This year Seattle and Minneapolis proclaimed the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day. They are the latest U.S. cities to join the trend that began in Berkeley in 1992 to supplant Columbus Day with a formal recognition of the people who have survived over five centuries of genocide, war, dislocation, discrimination, and social exclusion in the nations that were subsequently developed in the Americas.
Multinational corporations have replaced kingdoms, empires and the Catholic Church as the prime agents of devastation and wealth extraction, but the exploitative dynamic remains fundamentally the same 522 years after Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor in the Caribbean.
Today, indigenous people remain on the front lines of resistance against the plunder of land and water by the global elite.
Indigenous people in Canada and the United States have been pushed onto an ever smaller and more marginal land base.
Now even those places that were once considered marginal—like northern Alberta and western North Dakota—are threatened by multinational corporations’ ravenous appetite for profits from fossil fuels and industrial minerals.
Economist and activist Winona LaDuke calls it “extreme extraction.” At a recent event in Wausau, Wisconsin, she said, “Everything that was easy to extract has already been taken.”
LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, has been raising awareness of mining in the Lake Superior basin, tar sands oil extraction and hydraulic fracturing through her organization Honor the Earth.
“This highly destructive economy has reached material limits, and is now resorting to extreme extraction,” said LaDuke. “Whether the removal of 500 mountain tops in Appalachia (largely for foreign coal contracts), extreme mining proposals in the Great Lakes region, to fracking and tar sands extraction, we are clearly on a scorched path.”
That scorched path has left behind “national sacrifice zones,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy engineers working on the decommissioning of nuclear facilities in 1988. These include thousands of abandoned uranium mines on tribal lands in the southwest and in the Northern Great Plains that continue to pollute air and water, creating an ongoing public health hazard in those communities.
Oglala Grandmother Charmaine White Face, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills, is part of a grassroots effort to pressure the U.S. government to clean up the mines. Calling it a “national travesty,” White Face explained last April when the Clean Up the Mines campaign launched, “Currently no laws require clean up of these dangerous abandoned uranium mines.” She added, “We will employ a variety of tactics to hold the government and corporations accountable for their negligence. She stressed the need for “community-based actions to raise awareness and clean up the mines.”
Aboriginal grandmothers in British Columbia are also leading a direct action campaign against Imperial Metals after the Mt. Polley Mine disaster last summer. More than 14 million cubic meters of toxic sludge and mining tailings spilled into the Fraser River watershed when the walls of a tailings pond from a copper and gold mine burst on August 4. The watershed contains a quarter of the region’s sockeye salmon, and is a major source of drinking water in the area.
The disaster has devastated the Secwepemc people, who rely on the fish and water for survival. Soon after the disaster, Secwepemc elders and their allies set up the Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp near the entrance to the Mt. Polley Mine to monitor the ongoing fallout from the disaster and whatever clean up efforts materialize.
On September 29, Tahltan elders lit a sacred fire and set up a blockade on the road to another Imperial Metals project, the Red Chris mine. They will defend the action in court today as Imperial Metals applies for a permanent injunction against their blockade. The elders, organized as the Klabona Keepers, allies of the Secwepemc in British Columbia, emerged victorious after the B.C. Supreme Court refused to give Imperial Metals an enforcement order to kick them off the land.
Those who went to court reported this on Facebook:
“As the court adjourned for the day, those of us in the gallery chanted, ‘Clean up your mess! Clean up your mess! Clean up your mess!’ as Imperial Metals executives and lawyers did the walk of shame out of the courtroom through our 60-person strong crowd. In attendance were members of the Tahltan, Secwepemc, Gixtsan, Cree, Tsilhqot'in, Nuu Chah Nulth, St'at'imc Nations, all of us inside and outside the court room in unity and in red. The streets of so-called Vancouver echoed today with the sound of our war cries, our hand drummers, our singers, our dancers, our warriors, our victors.”
Elsewhere, indigenous grandmothers are going about protecting the land and water in a less dramatic but equally fierce and deeply spiritual way. This week Sharon Day set off on her second water walk of the year near the headwaters of the St. Louis River in northern Minnesota. That river has been polluted by sulfide poisoning from nearby iron mines on the Mesabi Range, creating a 140-mile long dead zone.
Earlier this year she and a group of other indigenous and non-indigenous supporters walked the length of the Ohio River as a prayer for what is the most polluted river in the U.S.
Grandmother Josephine Mandamin from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has walked more than 10,000 miles in the last dozen years, circumnavigating each of the Great Lakes.
If non-indigenous people want to honor the indigenous people of the world, we should support their efforts to protect, defend and restore their homelands against corporate plunder.
Rebecca Kemble is a frequent contributor to The Progressive.