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?

Stand With Standing Rock – Not On It

Originally published on the SustainUs Blog here: http://sustainus.org/2016/10/stand-with-standing-rock-not-on-it/

The sun was hot, and the pavement on Highway 1806 was even hotter. The guests at Sacred Stone Camp had just finished a communal lunch. They began falling into line behind the same banners that had led this march every day, a march up the highway to pray for the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction to halt. Just behind the banners, a cluster of Havasupai men and women gathered in rhythmic songs in their native tongue. The men sweated in colorful ribbon shirts, beating handheld drums. The women swayed to the beat in their tiered skirts and beaded shawls. For a half an hour, they sang like this, only briefly stopping when one of the women collapsed to the pavement in the heat. Today was their time to spiritually lead the protectors at Standing Rock. These Havasupai had come clear from the southwestern deserts for this purpose. No heat spell would deter them, and certainly no oil company was going to threaten a group of faraway strangers who had been subjected to the same governmental policies and historical trauma.
When I protested alongside Standing Rock and other allies on September 3rd, the vision was clear: peacefully protect. The camp never exacerbated hate. Even as Lakota churches (prayer rings, burials, and cairns) were being destroyed by the pipeline company, the front lines offered up their forgiveness for the workers’ ignorance. Each day centered around prayer and song, of renewing our connection. Daily ceremony is something I have become accustomed to on the Navajo Nation, where medicine men can be seen leaving their hogans to greet the sunrise with corn pollen. This kind of ceremony is a practice used to maintain balance that I find separates the indigenous from the spiritually landless who have lost their indigenous roots.
The #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock is a powerful one because of the prayer that maintains its focus and the cultural diversity that is revered. These are important qualities that are quickly lost in predominantly non-indigenous circles. Since the beginning of contact, certain language has been used to degrade and dehumanize indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. Outdated stereotypes constitute the majority of indigenous representation in mainstream media. Expensive football tickets are sold in the country’s capital for a team named after a racial slur. Attitudes that justify calling an indigenous woman “squaw” contribute to the highest rates of rape in a single race. Indigenous people also have the highest rates of youth suicide and police violence per capita, and all of these statistics can be attributed to stereotypes and misrepresentation. Why is this important to #NoDAPL? This misrepresentation leads to media censorship and the appropriation of the movement.

Media Censorship
If we think about censorship and #NoDAPL, we might picture corporate censorship that protects the energy company from a negative light. This type of censorship has undoubtedly occurred in mainstream media, highlighting one paradox that plagues tribal nations: that an energy company can have a more sovereign representation in the media than an actual sovereign entity. While Energy Transfer receives journalistic immunity, Standing Rock is subject to slanderous quotes by the authoritative voice of a Sheriff who was not present and of white community members who view the protest as an inconvenience to their privileged lives. The LA Times published elements of Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier’s formal statement regarding the event in which he states, “Any suggestion that today’s event was a peaceful protest, is false…Individuals crossed onto private property and accosted private security officers with wooden posts and flag poles”. (Kirchmeier was not present at the site, therefore he reported information given by Energy Transfer personnel.) The New York Times quoted one resident asking, “You get 2,000, 3,000 Natives together – is it safe?”. It’s unbelievable that such a quotation was published. (You also get several thousand non-Native people gathered at sports games. Is that safe?) It reflects the mentality of the community around Standing Rock.
However, I would argue that the censorship of indigenous peoples runs much deeper than this kind of surface censorship. There is also censorship through the representation of both the movement and Standing Rock as a nation. How many articles have been published that take quotes strictly from Sherif Kirchmeier or Energy Transfer employees? The media’s decision to rarely interview the hundreds of tribal national presidents and leaders who have voyaged to Cannon Ball demonstrates either the media doesn’t believe – or doesn’t believe their readers believe – that these indigenous peoples are as important as non-indigenous representatives of a corporation or local law enforcement. Instead, it takes celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Leonardo DiCaprio to capture America’s respect for #NoDAPL. Woodley represented the cause early, joining the Standing Rock youth on their run to Washington, D.C. In July, she posted an Instagram picture from the Capitol with the text, “The youth of the Standing Rock Reservation ran 1,800 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to protect their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline that will be built on their reservations.” She then included a link to the #NoDAPL petition in her bio.
An additional concern is how mainstream representation of the Dakota Access Pipeline dispute fails to capture the spirit of the movement. This is not some battle cry for Mother Earth or even some radical environmental statement. This movement is centered around sovereignty. Just like our natural resources, if our sovereignty is compromised then so is everything else in our lives. What is on the line? Our freedom of expression, of religion, of access to culture. The media censors the #NoDAPL movement by failing to elaborate on this core issue. This absence of representation instead perpetuates the ignorance many non-indigenous communities have around the political status and alleged freedom of tribal nations, and how many hundreds of them exist in America alone.
Finally, just as language can be used to dehumanize a group of people through racially-charged vocabulary, it can also be used to make one race of people’s culture seem inferior, pushing it to the fringe of society. As Simon Moya-Smith points out, BuzzFeed’s use of quotations around the destruction of Lakota “sacred sites” insinuates a religious inferiority. Would we publish that terrorists bombed a Catholic “church”? It’s the same story, just a different race.

Appropriating #NoDAPL
While mainstream media seems vetted against properly representing Standing Rock and its efforts, thousands of non-indigenous people have gathered in Cannon Ball and at marches in cities to stand in solidarity with the tribe. Less than a week after Energy Transfer’s hired security guards attacked unarmed people and intentionally destroyed sites protected by NAGPRA to advance their motives, our SustainUS delegation held its retreat at Canticle Farms in Oakland, California. The day I arrived to Oakland, San Francisco held its solidarity march for Standing Rock. I joined the march and learned something I hadn’t realized before: Movements – and not just culture – can be appropriated, and the consequences are uncannily destructive.
It was uplifting to see so many people gathered in support of a cause hundreds of miles away; however, it was discouraging to see stereotypes, generalizations, cultural appropriation, and misrepresentation within the movement itself. Non-natives were smudging, beating drums, and seemingly trying to imitate the prayer at Standing Rock. Just like the generalizing comments I read on article links, folks would say things that imply all Natives are peace-loving and earth-worshipping. This generalization is not accurate, and it buries the environmental issues we have in our tribal communities such as dumping and limited access to recycling services under a race-based stereotype.
Furthermore, as the protesters gathered on September 8th in downtown San Francisco to draw attention to the movement, they took what the movement stood for and appropriated it. Instead of calling for the defense of Lakota sovereignty, protesters were suddenly blocking entire intersections, screaming up at the CitiBank building, and accusing the San Francisco Police Department of defending the bank’s entrance. This caused a huge divide in protesters as Native citizens cried: “This is a peaceful demonstration of solidarity. This does not embody the sentiments at Sacred Stone Camp. Stop making this about you!”

It is so crucial to remember the #NoDAPL fight is to protect tribal sovereignty, not to protest anything else. It’s this sovereignty that is undermined by Native mascots, media censorship, and non-tribal entities’ use of eminent domain on treaty lands. For a country that has supposedly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in the last year, the United State’s complacency towards Energy Transfer’s blatant disrespect for tribal sovereignty should be more alarming than ever. Chariman David Arcahmbault II has recently taken this issue to the United Nations to receive international support. Now it’s our delegation’s turn to make sure #NoDAPL is properly represented in person, spirit, and media as we bring this issue of tribal sovereignty and corporate power to COP22.

International Independence… and the One Great Thing about Taxes and American Sports

As Americans, our sovereignty is at stake.  We have come to interpret “freedom” as meaning “inherited right to anything and everything I want”.  One common train of thought seems to be: “If they have it, then I want it too because you can’t tell me I’m not entitled to it.”

Between these mindsets and our constant need to push each other down and come out on top, we are ruthlessly taking advantage of cheap foreign labor and superfluous fine imports.  We fail to recall the novelty in our scant American-made products, thereby refusing to invest in and support the services of our own brothers.  Meanwhile, we continue to race our imports around the world and across our draught-impacted expanses, devouring energy sources we don’t have and undermining our own global independence.

America might be balanced on its high-horse now, but one little upset and what’s going to keep it standing on its own two feet?  What has become of our fighting spirit, of our national pride?  Have we forgotten the centuries of struggle that granted us these now abused freedoms?  Will it take an outside threat on our freedom to remind us that, despite its being a misnomer, freedom doesn’t come for free?

According to Economy in Crisis, the purchase of consumer goods in the US constitutes 70% of its economic growth.  That same 70% translates to 30% of global spending.  Yes, that means 5% of the world population (the US) contributes to 21% of the global spending through our consumer good purchases alone!  Here is a breakdown from Tax Foundation (http://www.mymoneyblog.com/the-average-americans-spending-breakdown.html) of American major spending from 2006:

32% of our spending goes to taxes.  These taxes, federal or not, contribute to the expenses of running our country, like paying for our infrastructure, our school systems, and our financial programs.  Feel confident in at least knowing that 1/3 of your expenses are going directly towards keeping the dialysis machine of the US running.  Then there is your 14% for health and medical care, which is applied to you, your benefactors, and the companies that make your insurance possible.  So that’s not too bad.

How about that transportation?  You’re spending an average of 8% of your income going places.  In the old days, those expenses came down to what it cost to buy a horse, to feed that horse, and to feed the people who took care of the horse and maybe even built that wagon for you.  Nowadays, we are importing foreign-assembled cars or cars with foreign parts, supporting foreign engineering and cheap labor, then burning fuels we dragged across the polluted open seas.  Our infrastructure might have been paid for by the government with our taxes, but what about the American companies contracted to complete the job?  Are all of those steel piles made of American steel?  What about that bulldozer?  Is it American-made?  The parts?  The fuel to run it?  Hmm.

That is exactly how to view the 17% of your income which goes to housing: importing trees and metals to complete the task of building new homes, importing fuels to run appliances, oh – and buying foreign appliances,… 4% on clothing and accessories which are most likely made in Bangladesh or some other country that you couldn’t even find on a map if you were asked, but whose residents are forced to accept meager wages because that’s what it takes to keep up the exporting demands in those poor countries, the exporting demands that you support by purchasing these “slave labor” items.

Then there is the 8% for food.  But we don’t exactly maintain our own rice paddies in the US.  We do, however, have extensive coastlines and yet our seafood imports are outrageous.  In fact, here is one breakdown from the FDA:

It’s funny, they always tell us how the three things needed for survival are Water, Food, and Shelter.  Water, we’ve got plenty of it.  That probably goes in to the smallest fraction of housing spending, less than 1% or the 17% that is dedicated to Shelter as a whole.  So, in other words… our Three Things Needed to Survive comprise of 25% of our total spending.  (I wonder, did they factor in beer?)

That leaves us with 11% for “All Other Days”… What is that, vacation?  Savings?  (I’ll admit, that one is a bit ambiguous, but I didn’t make this chart.)  And, finally, my last point: 6% for recreation.  Things you do for fun.  Hobbies and activities.  Even if your karate teacher came from Korea, he is now American.  One great thing about this category is it most likely consists of an American or mostly-American pastime.  American films seen at theatres with American workers, American amusement parks and nature reservations run by more Americans (and even government positions),… and how about sports?  Truly American sports would be basketball, baseball, and football.  I mean, in terms of modern times, how American can you get?  Amen to that 8%.

So the next time you feel like being American and protecting our global independence and overall sovereignty, go to a baseball game, grab yourself a Yuengling, and take solace in the fact that UnderArmor is made in the USA (although your fan shirt may not be).

An interesting article about non-American US Olympic uniforms: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-capitol-hill-joins-criticism-of-made-in-china-us-olympic-uniforms-20120712,0,1586224.story