This morning I woke up to the news that the U.S. administration will severely cut the size of two national monuments in Utah – the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, – thus putting over two million acres of protected land at risk of being sold to private interests, including mining and oil companies. The land was designated as a national monument in 2016 by President Obama, following years of lobbying by five Native tribes. This week, all these efforts were erased in a matter of minutes.
The move is only the latest in a centuries-long battle over the lands that have historically belonged to the Native peoples of North America. Last month, as millions of Americans prepared to gobble up all the turkeys and pies in celebration of Thanksgiving, reports emerged of a large oil spill from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota, the very pipeline that spurred mass protests over fears of an environmental disaster at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation last year. The spill happened near the territory of another Native tribe, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.
The struggle to protect these lands lies firmly at the intersection of conservation and safeguarding of Native heritage and culture, which is not surprising considering the cultural and spiritual significance of these lands to Native peoples who have lived there for thousands of years. And while the persistent pressure from corporations and politicians to appropriate these lands can be interpreted as anything from a complete lack of respect for the voices of Native tribes to basic capitalist greed, it seems pretty clear that there’s a deeper underlying cause to these events: the hundreds of years of colonisation and oppression of Native peoples that the United States has largely refused to acknowledge or deal with.
I grew up in Russia, so for the longest time my ideas of the Native peoples were as primitive and misguided as they come, largely informed by the Clint Eastwood films my father so enjoyed watching and whatever other Hollywood creations reached our TV screen. In the streets in the summer my friends and I played “Cowboys and Indians” with a cultural twist, calling it “Cossacks and Bandits”. This lack of education wasn’t even limited to my time in Russia. The first year in the US. around the age of nine, I attended a public elementary school in a small Pennsylvanian town where we stayed. For Thanksgiving that year, all the fourth-graders learned to draw turkeys by tracing our little hands on colourful sheets of craft paper and memorised the names of the settlers’ ships by heart. That was our history lesson for the occasion. It wasn’t until university, when I got involved with a social justice initiative at my school, that I started learning about the real history of Thanksgiving, the colonisation of North America, and the lives of the Native peoples in the U.S. today.
I’m not sure what I expected when we planned to stay on a reservation during our roadtrip earlier this year. We entered the Navajo Nation shortly after leaving Page, Arizona on our way to Monument Valley. The two hour drive under a blazing sun was remarkable only in the vastness of the open space on either side of the road. Every now and then I spotted a house or two pop up in the distance only to disappear moments later but besides these occasional distant encounters, it was just land – miles upon miles of bare land – as far as the eye could see. With so much land, I struggled to imagine space ever lacking for everyone to live on it in peace. But then again, no conquest is ever only about the land as much as it’s about power, control, and that deep, poisonous fear of The Other.
In the days we spent in the Navajo Nation and then driving through Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, we got accustomed to the flat desert expanse and remote settlements where time had chipped away at paint and wood but not the human spirit.
On a hike in the Monument Valley our local guide spoke of his people’s traditions that continue to be passed on across generations, of their history and culture, both remembered and cherished, and of living in modern-day America. He told us about the difficulties those living on the reservation face in accessing basic services such as healthcare and education, about the high rates of depression and suicide, and the precarious circumstances one faces when the land on which your house stands does not belong to you by law. But he also spoke of young people returning to the reservation determined to keep the community alive, of the hope that organising at Standing Rock brought to Native tribes around the US, and of the healing gift that runs in his family.
His stories echoed other Native voices that usually appear on social media in November. Just like witches only remembered around Halloween, the Native voices usually seem to capture the attention of mainstream media only in the run up to Thanksgiving when they’re invited by the more socially conscious outlets to speak about the history and legacy of that holiday. As a result of this – at least in part – when I tell about our stay in the Navajo Nation to friends and family, the most common reactions are surprise and disbelief.
How terrible!.. No way!.. In America?!
Imagine the impact that the inclusion of Native voices in the mainstream on equal terms and all year round would have. Education – even the basic awareness of injustice – is the first step to solidarity and activism. Right now the majority of Americans (and Europeans for that matter) seem completely unaware about the realities – and at times, the existence – of the peoples whose land they walk on. This is despite over 500 Native tribes being recognised as such in the US today and over a 1000 in existence if you include those still fighting for recognition. But is that surprising if the Native peoples’ stories disappear from the public eye as the news cycle clock strikes midnight on Black Friday, and Native imagery is relegated to the realms of hipster fashion, sports mascots and fancy dress costumes?
Still, the Native peoples persevere. They continue to survive and resist, as they have since the day the first Europeans landed on the shores of their continent. They continue to fight for recognition, for their culture and language, their identity and their rights. Legal challenges to the cuts to the two national monuments in Utah have already begun, led by Native tribes and conservation groups. The final approval for the Keystone Pipeline is still pending. As long as there are indigenous people alive in the US, the hope for justice lives on.
If you’re planning to travel through the Native peoples’ territories, do make sure that you contribute to Native-owned businesses by staying and shopping in places owned by local people and purchasing only certified authentic products. Need more guidance? This Everyday Feminism guide has got you covered.
I wrote only about the reservations because these were the lands we visited on our travels. However, the majority of Native people now live in urban areas, and this piece by Joe Whittle for The Guardian aims to capture their stories – definitely worth a read!