A recent Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) conference in South Dakota provided ample evidence of the need to explore new directions to counter the environmental and cultural decline facing indigenous people.
The Protecting Mother Earth Gathering has been held annually at locations throughout North America since 1990. This year the four-day encampment, hosted by the Rosebud Lakota nation, convened on the edge of the sacred Black Hills. The meadow campground -- once Lakota homeland -- had to be rented before these local people could again feel their sacred earth beneath their feet.
I attended as a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin while interning with ReclaimDemocracy.org, a nonprofit organization working to restore citizen authority over corporations and revoke illegitimate corporate power. Plenary and breakout sessions addressed issues native communities continue to face: extraction of water, minerals, gas and other resources; pollution; and other environmental justice issues. A sense of urgency and personal pain prevailed as women and men from tribe after tribe related their communities’ battles against destruction of their land and culture.
For native people, “the environment” is not an external luxury. We recognize the earth is a living being, and within her resides survival of culture and life itself. Those who believe these connections can be replaced with a culture of mass consumption are adrift from reality. Yet we cannot separate ourselves from this culture, for we are inexorably tied to “mainstream society” both physically and through our moral responsibilities as human beings native to this soil.
Several speakers used the term “colonization.” They referred not merely to economic domination by non-tribal entities, but also to something more personal and equally damaging: the absorption of young minds into a corporate culture of consumption that lacks respect for the natural world. This use of the term reflects a vivid understanding of the insidious nature of corporate intrusion into all areas of life -- in Indian Country and throughout the world.
During a plenary session on globalization and “free trade,” I was struck with the perception that indigenous people of all lands have been fighting defensive battles since others came to our shores, prairies, and forests. For generations, tribes have faced threats whose immediacy has the effect of denying the space to devise long-term solutions.
The litany of outrages against Indian communities delivered by the speakers’ panel underlined my realization that those of us who struggle against the unrelenting and destructive forces of corporatization have been drawn into a shortsighted strategy of reacting to localized transgressions that fester everywhere. In doing so, we divide our limited time and money and disperse our considerable talents and energies.
During open discussion, I tried to convey the opportunity to seize the offensive by reshaping the structure of corporate power and not merely defending against their depredations. Corporations are not people -- they are creations of people that should not enjoy constitutional rights meant for citizens. I shared my belief that we can revoke the powers they so often abuse by educating ourselves on the history of corporations and then taking appropriate action at the local and state level, building momentum toward nationwide change.
I was encouraged by spontaneous applause for my remarks and the disappearance of all the ReclaimDemocracy.org brochures I’d left on an information table. Over the remainder of the conference several people took me aside to express their willingness to open this new front of engagement.
The most powerful tool in the hands of native people is our hard-won status in the United States and the worldwide community as sovereign nations. Meanwhile, environmental and progressive movements within “mainstream society” are subject to dismissal by the corporate-governmental establishment as “special interest groups.”
There lies a source of great potential strength in alliances between tribes, native non-profits like the Indigenous Environmental Network, and non-native equivalents such as ReclaimDemocracy.org. While our non-indigenous allies can bring their technological expertise and funding sources to bear on our common goals, tribal groups can contribute our political legitimacy, a vast experience of resistance, and a deeper level of understanding to the campaign.
Our Oneida nation has survived and even flourished by mindfully observing the dominant U.S. culture, then proactively using the knowledge gained for the benefit of all creation. All Americans might benefit from adopting a similar formula for action that centers on understanding corporations at the structural level and developing the strategies necessary to regain control of them.
Dave Wheelock (dwheelock @ admin.nmt.edu) coaches rugby at New Mexico Tech University in Socorro, NM. Please contact ReclaimDemocracy.org or the Indigenous Environmental Network to explore these ideas further.