands oil per day. Canada’s liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, approved the expansion last November without the “free prior and informed consent” of the Secwepemc Nation, which the United Nations includes as part of its international human rights standards.
Similar to the Standing Rock Siouxs’ opposition to Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access pipeline in South Dakota, the leadership of the Secwepemc Nation argues that the Trans Mountain expansion is unauthorized. “We the Secwepemc have never provided and will never provide our collective consent to Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Project,” the Secwepemcul’ecw Assembly declares on its website. “In fact, we hereby explicitly and irrevocably refuse its passage through our territory.”
The volunteer-built Tiny House Warriors Resistance homes are on wheels for easy transport to positions along the pipeline route, according to Living Big in a Tiny House. The site also reports that each structure will contain cooking facilities, bunk beds and a wood-burning stove. They will be “totally off the grid” and solar powered, with composting toilets outside.
“We need to put our boots on the ground. That’s the only way we’re going to get change,” says Manuel. “When we put our bodies right in the direct path, that’s saying something very loud and clear to the investors and insurance companies that will eventually finance or insure these pipelines if we don’t stand up and show the direct risk that’s involved. What we’re showing when we are building these tiny houses is that we have the authority as Secwepemc to live where we want on our homelands and we can put them wherever.”
Activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo is one of several volunteers who recently installed solar panels on seven of the 10 tiny homes. Laboucan-Massimo, who is Lubicon Cree, grew up in the shadows of Canada’s Alberta tar sands, the third largest oil reserve in the world according to Alberta Energy. The lush boreal forests she once explored are now the site of wildfires. The pristine rivers in which she and her family drank from* a child are now contaminated with a toxic slurry of carcinogenic chemicals. The moose her family and her ancestors hunted for food now carry tumors that make them unsafe to eat.
“We’re at a point in history where we need to transition from our dependency on fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy and real tangible climate solutions,” she says. “Instead of talking about what the solutions are, this project is actually implementing them.”
Laboucan-Massimo says that people in Alberta are “economic hostages” of an oil industry that portrays its projects as the sole driver of job creation and a sound economy. Beyond being a tool for resistance, camp leader Manuel sees the tiny houses as an inexpensive model for housing in her community amid rising rates of homelessness.
“We have a big housing crisis in our nation right now because of displacement of our territory and the stripping of us from our land and [our ability] to benefit from the economic wealth of our territory,” says Manuel. “We need to be able to provide for our nation and this is something that’s not only a way to resist, but also a creative solution for us to solve our own problems that are impacting our nation.”
According to Manuel, 62 percent of Indigenous people in the area live outside the reserve, and that displacement contributes to a growing disconnection from Secwepemclanguage and culture. “People are forced to live in cities where they are paying high rents and struggling to survive. It just entrenches them further into the system, and that’s not what we want,” she says. “We have a right to self determination and that includes being able to build our own homes on our land and harvesting materials to build our own homes on our land.”
The tiny house movement is growing around the world as people are looking for options with a smaller carbon footprint. Laboucan-Massimo notes that Indigenous peoples have always had conservation-friendly net zero housing. For her, the Tiny House Warriors Resistance camp is an inspiration to transition back to that living style.
Manuel, who envisions sustainable villages made up of tiny homes with small-scale farming and language revitalization programming, calls the camp a matter of hope.
“We hope to bring back our culture that was so forcibly taken from us by the residential schools, the Canadian government and overall impacts of colonization and corporations’ destruction on our territories,” she says. “So with these tiny houses, there’s hope. There’s hope that we are going to lift ourselves out of oppression and economic poverty. It’s when we get onto our territory that our people, especially our young people, are going to wake up and connect to that land and defend that land.”