Climate action in the U.S. will not come from some mass conversion of the largely white middle-class deniers, whose representatives even now hold the nation hostage in hopes of preventing universal health care. Neither will the righting of human relations with the planet be delivered by an enlightened political class of city planners and would-be “planet managers.” It arrives, even today, from the long-marginalized and power-stripped: An awakening of indigenous identity that brings — as my partner and teacher reminds me — the unconquerable land ethic the Native mind possesses that continues to place bodies in front of bulldozers the world over.
The fight over the tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline may prove to be the fight that galvanizes the environmental and social-justice movements, but it is native peoples who are leading it.
In response to my recent HOE newsletter chronicling my journalism failures as well as those of many established environmental groups, an old friend who has made studying indigenous power relationships her life’s work wrote to me in response. I am grateful she also gave me permission to share her message here.
Along the Texas-Mexico border, green groups are often just as problematic as the feds in their middle-class orientation to land, development, and brown people they refuse to acknowledge as the First Peoples of the region. Many are still operating from the framework that their entitled citizenship bestows upon them as descendants of settler colonialism. Many work outside the key frameworks, protocols, and principles of Indigenous and land-based poor communities with ancestral belonging in the region pre-dating the U.S. and entitled citizenship. The problematics of mainstream, liberal, progressive, and quasi-left environmental thinking in the U.S. hasn’t kept pace with grass-roots indigenous mobilizations against the nation-state, constitutional configuration—a key barrier to advancing a meaningful change because it always privileges white, upper class, male, christian worldviews of land and labor as capital; and sovereignty as the power to decide who will live and who will die.
Further, any movement that doesn’t acknowledge the front-line work, and international magnitude of the work of Indigenous Peoples in climate change debates, anti-globalization, anti-climate burn, anti-privatization of water, etc. is not in tune with the realities from the ground and up to the WTO. Indigenous peoples have done more substantive work in linking environmental destruction with neo-colonalism, militarism, ecocide, and the en masse human rights violations against Indigenous communities.
In the U.S., certain green groups (or ‘pajareros’ as the Indigenous elders call them) pre-ceded the U.S. Army in the lower rio grande river region, in attempts to wrest communal lands away from poor Indigenous families on the premise that a white-based organization could ‘manage’ and ‘steward’ the lands and ‘protect’ and ‘preserve’ them better than the Indigenous people. Unfortunately, the damage of green groups has been significant in the fight to maintain ancestral lands in the hands and title of Indigenous peoples along the border wall. In addition to the U.S. government, green groups swooped down and grabbed lands from vulnerable elders, even on their death beds having them sign over their lands for pittances. These neo-colonial practices are equally despicable as the governments.
There is a legacy of conservation efforts operating as arm of colonial genocide, a shadow of which continues in UN climate frameworks such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). But every year, indigenous resistance grows. Even those of European roots are able to backtrack their way to their tribal roots, when their ancestors knew the earth as alive.
While my experience and understanding is shamefully rudimentary, Tamez offered fistfuls of links for those wishing to understand “the serious stakes involved for Indigenous Peoples on the front lines of protecting our customary territories and traditional homelands.”
Margo Tamez, Dáanzho ha’shi ‘dał’k’ida’, ‘áá’áná’, ‘doo maanaashni’: Welcoming ‘long ago’, ‘way back’ and ‘remember’—as an Ndé decolonization and land recovery process,