Two years ago, I took course titled “First Peoples of North America.” It was taught Tuesday nights, from six to ten PM- and since it was the winter we often arrived in darkness. The classroom seemed to be an oasis in a large, mostly empty campus.
The teacher was Mark, soft-spoken white guy who grew up in the same sleepy California suburb that I did. However, a unusual conflict during his stint at Humboldt State led to an interest in indigenous people and their rights. In the late 70s, Northern California natives were pitted against federal authorities over fishing rights in the Klamath River- a conflict sometimes referred to as the “Salmon War.”
From this article:
“Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.
In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.”
The conflict took thirty years to finally resolve (improve the salmon run by removing dams on the river), and as the above quote shows, the federal agents used an amount of force that I would call inappropriate.
Mark returned to the Bay and met a large contingent of Lakota that had settled in San Jose- including several leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His story is full of interesting events- helping build and maintain a native-run college called D-Q University, being inducted as an honorary Lakota and communing in a sweat lodge, running across the state to raise money for D-Q and stumbling into a farm worker’s camp run by César Chávez. His history was colorful and his storytelling ability unmatched.
A point he made early on, and reiterated throughout the course, was that this course was not simply a history course. Indigenous inhabitants of North America did not disappear and leave their artifacts behind. They are still here, their story is not finished. It continues.
Thus, a new era is born.
The problems facing indigenous communities still exist, and new ones are created as the energy market in Canada becomes more reliant on mines and pipelines that are slated to go through native treaty lands. The original Facebook page for Idle No More was created in reaction to Canadian Bill C-45, one of two large budget bills that amend key bills protecting treaty lands. The Navigation Protection and Environmental Assessment Acts are amended in a way to allow pipelines and high value projects to skip much of the environmental review, and increase the influence of the federal government in treaty lands. Combined with the earlier Bill C-38, much environmental monitoring and enforcement are losing funding, and fisheries could be more open to pollution thanks to a new classification scheme.
The reaction to the bill has created a strong response, and movement by indigenous people:
“For First Nations people, the bill represents the culmination of hundreds of years of colonial attacks on indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty that is fundamentally tied to the use of treaty lands. But the Idle No More movement is quickly reaching out to form alliances with what are predominantly white settler environmental groups and labor unions across Canada as changes sought by the omnibus bill seek to whittle down the environmental assessment processes for major energy projects across the country.” source
Social media has helped spread the message and movement to the United States (in regions such as the Pacific Northwest), where many tribes have similar problems with natural resources, environmental degradation, and keeping hold of treaty lands. It has led to some groups blockading highways and border crossings, indian dancing flashmobs, and a high profile hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence. As with all direct action, there has been dissent in both indigenous communities and larger Canadian society.
I mention all of this because the plight of indigenous people- First Nation, Native American, and all other labels- is our plight as well. Large companies are not just polluting and seizing native land. They are not just railroading legislation against native communities. Their high-pollution pipelines and extraction projects affect not only humankind, but those not yet born.
Native peoples live in the most gut-wrenching poverty, cut off from jobs and social services. Their despair leads to incredibly high rates of substance abuse and suicide. Pine Ridge Reservation has been in desperate need of heating oil for several winters in a row, as they cannot afford the prices given, or the infrastructure is not working.
It is not a call to pity the indigenous communities- rather it is a call to recognize our commonality. Economic inequality, environmental degradation, and social and community division are all familiar no matter where you come from. With low rates of political participation and activism, perhaps all of us should look to be idle no more.