It is called “speaking truth to power,” and so frequently Native people use their voices to speak on behalf of Mother Earth. It is not that all indigenous people agree on every environmental issue, but it remains for leaders—young and old—to address issues and call attention to things that might harm the land, water and air for this generation and the generations of the future. We may not speak with one voice, but we must speak out. Here’s hoping that these five videos may inspire you to find your voice, too.
First Nations: Defending Fish, Food and Eagles From Site C
September is when a plan kicks in to chop down trees containing bald eagles’ nests as a prelude to flooding the Peace River Valley for a hydroelectric project known as Site C in British Columbia.
Treaty 8 First Nations and others are battling in court to stop this and the flooding of a valley that would wipe away 12,000 years of human history.
Twenty-eight bald eagle nests are threatened by the plan. Though the nests are currently empty, eagles often return to the same ones each year. BC Hydro, the company in charge of the project, has a permit running from September through March. The company will install platforms intended to replace the nesting areas, but First Nations citizens and others against the project say there is one missing piece to that plan.
“I don’t know how they communicated with the eagles, how they spoke with them to make them understand that this is your new home,” noted George Desjarlais of the West Moberly First Nations in the video below.
Indigenous Peoples: Struggling for Unaltered Food
Protests in 300 cities in 44 countries against the international agricultural conglomerate Monsanto Co. and its genetically modified foods kicked off the first March Against Mansanto in 2013, and there have been gatherings each year since then. The first year in Los Angeles there were many Native protesters, dancers and speakers.
“We should never forget, wherever you go, you are on Indian land,” a woman in the video below explains. “The corn is a gift to the world, by the Indians, by the indigenous people.”
Many Indigenous Peoples and others are concerned that seeds genetically modified to speed growth and resist insects are less healthy for human consumption and could permanently alter heritage seeds. The Spokesman-Review reported on August 3 that the city of Spokane had filed a lawsuit against Monsanto “alleging that the company sold chemicals for decades that it knew were a danger to human and environmental health,” including responsibility for high levels of PCBs in the Spokane River.
Winona LaDuke: Protecting Wild Rice
Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke and Native Harvest have long lobbied against the introduction of “modified” wild rice, fearing it will contaminate actual native wild rice plants. This February she testified at the Minnesota House on another wild rice topic—establishing proper water quality standards to maintain the rice beds. The question being considered is allowable sulfate levels in the water, an issue connected to a proposed mining operation in northern Minnesota.
“I want to first talk a little bit about historical amnesia,” LaDuke told legislators. “That is to say that wild rice is protected under treaties. It is explicitly protected under the treaties that were made by my people and your people.… We would like to keep our part of the treaty and we would like you to keep your part of the treaty.”
In July, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued information on its wild rice study and process of revising sulfate standards, proposing to abandon a 40-year-old law with a single standard for allowable sulfate in all wild rice waters. Instead it proposes calculating acceptable sulfate levels for each wild rice water, based on location-specific factors. In coming to this conclusion, the MPCA studied how sulfate affects wild rice. Read details of the proposal here.
Justin Roland: Protesting a Pipeline at Wounded Knee
Young Justin Roland spoke out against the Keystone XL pipeline in a short documentary about the 2014 protest of that pipeline at Wounded Knee. “Being Lakota is the greatest thing in the world. It’s also the hardest life ever because you have to grow up watching the dominant societies destroy everything of ours. They pollute our air, they cut down our water, they cut down our trees, they’re raping Mother Earth. They’re just killing it. As indigenous people, we don’t’ want to be activists, but that’s what we’re being forced to be.” The pipeline would run from Canada through the heart of the United States to the Gulf of Mexico for oil refining and exportation. November last year, the U.S. Senate voted 59-41 to approve the pipeline – 1 vote shy of the 60 votes to proceed. Another young Lakota, Greg Gray Cloud, Crow Creek Sioux, burst into an honoring song supporting the senators’ vote, only to be removed and arrested.
The disorderly conduct charge was dismissed.
Speaking Out in Song
An activist since age eight, Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Sliammon, is still only in her early teens, but already has proven to be a leading Native voice for environmental issues and concerns for children. In May 2014 she spoke on behalf of Native Children’s Survival before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Two years earlier, in March 2012, she spoke and sang before some 2,000 people at a No Tankers rally in Vancouver, British Columbia to oppose the $6.5 billion Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline from Kitimat, B.C. to Bruderheim, Alberta. Enbridge’s pipeline website includes a page titled Benefits to First Nations, citing $1 billion in long-term benefits.
But at the 2012 rally, Blaney pointed to the costs of potential oil spills.
“We can’t canoe in an ocean of oil, and we can’t feed a two-headed salmon to our elders and children,” she said. “Everything that the pipeline brings is just the word ‘can’t,’ and the word ‘destroy.’ ”
She sang her song “Shallow Waters,” which has inspired people everywhere. She ends by reminding: “My dad always told me when I was younger that the creator gave you a gift, you have to share it. Now I’m telling you that you all have a voice. Don’t be afraid to speak up about what you’re passionate about.”
Grandmothers: Walking for Water
Confrontation is not the only way of standing up for Mother Earth. Ojibwe elder Josephine Mandamin inspired many other grandmothers, like herself, as well as young people, to participate in a series of water walks to call attention to the sacred and fragile nature of water. She began on Lake Superior in 2003 from the Bad River Reservation and first circled that lake. Then each following year she walked around another Great Lake until she had circled all five. After that she helped organize a national water walk that drew people for the four directions along waterways in the United States together in Bad River. Mandamin “retired” from the annual walks and the mantle taken up by Sharon Day, another Ojibwe grandmother inspired by Mandamin.
This year, Waterwalkers United set out on a Sacred Water Walk 2015 from Matane, Quebec, in June, headed toward Madeline Island on Lake Superior. The walkers hope to call attention to oil spills that have occurred on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway and to oppose additional pipelines. They stopped along the way in Wikwemikong on Manitouline Island the week of August 10—a home visit for Mandamin, one of this year’s walk leaders. The group expects to arrive at Madeline Island by the end of August and introduce water from the St. Lawrence River into Lake Superior, carried in a bucket along the route.
In this 2008 video, Mandamin talks about her walks and her inspirations.
“When you first look at it and you see the majesty of that water, you want it to stay like that forever and ever and ever, for the generations to come,” she says of Lake Superior, adding of Ojibwe elders, “We’re mindful of the messages that our ancestors have left for us.”