An interview with the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers
Photo: Frank Ockenfels.
In the lead-up to Earth Day on April 22, the folk duo Indigo Girls will hit the road with Native American activist Winona LaDuke for a two-week Honor the Earth tour. Beginning April 10, Grammy Award-winners Emily Saliers and Amy Ray will talk — and sing — about the connections between the environment, energy, Native American issues, and U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Proceeds from the tour will go to Honor the Earth’s Energy Justice Initiative to support wind power and other alternative-energy developments in native communities. Grist Magazine spoke to Saliers about the origins of her environmental awareness, the life of an artist-activist, her automotive inclinations, and more.
The Indigo Girls have developed a reputation for being outspoken activists on a range of issues. Which issue speaks to you most strongly?
It’s hard to separate them. We’re right in the midst of getting ready for this Honor the Earth tour, which is about shifting the current energy paradigm to one that is more just, with a focus on alternative and renewable energy. So I’m reading about these native communities and about personal lives and ways of life that are being so negatively impacted. It feels just as personal to me as anything else in my life. So I think our environmentalism with respect to native activism is probably our primary focus. And then of course I couldn’t not say gay rights; obviously, being gay, this is highly personal and highly motivating.
Photo: Honor the Earth.
It makes intuitive sense that you would be active on gay issues, since they are so personal. But environmentalism and connecting the dots between Native American issues and energy issues — are those things you’ve felt passionate about for a long time, or did they come about through a conscious process of educating yourself?
It was kind of a combination, I think. I would say that Amy very early on had a spiritual connection to traditional native ways of life. When we met Winona LaDuke at an Earth Day show in 1991 or so, that really changed everything for us as far as the direction of our environmental activism, and gave us a paradigm for grassroots activism. We felt that you couldn’t really be an environmentalist without including the native perspective. When you look at the horrible history of what’s happened to native peoples, and also currently how many coal and uranium deposits native lands sit on, and you think about the deforestation, and now the prospect of nuclear waste dumping on Yucca Mountain, it’s clear that all the issues surrounding energy justice are tied to native issues.
Yet environmentalism has had trouble shedding its reputation as the domain of straight, middle-class, white people — even though, as you point out, environmental issues can’t be disentangled from the history of how that dominant culture has oppressed other cultures.
Absolutely, but there are a lot of people who don’t make the same connections. I mean, this has been a decade-long process of educating ourselves through mentors and travels and experiences and first-hand visits to reservations and communities and giving a lot of serious thought and attention to these issues, so you can’t necessarily expect people to make the connections right away.
There’s a lot of people who grasp on to what they might stereotypically think of as “native ways of thinking”; they sort of idolize the traditional cultures and take from them what they want. But I think it’s so important and gratifying and educational to really look deep into what traditional cultures stand for, because American culture is so far removed from our ties to the land, with genetically modified food and meat-processing and mass marketing of products and gas-guzzling vehicles. We’re so removed from where it all comes from and where it’s going to lead us if we don’t change. Traditional native communities provide the answers to those questions, and they provide direction.
Energy is frequently seen as this kind of wonky issue, either the domain of Enron executives or of off-the-grid long-haired California hippies. Do you find that people are receptive to rock stars talking about energy issues, of all things?
[Laughs.] There’s resistance to that. We’ve had press conferences where someone will stand up and say, “What right do you have to be talking about this when you’re a white girl from Georgia signed to Epic Records?” Our answer to that is something that Ralph Nader and other leaders have taught us, which is that it’s important to be a citizen, and in order to be a citizen you have to educate yourself. Just because you’re not from someone’s neighborhood or community doesn’t mean that you can’t empathize and relate to their issues, make the connections to your own issues, and to national and international issues, and try to be part of the change. But our fans obviously know that we’re activists, they know that we have this long history of marrying our music with our activism, so they expect it from us. They’re not going to come to a concert and be angry with us for bringing up native energy issues.
Talk to me about that relationship between your activism and your music.
Amy and I are a very lyric-focused band, obviously, and if these issues are going on in our lives or are something we’re thinking about, then we’re going to end up writing songs about them. Some of the songs are specifically political, like some of the content on Shaming of the Sun about the immigrant situation. Some of them are a little more ethereal, like “Everything in Its Own Time.” “Philosophy of Loss” is about gay rights and the church. So these issues, how the church deals with gays and so on, they’re political but they’re also very personal to me, and that comes out in the song. But you know, other times, I just write love songs.
Recently there’s been something of a backlash against celebrities and people with a very public voice taking political stands, such as the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted from some radio stations and having their CDs burned or bulldozed after expressing opposition to President Bush.
Yeah, that troubled me a lot. First thing I thought was, this is the McCarthy era all over again. We’re never that far from it: blacklisting and book burnings and witch-hunts and knee-jerk patriotism and the vitriolic response to peace — the very dark side of the American character. And also the terrible ignorance that’s been achieved by what the spin doctors have done to make the connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, so that people who are pro-war think that they’re getting justice for 9/11 by bombing the hell out of Baghdad. All those things came to mind when I heard about the Dixie Chicks incident and I was so proud of [band member] Natalie [Maines]. You know, I love those guys anyway, they are a great band and really good people, and I was horrified to hear that this had happened.
This culture has a weird relationship with pop stars and movie stars and all that. I mean, everybody wants to know what they think and who they’re sleeping with and all that, but if they say something against the president, then suddenly it’s too public, and all hell breaks loose. You can do it, but the Dixie Chicks can’t, which shows who some of the people are who are buying their records.
Have you and Amy experienced any of that kind of backlash?
Boy, they’re burning our CDs all over the place! It’s horrible! [Laughs.] No, we’re not big enough; we’re not famous enough. We’re barely a blip on the screen of pop culture. We’re able to just plod along and speak our minds and do exactly what we want to do and people either take us or leave us.
I’ve heard a lot of people expressing that they don’t feel like the environment is a priority right now, given the international situation. What would you say to that?
You know, this is a war about oil and control of resources and strategic positioning, so there could not be a more important time for people to understand the connection between bad energy policy and injustice and violence. There could not be a clearer connection between what’s going on in the environment and what’s going on in the Middle East. Our energy paradigm is military-industrial; if we counted less on fossil fuels and turned to alternative energy, we wouldn’t have to fight wars over oil. So it’s the perfect time for people to be re-inspired to work against the current energy policy.
We’re all inundated with emails and messages and commercials and products and so forth, it’s crazy how busy our minds are, and I think sometimes we get overwhelmed. And then it’s easy, sometimes, to just look outside the window — right now it’s a pretty day in Atlanta — and say, “You know, the environment is fine. I don’t need to be thinking about this right now.” But we’re headed down a very dark path, and we have to make changes. That’s very clear to me, and it’s clear to the native activist mentors who have guided us, and I believe in their vision.
Do you see any signs of hope? Do you think we’re starting to turn the corner toward a new kind of energy system?
Oh, boy. I wouldn’t say in a very popular, general-public way. I think it’s more like — I was going to say, “the people in the trenches,” but I shouldn’t use a war term. It’s the people who have always seen it, plus there’s education happening little by little. But we need the support of the government. The dark thing about this administration is that it’s not supporting the things that are going to make everything better, it’s supporting the opposite. But I have hope. I think we can make the change, and the Honor the Earth tour is about that. It’s about trying to bring to light some of those issues and make sometimes-complex connections for people and then believe in it and implement it in your own life.
How do you implement it in your own life?
Well, Amy has a hybrid car. I had an SUV and I went to a small station wagon. I love cars, I have to admit, so I’ve had to rethink my feelings, and I’m hoping that fuel-cell cars come about quickly, because for people who like cars, they’ll offer a lot of different options. But in the meantime, I’m going to try to get a car that gets the best gas mileage possible. And then of course, in our own lives, there’s recycling, setting your thermostat in an appropriate way, getting your compost going. I own a restaurant with some other people, and we do everything we can to cut waste and make it efficient. Some of it is just about being mindful. Americans are so loath to make small changes, even ones that don’t make their lives uncomfortable and can make a great difference. I’m not perfect, but I do what I can. And you know, it’s a pleasure to do that much.