Native American Struggles Today

Against the Current, No. 38, May/June 1992

Jennifer Viereck

WHILE MANY VIEW the issue of Columbus’ invasion as 500 years in the past, there are about 1.4 million original North Americans today, facing a wide range of life and death struggles to which newer Americans are often blind. In a year which will hopefully bring many of these issues to our attention, we all have a chance, especially those of us of European origin, to take steps toward ending 500 years of genocide of indigenous people.

Several ongoing struggles (among hundreds of conflicts) from various regions are outlined below.

Big Mountain: Forced Relocation

Since 1974, the Dine (Navajo) people living on Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona have been targeted for removal from their ancestral homelands by the U.S. government. It is a dry but majestic land, dotted with hogans, sheep, cedar and sage. Federal law PL-93-531 authorizes the government to remove them from their land, under the guise of a conflict with the Hopi with whom they share the area.

The real issue is vast coal reserves being exploited by Peabody Coal, a British mining firm wishing to sell much of the coal to Japan. Uranium mining is also a prime government interest on Navajo land.

Today this process of removal has been almost completed. The few thousand left, among the estimated 10-15,000 original inhabitants, are the strongest. They have had to be. Many of them are women elders who survive by selling traditional weavings made from the wool of their sheep.

Those who have refused to leave have been subjected to endless harassment, sometimes intimidated by El Salvador-like nocturnal gangs. Livestock are impounded and high fines demanded for their return. Water is fenced away from homes and animals. Sacred sites are destroyed and homes torn down and removed.

These people’s traditional spirituality is directly connected to and reliant upon the land on which they live. For them there is no separation between the spiritual and all other aspects of their lives; for the communities affected it is genocide.

Legal recourse was exhausted for Big Mountain residents in 1988, but with the passage of the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987, which ratified principles of international law into the U.S. Constitution, a new legal remedy has been created.

International actions are being coordinated by the San Jose Big Mountain Support Group on July 7, 1992. Groups are needed to take the three-page Genocide Demand to their representative or senator, calling for an immediate, thorough and public investigation, and an immediate moratorium on all aspects of the relocation policy. Help is also needed to publicize the events.

Copies of the demand and a documentation packet are available for $5-10 to cover costs.

Contact San Jose Big Mountain Support Group: Pat O’Connell, P.O. Box 1960, San Jose, CA 95109; (408) 971-4277.

Telescope Project Violates Apache Sites

The San Carlos Apache Tribal Council has asked the U.S. Forest Service to immediately halt the ironically named “Columbus Project,” the construction of telescopes on Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona. They cite violations of four federal laws protecting human, cultural and religious rights and freedoms.

The telescopes are being built for the University of Arizona, the Vatican, the German and Italian governments, and Ohio State University. The Vatican and German astronomers have already constructed a road and levelled trees and earth on the sacred Apache mountain.

Mt. Graham is the birthplace of the San Carlos Apache culture, and is identified as the home of the Mountain Spirit Dancers who taught early Apaches their sacred songs and dances and where to find healing herbs and water. Numerous shrines on the peaks date back thousands of years and are used for religious ceremonies and for physical and spiritual healing. In this year of the Quincentenary it would be an even greater insult to let this project continue.

More information is available from the Apache Survival Coalition, P.O. Box 11814, Tucson, AZ 85734; Ernest Victor (602) 475-2361 x275.

Shoshone Land Rights in Nevada

The Western Shoshone signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley with the U.S. government in 1863. It is a treaty of friendship, and does not cede land rights in any way. It permits the passage across their lands of people heading westward, as they were at the time.

In 1951 the United States began seizing Shoshone land for military purposes. There are now six military installations on Shoshone land, including Nellis Air Force Bombing Range, the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and the China Lake Naval Weapons Station. In addition, ranching and mining have become lucrative interests.

The case of Mary and Carrie Dann is typical. The Dann Band ranches about 5,000 acres, surrounded by gold mine claims and larger, white ranching interests. In 1973 the Danns refused to pay grazing fees, apply for permits and follow herd requirements when ordered to do so by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

As Carrie Dann says, they have been “grazing cattle on these lands since we were little girls, just as our grandmother did before us. We have always used our treaty rights without paying fees or getting federal permits. I am grazing livestock on land which the federal government claims, but which I own.”

The legal battle has continued for seventeen years and ended in June, 1991, when a Federal judge reluctantly ordered BLM to remove “excess” cattle, horses and buildings from the land. The Danns moved their herds for the winter and sold extra stock as usual after the fall roundup, and the confrontation is on hold. BLM action is anticipated in the spring.

Several groups are working together to maintain an Alert Network of people willing to go immediately to the Danns’ aid, should the BLM move in. In addition help is needed with publicity and letter-writing.

Contact Pauline Estevetz at the Western Shoshone National Council, P.O. Box 140068, Duckwater, NV 89314; (702) 863-0227.

Lakota Sovereignty Battle

The Lakota Sioux supposedly hold the richest 100 square miles in the world, where the Black Hills are valued at $800 billion. So far $1 billion in gold has been removed by one company alone, half of all U.S. gold production. Native people do not benefit; they are plagued with unemployment, poverty, depression, accompanying addiction, as well as corrupt officials and police.

In 1973, amidst civil rights and anti-war demonstrations and the Watergate hearings, Native Americans decided to test the waters for support themselves. At issue was an unbelievable level of government corruption and death squad-style attacks and killings at the Pine Ridge reservation.

They planned a 200-person occupation of the trading post in the town of Wounded Knee, a symbol of exploitation to which most residents were deeply indebted, and the scene of the killing of 426 people in the final massacre of the Indian Wars eighty-three years ago.

What resulted was an overwhelming military assault, orchestrated by the FBI for seventy-one days, in which two Indians were killed and fifteen wounded. Another confrontation on June 26, 1975 led to the shootout for which Leonard Peltier has spent seventeen years in prison, despite admittedly fabricated evidence and the confession of another man. [See “Peltier: A New Try for Justice,” by Bob Robideau, ATC 34-ed.]

On July 14, 1991 the Lakota Nation publicly reaffirmed their sovereignty with a statement that began:

“The U.S. government recognized the Lakota as a sovereign nation by negotiating numerous treaties with the people. Only a sovereign nation may negotiate treaties. These treaties guaranteed the self-determination and territorial rights of the Lakota Nation. The U.S. government violated the treaties before the ink was dried, and still today refuses to respect the Lakotas’ right to self-determination, and the sovereignty of their territory.

“Today, the first priority of the Lakota Nation is to reassert these rights, to regain recognition as an independent people, and to regain jurisdiction within their territory. Our goal, in short, is LIBERATION from the imposed tyranny of the U.S. government, and from the multinational corporations which continue to pillage the Paha Sapa–the Black Hills–and other Lakota land.”

The Lakota view this as an issue of international and U.S. law, the environment, and the survival of their culture and people.

Contact the Lakota National Sovereignty Coordinating Office, P.O. Box 5686, Rapid City, SD 57709; (605) 348-9463.

Chippewa Treaty Fishing Rights

In signing the treaties of 1837, 1842 and 1854, the Lake Superior Chippewa sold most of their lands but kept certain reservations for their own use. They also reserved the right to continue hunting, fishing and gathering in the ceded lands, since the reservation land alone
wasn’t large enough to support all of them.

Of the 7,431 Chippewa who live in northern Wisconsin, about 200-400 have participated in the two-week spearfishing season each year, in what has become an ugly ritual of confrontation with white racists. Organizations like Women Against Military Madness (WAMM) have set up programs to accompany Chippewa people to the boat landings through gauntlets of screaming and often violent people.

Like many other species, the walleye in question have been badly depleted or contaminated through water pollution, destruction of spawning beds by siltation and development, and by acid rain. Increases in sport fishing and more sophisticated equipment have also contributed.

Many people, either confused by the information available or deliberately led astray by self-interested groups, have blamed the drop in fish on the reinstatement of Chippewa fishing rights in the mid-1970s. Native people suggest that their treaty rights and knowledge of the
environment can be helpful to all people willing to work together for ecological improvements.

In Washington state, treaty fishing battles in the 1960s and `70s resulted in shootings, boat sinkings, injuries and deaths. A 1980 court decision based on treaty rights stated that Natives not only had a right to the fish, but also to an environment clean enough to sustain them. As state officials finally began to work with Natives, changed pollution practices resulted in a net 29-68% increase in populations of fish species.

Contact Lucia Howard at WAMM, 3225 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 5408; (612) 827-5364. For further background coverage on the Wisconsin Chippewa (Anishinabe) struggle see “Anishinabe Continue Rights Fight” by Oscar F. Hernandez, ATC 33.

Alaska Base Violates Treaty Waters

A new $135 million U.S. Navy facility, the South East Alaska Acoustic Testing Facility (SEAFAC), is nearing completion on Back Island in Behm Canal, just north of Ketchikan, Alaska. It is designed to test nuclear submarines for the quiet operation of everything from toilet plungers to rear propellers to better avoid detection.

In order to reach this site, submarines powered by nuclear reactors and armed with nuclear weapons will likely travel through the Canadian body of water called Dixon Entrance. (The more northern approach through the U.S.-controlled Clarence Strait is more difficult to navigate.) Also in the area are four indigenous nations: Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Nishga, represented by the North Coast Tribal Council. Borders have been heavily disputed for years.

Canadians, Alaskans and First Nation [as Native Americans in Canada call themselves–ed.] members all rely heavily on fishing local waters for their food and livelihood. Fishermen, environmentalists and indigenous people have joined to form the Friends of Back Island (FOBIA), and are strongly opposed to the base.

They say that no environmental assessment plan has been done by the Canadian government, and the dangers are many. In August they were joined for several days by the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior to bring attention to the new base and its dangers.

Nuclear subs entering the Dixon Entrance will intentionally discharge coolant water, according to FOBIA, whose September 1991 report states that this “is a common practice of the U.S. Navy, and according to retired Submariner Captain James Bush these coolant waters have a high possibility of containing radioactive particles … Will these radioactive particles show up in the halibut, the salmon, the seaweed, the razor clams, the octopus, the people?”

Contact Michael N. Yahgulanaas, Old Massett Village Council, P.O. Box 189, Haida Gwaii, via Canada Post V0T 1M0; (604) 626-3337.

Quebec Menaces Cree

Hydroelectric dams built on the Canadian LaGrande River in the 1970s flooded 10,000 square miles, displacing 2,000 Crees, causing mercury poisoning of fish, predators and people through leaching of the soils.

Now Hydro-Quebec is in the middle of another project, at a cost of $62 billion, to dam nearly every river flowing into the James and Hudson Bays, a watershed area the size of France. With the ensuing infrastructure and importation of outside labor, the scale of destruction would be that of the Amazon Basin.

[A significant victory in blocking this “James Bay II” project was won recently when New York State cancelled its contract to purchase the electric power, but a long difficult struggle still lies ahead–ed.]

The hunting, fishing and trapping lives of the 15,000 Cree and Innuit would be destroyed. Calving grounds for the Beluga whale, waters for hundreds of kinds of duck, fishing and migratory birds would be wiped out. Thousands of Caribou, the largest herds in North America, have already died.

Canada does not need the power and plans to export much of it to the United States. Vermont has made promises, and New York signed contracts for $19 billion. Opponents of the plan make many points: 1) New York and Vermont won’t need new energy sources for at least a decade; 2) conservation of energy and alternative sources would be non-destructive, reduce air emissions, create five times more jobs and be 20% cheaper; 3) transmission of energy by high-powered transmission lines is inefficient and dangerous.

More publicity and pressure is needed quickly to turn things around. What better way to celebrate Columbus Day this year than with the knowledge that the lives of 15,000 Native people will not be destroyed?

Contact Ellen Kahler at the Vermont Coalition to Save James Bay, 21 Church Street, Burlington, VT 05401; (802) 863-2532.

May-June 1992, ATC 38