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As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight…

As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice…

by Dina Gilio-Whitaker

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Native Americans have been enduring an unremitting hell ever since the white Europeans arrived 500 years ago. It continues even today. Zero respect is the main problem. It can also be called White Supremacy, as Dina Gilio-Whitaker does often in As Long As Grass Grows. The vehicle for her analysis is Environmental Justice (EJ) and in particular the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, where she spent a lot of time researching and reporting. But there is no doubt the real issue is It reeks of white supremacy, she found.

The book delves into the differences between whites and natives, and how those differences are neither recognized nor respected by government or even well-meaning co-protestors. Whites have co-opted Indian spirituality, assigning it white-oriented meaning, refused to abide by the rules of the natives on their own land at Standing Rock, and of course, nearly wiping out the natives in a slow moving genocide over centuries. Whites do not accept or appreciate natives for who they are – not whites.

The legal history of EJ is laced with white supremacy, as settlers get more say than the natives, as the State denies them standing, and corporations have the most rights of all. But there’s more than just legal setbacks in preserving water, land or sacred places. There is a long tail of displacement, child removal, forced religion, lack of equal rights, and genocide.

The concept of genocide was created by Raphael Lemkin in just the 1940s, Gilios-Whitaker says. He postulated that genocide begins with oppression and suppression of a culture, followed by suppression of the people of that culture. It clearly and obviously applies to native Americans, and speaks to why it is taking so long to establish environmental justice. Whites have yet to acknowledge the natives they evicted.

Capitalism has despoiled the land and poisoned its inhabitants. And native lands most of all, it seems. Of 1322 Superfund sites that are the biggest recognized disasters in the country, 532 are on native lands. This is hugely disproportionate for what little land remains in their hands.

The chapter on women is particularly instructive. Women have traditionally been equals in native tribes. They have always worked, could own land and make decisions on their own. They alone were always responsible for children, so there was no such thing as an illegitimate child. This collection of differences was highlighted in the 1920s when the USA deigned (at long last) to offer American citizenship to natives. Native women actually had to lower themselves and give up rights they always had (including their religion) in order to accept that offer.

Whites simply appropriated aspects of native spirituality as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. “The function of indigenous ceremonies was primarily for the perpetuation of particular communities, not for personal enlightenment,” Gilio-Whitaker says.

Sacred places of natives cannot be moved around. Unlike western religions which can consecrate houses of worship anywhere they want, native religion is a relationship to a place. But white supremacy extends only as far as white-style religion. Nothing else is valid.

The book concludes with descriptions of tactics the natives are employing to fight EJ cases, with some success. While encouraging, they are not a lock. It boils down to playing the white man’s game in organizing, co-opting, lobbying, and of course, suing. 150,000 people closed their accounts at banks that backed the pipeline.

What struck me most is the very perversity of the entire EJ system. The term environmental justice in the USA refers only to real or potential damage where an identifiable group might suffer a financial loss. So EJ can be pursued by poor blacks, or by native/indigenous groups. But they must prove a financial hardship or burden. Tradition, sacred mountains and prehistoric tradition don’t count. The concept of environmental justice for the environment is not recognized. But making snow out of recycled sewage for a ski slope on a sacred mountain is wrong. Diverting a river to a surfing paradise to accommodate a new toll road is wrong. Running a dangerous oil pipeline through a major clean water source is wrong. But the Earth has no standing in American law. And no one speaks for Earth.

Except maybe native Americans.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Dec 6, 2018 |
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