This story appeared in the February 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
Just outside Winner, South Dakota, on sparsely populated land, sits a small camp made up of two Army tents and a few teepees, surrounded by 1,500-pound hay bales that protect against the prairie’s raging winter winds.
Above the camp fly flags from six Sioux Indian tribes. And down a nearby embankment is the camp’s sweat lodge. Though fragile and vulnerable to the elements, Spirit Camp is a revered spiritual fortress for these Sioux nations. Spirit Camp was raised for prayer, council fires, and ceremonies, but should a proposed Canadian oil pipeline get President Obama’s clearance to run through the Dakotas and down to Texas, Spirit Camp will become the headquarters of a people prepared to go to war.
“We buried medicine in that pipeline route,” says Gary Dorr, who is a Nez Perce native and one of Spirit Camp’s coordinators. “In February, we held a ceremony and a spirit leader said the camp is the embodiment of a prayer. Right now, we are a spiritual camp. But if construction of that pipeline does break ground we’ll become a blockade camp.”
From coal and uranium mining in the Southwest, nuclear waste dumping in southern Minnesota, an oil boom of hydraulic fracking in North Dakota, to what could become the world’s largest open pit iron mine on the southern shores of Lake Superior, Indian Country has been battling against more resource extraction threats and potential hazardous spills as a greed-driven globalized economy surges.
According to Patty Loew (Bad River Ojibwe), a professor of Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Native peoples have their own surge happening throughout Indian Country. They are pushing back. Loew, who is the author of Seventh Generation Earth Ethics: Native Voices of Wisconsin, says this rise in Native American environmental activism is rooted in a renewal of Native American traditions, values, and spirituality. She cites the “Wisconsin Walleye Wars” of the late 1980s, when Ojibwe tribes began invoking long-ignored treaty rights to regulate their own hunting and fishing separately from the state.
“I really think the fight over Ojibwe treaty rights was an environmental issue,” Loew says. “Native people went back and read the treaties. They began talking to grandmothers. They realized protecting the land was about becoming stewards of the land. It meant sharing in the management of land resources.”
Now, the plains and the Midwest have turned into a hotbed for resource extraction corporations.
“We have what the world wants in terms of natural resources,” says Loew. In western Wisconsin, that means the explosive growth of frack sand mines on Ho-Chunk land. “People, especially elders, are concerned about those small silicon particles that are linked to lung disease,” says Loew.
Another reason the plains and the Midwest have become a hotbed of resource extraction is weakened mining laws. Billionaire mining mogul Chris Cline got help from Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature to ram through a law that put his company, GTac, on a fast track to build the biggest low-grade taconite mine in the world in the Penokee Hills, right next to the Bad River Ojibwe reservation. Opponents of the mine say it would devastate the tribe’s watershed.
The best hope for stopping the mine may be a treaty between the tribe and the US government.
In an August 2013 letter to the White House, six Ojibwe bands of Wisconsin (Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, La Courte Oreilles, Red Cliff, Sokaogan Community of Mole Lake, and St. Croix) invoked their treaty rights, asking the President to take executive action and protect the Bad River Watershed from Wisconsin’s mining law.
“A lot of tribes are now asserting their sovereignty,” says Tara Houska (Ojibwe First Nation Koochiking in Ontario), who practices federal Indian law in Washington, DC. “They realize our treaties are based on one of our stronger forms of law.”
In August, the bands met with Susan Hedman, Region Five Director of the EPA, requesting that Hedman preemptively deny GTac any and all mining permits.
However, demanding the federal government honor Indian treaty rights often takes years, and that works in favor of multinationals, who have a financial advantage over impoverished tribes. At the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, in the heart of the oil boom, the tribe is raking in hundreds of millions in royalties from Halliburton’s hydraulic oil fracking. Though the tribe has its community detractors who argue the fracking will destroy their sacred land, for a once dirt-poor tribe, the flood of money trumps cultural and spiritual concerns.
“Whenever corporations put hard money on the table it’s hard to say no,” says Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environment Network, which began in 1990 as a worldwide grassroots movement to monitor and advocate for the protection of indigenous lands. “If you look at the Leech Lake (Minnesota) reservation, there was a lot of protest and demonstration regarding the first phase plan by Enbridge to lay down a pipeline through the reservation. But when Enbridge put $10 million down the tribe was bought out right away.”
The worst part, Goldtooth says, when tribes form alliances with corporations, is when there is no deal to build infrastructure to respond to potential spills. Take, for example, the million-gallon oil spill in Fort Berthold last July, and more recent briny wastewater leaks there that have polluted local streams.
“Look at Fort Berthold,” says Goldtooth. “They are rolling in the money, but at what price?”
In some cases, tribal casino money does help protect Indian lands. In 2003, after defeating a proposal to mine sixty million tons of copper, zinc and other metallic sulfides in northern Wisconsin, the Mole Lake Ojibwe and Fores County Potawatomi tribes spent over $16 million in casino profits to purchase the mine site, ending future attempts by other corporations to mine in the region.
And at the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation in southern Minnesota, where nuclear spent fuel rods have been stored in casks by Xcel Energy since the early 1990s, the tribe has called for an end to the storage. Casino profits have afforded the tribe the “luxury” to say no to Xcel. Like the six Ojibwe bands in Wisconsin, Prairie Island is calling on the federal government to set a date for removing the casks.
Only a handful of the five hundred federally recognized tribes have enough revenue-making power to take on the TransCanadas and Halliburtons.
The fight against what Gary Dorr calls “predatory economics” (offering $20- to $30-an-hour mining jobs, especially to Native American people who have no other job opportunities) goes beyond Indian Country. Dorr points to the coalition of white landowners and Native American activists known as the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, begun in 1978 to stop uranium mining in South Dakota and Wyoming.
“Local people didn’t want it. The tribes didn’t want it. Tribes and local cowboys realized they had a common goal so they formed a partnership,” Dorr says. “With this Keystone pipeline there is a renewed opposition—thousands of [us] against the pipeline.”
In a region where Indian/white relations are the most tenuous in the country, Dorr says the joint support has stirred more racial and cultural understanding. “One of the things that has come out of our meetings is that because of the invocation of eminent domain, white ranchers understand land loss. They have become the new Indians. Farmers are protectors of their land. Their farms are intergenerational, handed down. They understand when we talk about generations coming behind us. They now see it.”
When the US House of Representatives OK’d the Keystone Pipeline last November, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe passed a resolution that stated: “We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.”
Mark Anthony Rolo is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the former Washington, DC, bureau chief for Indian Country Today, a frequent contributor to The Progressive Media Project, and the author of My Mother is Now Earth. He can be reached at email@example.com.