Standing Rock is only the latest episode of more than 500 years of European incursions and occupation of the Americas, says scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker in her new book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. Gilio-Whitaker, a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes, is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. This book — her second — is a primer on the Native environmental movement, and a long chronicle of fighting back against government and corporate power with varying degrees of success.
“To be a person of direct Indigenous descent in the US today is to have survived a genocide of cataclysmic proportions,” writes Gilio-Whitaker. “Some Native people have described the experience of living in today’s world as postapocalyptic.” Indeed, between 1492 and 1890, about 99 percent of all Native peoples disappeared from what is today’s United States, victims of disease, war, and starvation. And it wasn’t just people who were disappearing — it was the deliberate degradation of ancestral ecologies in the name of “Manifest Destiny.” This forced Native peoples to adhere to a Western view of land use, leading to even more cultural and environmental destruction.
Extractive industries, commercial agriculture, grazing, dam-building, track-laying, and road construction — what most Americans would consider progress — all contributed to what historian Raphaël Lemkin accurately labeled genocide. Gilio-Whitaker takes the reader on a historical journey that, had it been penned about the Jewish Holocaust or the “ethnic cleansing” conducted at the behest of any number of 20th-century despots, would be well known. Yet when it comes to the United States’s continuing campaign to wipe tribal communities from the map, most Americans are in a state of denial that such a thing could happen.
But it happens today. Indigenous peoples now must contend with a colonial-based legal system that hampers Indigenous governments from functioning along traditional lines or building uncolonized economies and social justice systems, and environmental movements based on tropes that seek to exclude human interaction with nature and deny the millennia-long impact of Indigenous ecosystem stewardship. In this postapocalyptic scenario, Native peoples are working to replace that system by means of restorative environmental justice to help rebuild their cultures, mitigate damage to their lands, reinstate the proper roles of women in tribal leadership, and strengthen families and communities.
The modern environmental movement didn’t help matters. Based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who promulgated the myth of the mystical, noble savage, and of John Muir, who viewed Native peoples as dirty, lazy, ugly and generally inferior, coupled with what historian Carolyn Merchant argues were “values that equated wilderness with whiteness,” the American environmental movement evolved its stance of the wilderness as a place where Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and other people of color were barred from entry. This, Gilio-Whitaker writes, also led to the unfettered dumping of toxic wastes within communities of color, since Merchant wrote that the white settlers who dominated the environmental movement considered cities to be dark, depraved places, as opposed to the “unpeopled […] pristine, pure and unspoiled” wild lands.
Muir and his contemporaries, as well as many current environmentally minded people, never considered why places like Yosemite Valley, the Central Coast, and the oak forests in California were so beautiful — so biodiverse, so productive, welcoming, and “untouched.” They were the result of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 years of human stewardship. The idea that these pristine areas were carefully sculpted and maintained by human hands was anathema to these late 19th- and early 20th-century Brahmins. So, the establishment of national parks, monuments, and forests were invariably accompanied by the removal of the people who had shaped the ecologies of those areas.
Along with the exclusion of Native peoples from the lands is the appropriation of Native religious and spiritual beliefs by hippies, New Agers, and other counterculturalists who felt entitled to lift practices for themselves, not understanding that these practices are based on a people’s relationship to their land and wasn’t meant just for enlightenment. By the 1980s, clashes between environmentalists and tribes had grown. Environmental organizations attempted to prevent tribes from engaging in traditional practices such as whaling, fishing, or cultural species management.
The environmental movement is also slowly changing and evolving to reflect a more collaborative stance, although there are still fault lines between Indigenous peoples and environmentalists. And then there are the gender issues. The modern feminist movement has forgotten its debt to tribal cultures and governance. Many Native societies are matrilineal or matriarchal in nature, recognize the existence of more than two genders, and ensure a balance of power between genders. Those cultural foundations also resulted in strong, nurturing extended family ties, with protections for pregnant and lactating women, small children, and elders.
Traditional governance also meant that ancestral ecological protocols would be honored as well. Those social and political constructs, which had served Indigenous peoples well for centuries, were smashed to near-extinction by the introduction of Christianity, which emphasizes a patriarchal structure and demonizes non-heterosexual relationships. Women had few if any rights, and were denied the right to vote, own property, or control their own bodies. However, early feminists learned of and admired the Haudenosaunee cultures, which had maintained its Clan Mother system and matrilineal and matriarchal ways.
Native women have also had a history of mobilizing in contemporary times to protect their lands and their communities from environmental degradation and outright destruction. From the early 20th century’s Indigenous intellectuals such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, or Zitkala-Sa, and Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin to Women of All Red Nations, the Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and the Idle No More movement, Native women are front and center in the environmental protection movement.
Back at the Sacred Stone Camp, the center of the Standing Rock protest, women managed the myriad tasks of keeping a huge instant community functioning and healthy. But even here, non-Native feminism collided with Native views in a clash of values. As one journalist who visited Standing Stone Camp frequently noted to Gilio-Whitaker, the topic of skirts symbolized this clash. To Lakota women, long skirts expressed cultural pride and honors tradition, while European-American women’s worldview didn’t encompass, or in many cases, respect, that protocol.
So what’s the answer to pursuing and sustaining environmental justice in Indian Country? Gilio-Whitaker offers some suggestions. Coalitions can be used to protect sites such as Panhe, the most culturally significant site to the Acjachemen people of Orange County, California. Indeed, California leads the way in developing approaches at the state and local level to partner with tribes to protect cultural and ecological sites using concepts developed in the United Nations’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She argues that federal law, such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, should be amended to provide for protection of sacred places in addition to simply providing access. Tribes themselves should be building more intergovernmental relationships and entering more formal partnerships dealing with a variety of cross-jurisdictional issues.
But Gilio-Whitaker emphasizes that Indigenous peoples are under no illusions; there’s no savior on the horizon that can institute protections over lands, waters, and species, not to mention freeing tribes from the dominion of the federal government. The Earth’s entire ecosystem is at risk.
Debra Utacia Krol, Xolon Salinan Tribe, is an Indigenous journalist based in Arizona. She reports on Indigenous issues for a variety of publications.