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For the past three decades, people from Canada’s First Nations have protested the massive tar sands mines that have transformed the landscape of northern Alberta. Their marches, occupations, and legal filings collectively argue that global energy demands are polluting local water supplies, devastating caribou populations, causing rare cancers in the community of Fort Chipewyan, and violating treaty rights.

Campaign to Derail Keystone

The Surprising Backstory Behind the Successful Campaign to Derail Keystone—Andrew Needham

Beginning two decades later in the Dakotas, members of the Sioux, Crow, Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa tribes met to discuss the threat a pipeline, planned to carry oil from the tar sands, posed to the land, water, and sacred spaces that lay close to their reservations on traditional lands. The pipeline was, for many, only the most recent manifestation of a long history of exploitation associated with energy projects. As George Iron Shield (Standing Rock Sioux) told Indian Country Today in 2008: “All the plans go down, then on that bottom line it says: contact the tribes. That's where we come in; when it's all set in concrete.”

When President Obama announced the State Department’s rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline on Friday, the project that George Iron Shield feared was “all set in concrete” more than seven years ago went down to defeat. Many environmentalists see the rejection as the first victory of a new movement for “climate justice.” And it is a victory that has its roots in the efforts of people like Iron Shield to prevent a project presented as a fait accompli from becoming a reality. Indeed, while indigenous people have often stood at the symbolic forefront of the movement for climate justice, as they did in September 2014 when anti-tar sands activists led the People’s Climate March in New York City, they’ve done much more than that.

In many ways, native people began the movement itself.

Their leadership emerged from lived experience. Demand for energy has transformed the landscape of Native America in the years since World War II to an extent that Americans have not fully realized. The Keystone Pipeline would have passed near the reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. In 1948, that reservation saw 94% of its arable land flooded by Garrison Dam to provide more than 500 megawatts of power for non-native consumers. Today, eight coal-fired power plants ring the reservation.

In the Southwest, the Navajo and Hopi Nations are themselves ringed by five coal-fired power plants as well as the location of two of the largest coal strip mines in the United States. In the Pacific Northwest, the dams of the Bonneville Power Authority effectively contravened treaty rights guaranteeing the Columbia River tribes access to “all usual and accustomed fishing places.” Across Indian country, decades of energy development destroyed sacred spaces, polluted local soil, water and air, and, in the cases of coal-fired power plants, inflicted some of the U.S.’s highest rates of asthma upon the people of nearby reservations.

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Long before most other Americans, Indians debated whether energy development represented opportunity or exploitation.

Projects like these generated politics as well as energy. Long before most other Americans, Indians debated whether energy development represented opportunity or exploitation. In the 1950s, Navajo tribal chairman Paul Jones imagined the possibility that the newly built Four Corners Power Plant could provide “two light bulbs in every hogan” as well as a program of industrial development would allow the Navajo Nation to participate in the growth fueling the booms in Phoenix and Albuquerque. When those possibilities failed to materialize, Peter MacDonald, Navajo tribal chairman in the 1970s, demanded joint ownership of facilities and fantasized about the possibility of “an Indian OPEC” that would control the power flowing through the western energy grid and bring prosperity to that part of native America. MacDonald’s dream of joint ownership was partially realized in 2013, when the Navajo Nation purchased one of the coal mines on its territory from multinational firm BHP Billiton. That purchase came at a cost of not only $85 million but also of indemnification against any “known or unknown” environmental damages associated with the mine – all in a historical moment when coal’s future seemed more in doubt than ever.

Tribal support for energy projects never went uncontested. Indeed, the indigenous opponents of Keystone and the tar sands drew on an activist tradition that saw the dynamics of the energy industry as evidence of native peoples’ subordination. To these activists, energy on native land represented less an opportunity to participate in the market economy than the imposition of a colonial economy where outsiders stole value from their land and left pollution behind. Operating largely outside tribal governments, these activists honed a set of tactics to combat energy projects. These included occupying of mine sites and negotiating with energy executives, creating of transnational intertribal organizations like the Indigenous Environmental Network, and forging tentative alliances with environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Indigenous groups have used the public review procedures embedded in the environmental regulatory state created since the 1970s to slow projects. They have also developed alternative energy plans that present Indian country as a potential space of renewable energy.

These tactics – occupation, coalition building, negotiation, regulatory challenge, and the promotion of alternative energy – have all become central to the climate justice movement. It is not an exaggeration to say that the movement is following a path created not only by the native people who began the battle against Keystone but also by indigenous activists who have fought energy projects since the 1970s.

The climate justice movement has benefited indigenous activists as well. By putting indigenous people literally at the forefront of the movement, it has succeeded in getting more people to think about the question that native activists have long asked: “Do you know where your energy comes from?” That question has led an increasing number of people to care about the fate of places they have never seen in the Dakotas, northern Alberta, and elsewhere. And the sheer number of those people have made the fate of those places matter politically enough to defeat a pipeline few thought could be stopped.

In shifting attention to climate and the fate of the planet, however, “climate justice” as a slogan also poses a challenge to the indigenous activists who helped give it life and the mass of concerned citizens who have given it increasing political power. Indian activists have long used energy development not only to highlight the ecological dangers posed by fossil fuel development, but also to underscore the inequalities of American society.

Even Peter MacDonald, who supported energy development as a path toward Indian power, emphasized such inequalities, stating in 1974 that “Our own people have the pleasure of watching giant transmission lines march across the land at the same time as they are denied the opportunity to have electric service in their own homes.” The movement for climate justice must attend to the inequalities that energy development has already created in native America. Only then can the movement to prevent catastrophe by “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” truly achieve justice.

andrew needham

Andrew Needham
History News Network