Seeking Indigenous Justice: Water, Unity, and the Media

3 mins read

By Massimo Mullen-Lambert

Fighting the imminent climate crisis is a battle we all must join, but one group is on the frontlines. Despite being ignored by the mainstream media, they refuse to surrender.

Indigenous peoples are the populations most affected by both human-caused environmental disasters and climate change. Because many indigenous communities are geographically isolated and lack proper infrastructure, they are directly affected by natural and human-caused disasters. Many members of the global indigenous community are activists, determined to maintain the health of our earth’s basic resources: air, water and soil.

Indigenous movements bring together social justice activism and environmentalism. When interviewing Pennie Opal Plant, an indigenous activist working with the Idle No More and Indigenous Women Rising organizations, she points out that “…all indigenous communities I have encountered have the same concept of earth as living entity. Our responsibility is to use our voices to speak for relatives with no voice”. From an indigenous perspective, social justice is maintaining the integrity of the biosphere and all its living and non-living inhabitants, our ecological relatives. These beliefs value earth in and of itself. Opal Plant further discusses how indigenous thought is in direct opposition to capitalism, the economic system quantifying the worth of earth’s bountiful body. Indigenous movements aim to “untie the knot of capitalism” a system that “only works in an infinite system, for the very wealthy”. By acknowledging capitalism as inherently unsustainable, we can seek solutions based in pre-colonial beliefs. These solutions begin with preserving water resources.

Water is life, and many recent indigenous movements have been focused on ensuring the health of rivers. The NODAPL movement, which is based on protecting the Missouri River from oil spills, has received support from indigenous tribes and groups throughout the Americas and across the Atlantic. Groups from Peru to Norway showed their active support, playing a large part in delaying the pipeline project. The Norwegian Saami Association engaged and convinced the largest bank in Norway, DNB, to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tribal delegations from the Amazon came all the way to the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota to show solidarity for the movement.

The collaboration of different tribes has been successful in the US and across the world. American Indian tribes in California and Oregon won a victory in the Klamath Basin Agreements, which involved US northwestern tribes demanding the removal of dams in the Klamath River. In this particular instance the Karuk, Klamath and Yurok tribes fought for their ancestral rights to healthy rivers and salmon fishing. Now the dams will be deconstructed in the following decade. In New Zealand, the Tuhoe Maori tribe and indigenous organization Idle No More successfully pushed for comprehensive legislation protecting private land and the Wanganui River. These new laws give sacred land the same status as living individuals. These examples show the capacity of unity and bottom-up activism to make meaningful change. Grassroots movements have achieved many victories, but they are rarely featured on newspaper covers.

Indigenous movements have received little unbiased national media attention, but have been widely publicized on social media. Movements such as NODAPL and NOKXL have only received attention if there is violence or cross-cultural alliances. When the Morton County Sheriff’s department sprayed water protectors with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures at Standing Rock, CBS and NBC used the report from the Sheriff’s Department claiming the water cannons were only used to ‘put out fires’. Most in-depth coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests was provided by independent news organizations, and circulated on social media. The corporate media was also largely absent during protests against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a battle waged by indigenous activists in the US and Canada. As the movement began to grow, ranchers and farmers found common ground with indigenous tribes in their shared love for their land and joined their forces in the Cowboy Indian Alliance. Corporate media sources NBC, ABC and CBS finally gave the Keystone XL protest movement headlines in April 2014, when the Cowboy Indian Alliance got on their horses and rode through the streets of Washington DC.

The success of indigenous movements to ensure the security of our earth’s water, air and soil brings hope to a bleak future of climate crisis. By learning from indigenous people and supporting their movements, we can pull the brakes upon the destructive train of capitalism before it runs out of tracks. It will take alliances between indigenous groups worldwide and the participation of non-indigenous actors. We must use the novel resources of social media and crowd-sourcing to fund and organize grassroots movements, as Idle No More has done. The lack of corporate media coverage based on conflicts of interest and investment cannot heed these movements. To quote Pennie Opal Plant; “we have to be our own media”.

By Massimo Mullen-Lambert


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