What environmental organizations are you affiliated with?
Honor the Earth and White Earth Land Recovery Project.
What do your organizations do?
Honor the Earth’s mission is to create awareness and support for indigenous environmental issues and to leverage needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable indigenous communities. Honor the Earth develops these resources by using music, the arts, media, and indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the earth and be a voice for those who are not heard.
White Earth Land Recovery Project is working to recover the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, and community development, and strengthening our spiritual and cultural heritage.
What’s your job title?
Program director at Honor the Earth and founding director at WELRP.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I am a mother of three children and I take care of five. I’m on the road a lot speaking — one day I might be meeting with local community activists, opposing the latest corporate proposal that threatens their homes, and the next day I could be giving a speech on a college campus about wild rice and patents on life.
Where do you live now?
I live on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
The Bush/Cheney team.
What are your thoughts on having been Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2000?
I am honored to have run with Ralph twice. I support his candidacy as I think he has an impeccable political career. I think this is a democracy and anyone who wants to run for office should be able to run. If we want to build a progressive political movement in this country, we should encourage people to run. If you don’t want to vote for Ralph, then don’t. If you want to get Bush out of office, you had better get people out to vote.
What important environmental issue is being overlooked?
The United States is the largest energy market in the world and is undeniably addicted to energy consumption. The U.S. even allows oil-based fertilizers and herbicides to be slathered on our food crops. Public policy and law often offer preferential treatment to large energy corporations. The unequal allocation of power is reflected in the relationship between the United States and Native America. Many of the U.S.’s “domestic” energy resources originate in Native America. As a consequence, Native America suffers from disproportionate extraction of non-renewable resources on tribal lands and the resulting disastrous toxic and environmental effects. Economic hardship leads many tribal treasuries into committing to being fed by energy-resource royalties.
For decades, uranium mining has laid to waste vast areas of land and aquifers in the Northwest and Southwest. There are more than 1,100 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Reservation, increasing the contamination of an arid region. Tribal lands are also targets for coal development, hosting four of the 10 largest coal strip mines in the U.S. Proposed coal methane developments would contaminate the groundwater of enormous regions including the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Over the years, tribes have been inundated by major dam projects ranging from the Columbia River in the Northwest to the Great Plains and on into James Bay in the North. Native villages and tribes are also deeply affected by oil-development proposals for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Gwich’in) and the massive nuclear waste dump planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada (Western Shoshone).
Honor the Earth has worked for more than a decade with these front-line groups to oppose further destruction of their land and way of life. We are interested both in addressing the economic issues posed by energy-development choices in Native America, and in challenging tribal governments to move toward a renewable-energy agenda. We are also interested in democratizing power production. The first Native American-owned and -operated large-scale turbine in the country went on line in February 2003 — the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s 750-kilowatt wind turbine.
Indian country has unemployment rates of 50 percent or more and could benefit both from small-scale assembly work and from the potential for renewable energy’s job creation in rural areas. Investing in alternative energy is investing in jobs, since the fuel supply is from the Creator. The European Union estimates that 2.77 jobs are created for every megawatt of wind power produced, 7.24 jobs per megawatt in solar, and 5.67 jobs per megawatt in geothermal. Or, in short, 1,000 megawatts of alternative energy averages 6,000 jobs, or 60 times more high-paying jobs than in fossil fuels and nuclear power. That is basically the difference between putting money back into the community or putting it into the pockets of utilities and energy companies.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
“If you are here because you feel sorry for me, you are wasting your time, but if you are here because your life and destiny are linked with mine, then we will make a difference …” — Elizabeth Penashue, an Innu elder
Don’t spend your time talking about political work — act today.
What is the most effective way of gaining the removal of the lower Snake River dams? — Erin Barnes, Portland, Ore.
Removing dams is the most effective way of restoring fish populations. In Maine, for instance, less than a year after the removal of the Edwards Dam, wild fish began spawning again in previously blocked portions of the Kennebec River.
The first step toward dam removal is setting up bypasses for the salmon around the dams. Studies suggest that if salmon had an opportunity to circumvent the dams they would have an 80 to 99 percent chance of complete rejuvenation.
Another important way to effect change is to promote renewable alternatives to these dams. A good resource for this issue is the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
What do you think about casinos on reservations? — Jane Squaxin, Durango, Colo.
It’s a difficult issue. I support the right of Indian people to have casinos. I think it’s a huge problem, though. The problem that Indian people have is this: I don’t think, as an economist, that I would hang my development policy on a casino. But the federal government says to Indian people, “I will recognize your sovereignty if you have either a nuclear or toxic-waste dump or casino.” That’s pretty much the only way you get your sovereignty recognized as Indian people.
Let me be clear about this: We are sovereign. I don’t care if the federal government recognizes me, my nation, and my people. That’s of little consequence to me in the long-term picture. The federal government, as far as I’m concerned, is by and large illegal. Most transactions are illegal. It’s like being recognized by a bunch of hoodlums. But under the law, they recognize your sovereignty in those two things, a dump or a casino. So Indian people are in an ironic situation, in that our choices for economic development are so limited.
In Minnesota, I see two examples. I see a reservation like Mille Lacs. They have two casinos. They built schools, houses, roads, clinics, and community buildings. They bought land. Nobody was going to do that for them. No federal appropriation was going to be made for those Indian people to do that, although their land was mostly taken from them. The federal government is supposed to provide those things for them. That’s not going to happen, so they did that with their casinos, and that’s right. They’re making some long-term investments that are smart. They don’t think those casinos are going to last forever, but they’re doing the right thing.
My reservation’s a bad example. We’re poor. A recent White Earth tribal government was so corrupt they spent all their time skimming the top off the casino money. It never got down to our community. So, it’s a mixed bag. I support the right to have them, but I think it’s an unfortunate situation. As long as we have structural poverty in our community, we’re always going to have these problems. You cannot change that situation unless you address the issue of land economy.
Also, casinos are the first things that come to mind for non-Indians as a solution for Indian communities. People ask, “What about casinos; don’t they give the communities money that they need?” But less than half of federally recognized tribes are even engaged in gaming. Of these, about a quarter of the tribes provide per-capita payments to tribal members. Finally, in terms of jobs, the gaming industry employs only about 100,000 Indians, with almost 300,000 jobs going to non-Indians. That ratio, unfortunately, is entirely lopsided and does little to alleviate unemployment in most tribal communities.
Finally, I strongly believe that renewable energy is the most promising, and profitable, path for tribes to take. I explain my position further in the following answers.
What are your thoughts on using some form of carbon financing or trading, similar to that envisioned in the Kyoto Protocol, as a means of promoting sustainable energy use (and efficiency) on Native American lands? — Sachu Constantine, Washington, D.C.
Honor the Earth is represented by Indigenous Environmental Network, and they have been steadfast in their opposition to “carbon trading.” As Tom Goldtooth, executive director of IEN, explains, “We cannot buy and consume our way out of the damage our energy use has on the earth.” The emphasis needs to be on moving toward renewable energy and conservation.
There are many groups Honor the Earth is working with; one is NativeEnergy. They are buying “Green Tags” to displace existing, polluting fossil fuel generation and instead directing money into wind and solar energy.
How can we get a larger piece of the U.S. Department of Energy budget pie to install utility-size wind systems on tribal lands? — Laura Manthe, Oneida, Wisc.
Tell your legislators to support renewable-energy technology in general, that it is a good source of income for tribes because Native lands contain vast amounts of renewable energy resources like wind and sun.
How can we get urban Indians more politically active and involved in electoral politics? — Linde Knighton, Seattle, Wash.
Promote get-out-the-vote initiatives in your communities. In 2000, there was much excellent voter registration work done by the Native community, the black community, and the environmental community. The most amazing stories were in Montana and Washington. In Montana, organizers at Native Action and a host of other groups like the Montana Indian Democrats, the Salish/Kootenai, and Blackfeet Nations got out and organized a phenomenal campaign to register Indians to vote, and then got them to the polls. The media called it the largest turnout in Montana history. The results were also historic: six Indians elected to the legislature — five representatives and one senator. This needs to be replicated.
Instead of building wind turbines, from which electricity must be transported by what the Hopi call white man’s gods (power lines), which ruin the landscape, kill birds, and are an insult to nature, why not place solar collectors on the buildings using the electricity? — Jeff Hoffman, San Francisco, Calif.
We are working on small solar systems as well as wind turbines.
Honor the Earth is working to “solarize” a strategic portion of Western Shoshone territory while drawing attention to America’s nuclear-waste policy and the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Western Shoshone territory is where the majority of the country’s nuclear waste is slated to go. Yucca Mountain is at the heart of Western Shoshone, or Newe Segobia, and the issue of who owns the land, and who has the rights out there, is key to what will happen. Carrie and Mary Dann are Western Shoshone matriarchs opposing Bureau of Land Management encroachment on their lands. Their struggles for sovereignty and environmental justice are intricately linked to issues of nuclear waste disposal, Western mining laws, and the taking of Native lands. For the past three decades, the Danns have been the backbone of Western Shoshone resistance in opposing the theft of their land and nuclear waste.
Our intent is to build models and to leverage support for broader alternative-energy policy in Native America. Tribal landholdings in the southwestern United States hold vast solar potential and could very well provide support for local economies and income generation. We seek to leverage support for alternative energy in Native America at both a tribal and national level as part of a broad campaign by Honor the Earth and our affiliates towards energy justice.
How do you feel about Ralph Nader’s 2004 presidential candidacy, given that he may pull votes away from Democratic candidate John Kerry, which could help Bush in this election? What advice, if any, would you give him? — Carmen Lohkamp, Gresham, Ore.
We have to remember that in 2000, Gore won the popular vote and Bush won the presidency on a technicality. We live in a democracy and whoever wants to run in an election has the right to do so. It isn’t an issue of whether or not Nader “pulls” votes away from Kerry, but that almost 50 percent of Americans don’t vote or find themselves disenfranchised, as with so many Florida voters in 2000.
Do you think that ecotourism can be part of sustainable indigenous communities? — Anne Fuller, Juneau, Ariz.
Ecotourism could have a place in sustainable indigenous communities, but as with everything, it needs to be done carefully and respectfully and led by local people. Any such program should be scrutinized and monitored so as not to be greenwashed. I know of some indigenous communities who have benefited from their ecotourism industry, while others are struggling.
What do you think citizens of Minnesota can do to put the stress back on private citizens being able to use wind and solar power? — Cynthia Lee, Lauderdale, Minn.
Talk to your legislators, community leaders, and local utilities. Check out the American Wind Energy Association.
Honor the Earth’s wind-energy program sounds like a great idea for a lot of wind-swept, economically depressed areas. Do you have other ideas for sustainable job creation in rural areas? — Jose Morales, Twin Falls, Idaho
I founded an organization in my community called White Earth Land Recovery Project as a way to bring land and jobs back to my reservation. We employ people in the community working directly in organic farming/gardening, energy production, and educational programming, all in keeping with traditional Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe, teachings. We also have a marketing arm, called Native Harvest, that sells traditional food products and crafts via mail order. I would suggest that other rural communities look into developing their own organizations, like WELRP, to reclaim their land and empower their people.