Standing Rock, Moahdak Do’ag, and the Pervasiveness of Cultural Warfare

American History classes leave out so much of indigenous history.  It’s not because curricula are reinforcing the idea that these nations are sovereign and therefore separate; it’s because it perpetuates this notion that indigenous peoples exist only in a historical context.  It also is a means of downplaying the genocide crimes this country is responsible for and invalidating non-Western cultures and traditional knowledge.

The Indian Affairs office was created under the U.S. Department of War in 1824, the same year Mexico claimed the southwest “American” territories from Spain.  In 1849, a year after the United States took claim of these territories from Mexico, Indian Affairs was transferred to the Department of the Interior.  The mentality that “Indian” cultures are a threat, however, did not die as the federal government chose to assume a position of warden to its newly inducted wards, the tribal peoples.  This mentality would continue – and does continue to this day – to play out in policies and court decisions that promote assimilation and normalize cultural genocide.

When the events at Standing Rock began to intensify this past summer, more and more “outsiders” became aware of Reservations, tribal voices, and the Federal government’s imposition on indigenous rights.  More or less, they began to wake up to a reality that has dominated the lives and histories of so many American citizens.  Militarized police began occupying the lands around the #NoDAPL camps, using unprovoked violence, intimidation techniques, and actual war supplies to advance the agenda of a corporation that had violated laws protecting cultural resources.  This may have shocked many, but for others it wasn’t the same surprise: the military occupation of our tribal lands started centuries ago.  This was simply a manifestation of that occupation that hadn’t been seen in a physical sense until, perhaps, Wounded Knee in 1973.

Sadly, not everyone who participated at the resistance at Standing Rock served the community in its best interests.  While the movement largely began over the violations of land rights and clean water rights – sovereign titles held by binding, international treaties – a great number of people showed up in droves to advance their own climate justice agendas.  They showed up to fight pipelines and fossil fuels rather than to defend the graves that were torn apart and the waters from which the people are said to have been born.  These people wanted to use Standing Rock as an advertisement for how these poor, victimized, nature-loving Native Americans were actually doing something about a pipeline – and now how can we do the same thing at home?

The proof that 99% of Standing Rock’s outside guests were not in the movement for the right reasons comes with their absence at the dozens of ongoing atrocities on tribal lands.  Many of these are not pipeline conflicts, and therefore they do not fit into their climate agendas.  Instead, small groups are left to fight for the same sorts of assaults on their cultural resources and communities’ health.  They are risking everything – far more than others even have to risk.

This is because brown people all over the country are arrested, incarcerated, and often killed by police violence at disproportionate rates.  In indigenous communities, so many of our people fall far below the Western-defined line for what is poverty.  The Federal government has forced such a rapid transition of lifestyle, economy, and political structure on Reservations, adding layers of red tape that cripple development and extraction projects that spew pollution and radiation, often unchecked, into these sacrifice zones.  These people live among unreclaimed mine tailings.  Surely not all, but many, have underlying health issues that expound all of stresses.  And, finally, these battles are typically all-or-nothing attempts to block irreversible cultural and spiritual damage to their very identities.  White allies might be able to afford child care, pay their bills, and take time off of work.  They don’t have to fear police brutality, and they have the resources to bail themselves out of jail.  But the people most impacted by these projects are risking far more than that, if not their lives and their ways of life.

True solidarity will never exist unless non-indigenous communities can agree to organize and support indigenous peoples on the basis of ethics, not on the basis of belief.  For example, with Moahdak Do’ag (South Mountain), Arizona Department of Transportation is threatening the local O’otham communities of Phoenix by irreversibly damaging a sacred mountain as part of a new highway project.  The underlying problems are identical to those at Standing Rock, but because it’s not a pipeline we don’t have droves of supporters lining up like we did in North Dakota.  It simply doesn’t fit into people’s climate agenda – at least not in a direct way that they can comprehend.  However, true solidarity in this project doesn’t come from a shared belief that this mountain is sacred and that its protection is necessary for life to continue as it has; instead, it comes from the ethical realization that no violation of human rights is acceptable, and that indigenous rights are included in human rights.

Just like at Standing Rock, the US Army Corps of Engineers is considering water permits.  The Gila River Indian Community has been in the forefront of voices in opposition of such a project.  After speaking at the public hearing in Laveen, Arizona on May 9th, I submitted the following comment by the 19th to demand the denial of this permit:

I would like to support all of the findings of the Gila River Indian Community’s demand that these permits be denied. My response here is surely not complete; however, I will highlight some points I find relevant to why this project cannot be permitted.

The Army Corps is meant to evaluate the legitimacy of a permit application based on a number of factors. The underlying goal is to protect and utilize important resources. As the South Mountain and corresponding water flows are at the central part of these resource considerations, and as they are central to the survival of an entire nation of people (Gila River Indian Community) and equally important to their relatives (other O’othams), that is a central piece to why this project – and the permits – should never move forward.

This permit must be denied as this project clearly violates many rights, including human rights. Construction should never have begun as dispute is ongoing. The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), a sovereign nation impacted in what appears to be a very biased manner, is currently in the 9th Circuit to shut the project down. The Army Corps claims to not permit projects in an ongoing dispute, therefore it cannot permit the project for many reasons if not for the simple reason that it’s disputed. Furthermore, the O’otham sovereign nations, which include GRIC, have every intention maintain their position, to never consent but rather to dispute this project as a means of protecting their religious freedom and longevity in this area. It is their absolute right – and obligation – to do so, in order to protect their existence and freedoms.

No substantial information demonstrates the need for this project. Any economic development it claims to support is exclusionary. By creating a bypass past GRIC, its western casino is no longer easily accessible. This directly impacts the income of the community. There appears to be bias in the ingresses and egresses designed and how they serve tribal people. Furthermore, the tribal lands, atmosphere, and cultural ways and resources are all being sacrificed to the benefit of the outside, fledgling community. There is outrage with the realization that this extension is part of a larger trading scheme – the CANAMEX Corridor – that will perpetuate pollution in the vicinity and which will detriment before support the indigenous desert farming peoples. Even the non-tribal residents north of Pecos Road have published pieces in local papers denouncing this absurd intrusion on their health, environment, and seclusion. You have very vocal opposition from both sides of the most disputed segment of the design, the Central piece.

This central segment has no alternatives, and the only alternative offered will irreversibly desecrate a sacred mountain. Were that mountain Mecca, you would not be able to assault the Muslim community by permitting such a project to desecrate their spiritual and cultural resources. This issue is synonymous with the effects of desecrating Moahdak Do’ag to the O’otham minority. The difference is you, as a federal agency, have a clearly defined trust responsibility with sovereign Indian nations. This means you are required to serve the best interest of the community, which they have clearly expressed is denying this permit. In fact, the numerous Arizona tribal nations have united in recent years, vetted against this project.

If you so value public comment, let’s also take a moment to acknowledge how everyone that attended your remote public hearing opposed this project. Tribal members cited United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a means of describing how this project will violate their human rights. The US Army Corps needs to be fluent in this doctrine as it is essential for functioning as defined by legal obligation to indigenous citizens. In the public hearing on May 9th, 2017, even non-tribal members echoed the concerns of the local tribal members. This non-indigenous audience largely defended their natural recreational areas and right to a healthy environment. Perhaps instead of promoting road traffic through this area, we should be investing in a more extensive transportation system that will actually help combat emissions and build a sense of community. Speakers at the meeting, from all communities, pointed out the US Army Corps’ failure record thus far in abiding to the law of trust relationship with tribes. If you add yourself to these failures, you can expect a number of groups to counter your decision in the courts.

Additionally, sandy, silty lands this dry will not absorb discharge, posing flood risks and blownout infrastructure. The US Geological Surveys surveys published and available online clearly define the soil types of this area and the dependency on the Reservation to their pristine, undisturbed state. Discharge from highways always contain chemical changes, a water quality issue. You cannot permit these waters to wash off a new highway and drain into tribal farm lands. StreamStats shows the majority of drainages come from the mountain and flow naturally into the Reservation; thus the majority of water quality issues will directly affect the tribe. The local community barely survived a famine not 100 years before; promoting similar risks is little if nothing short of genocide. The surveys also clearly detail how seeding needs to be specific to saline-tolerant plants; how seeding should be well-maintained in order to prevent severe erosion (which requires a lot of watering and aftercare); and how not adding amendments to the soil will discharge toxins due to the chemical composition of soil that has been disturbed in this particular soil type and region. How has that been evaluated? It has not.

And finally, consider how water quality is not merely a chemical measurement. In a Westernized mind, perhaps it is. But religion is not always so clear cut, and it is not legal to make a ruling discrediting one’s religious views; rather UNDRIP requires that different paradigms are honored. These people have clearly described to you their views about the spirituality of their water, its sacredness, and its memory. Refusing to acknowledge their spiritual beliefs as to how this will desecrate and destroy the South Mountain discharges and other cultural resources is to say you don’t validate their religion. Many federal laws prohibit such violations.

With this information in mind, I would like to address the three regulatory program goals.

1) To provide strong protection of the nation’s aquatic environment: I have mentioned how this will impact water quality, from both a Western and non-Western perspective. Therefore it is your duty to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

2) To ensure the Corps provides the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions: The public has been clear in its opposition, and not hearing the majority voice – or honoring the minority, sovereign community disproportionately affected by this project – is not providing the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions. Therefore it is your duty to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

3) To enhance the efficiency of the Corps’ administration of its regulatory program: To this day, the Army Corps has a poor track record in proper tribal consultation, consent, and meeting conduction. There it is your duty to work on improving these systems and to deny the permit and stay true to your goals.

For these reasons and many more, it is clear you cannot issue this permit legally. Deny it immediately, and work with the indigenous communities on how you can both operate together in a better, more respectful way than before – through genuine consultation, the honoring of alternative worldviews, and cultural sensitivity such as the way in which you conduct meetings and hear tribal members’ requests.

As you can see, the assault on cultural resources is perpetuated by every unwelcome infrastructure project on or near tribal lands.  #NoLoop202, just like #NoDAPL, demonstrates how the Federal government utilizes the US Army Corps to refuse sovereign rights and to occupy arenas that should promote cultural protection.  From pipelines to dams, from power plants and the abrupt closure of power plants and their jobs, this is cultural warfare, and it is pervasive in Indian Country.

My question is: Will 2017 finally be the year that Americans support indigenous peoples rather than appropriate them and what their stereotypical notions are of them?