Indigenous and Native Organizing: A Very Basic Introduction

August 25, 2013

EMEAC decided that it was important to really educate ourselves on Native and Indigenous organizing as it pertains to the environmental justice movement.

While we can not possibly do justice to the entire history of Indigenous and Native organizing with just one little post, we hope that it provides enough of an introduction that readers are able to google terms or check out further reading material and begin their own process of education! 

Without a doubt, one of the most important terms to know related to Indigenous and Native organizing is "sovereignty." In the US, tribal peoples have a different relationship to the government than other communities of color. Because tribes were legally negotiated with by the US government during the Indian Wars era (signing treaties, recognized as conquered nations, etc), tribes in the US are generally understood as "domestic dependent nations." In general, this means that to a certain extent, tribes have the right to decide how their land/resources will be used, who the people of their tribe are, and how law enforcement will happen on their land.

Of course, sovereignty sounds like fairly straightforward common sense, but because the US has never officially stopped needing the resources that tribal peoples have on their lands, "sovereignty" and what it actually means has been subjected to painfully long court battles. Why do tribal courts have the right to enforce tribal laws? Why does the treaty from 100 years ago give a particular tribe ultimate say over what happens to the water on their land? The court system largely answers these questions, but generally has no authority to enforce the outcomes. This means that very often outcomes that are favorable to tribes very often aren't enforced or followed through on. 

At the same time, the legal relationship with the US that tribes have allowed for what many call "special privileges" (although it should be noted that genocide was the price tribal peoples paid for those so called "privileges"). But while many non-natives ask why tribal people get to hunt out of season, why they get casinos, or why they get to go to college for "free", sovereignty is something that also protects non-Natives as well, in ways that far far outweigh the supposed "special privileges" that only tribal peoples get. 

For example, in many treaties that tribes negotiated, they are ensured the right to hunt or graze on tribal land (whether or not they control/own the land itself). What this has meant is while tribes may not have express control over the land, they have the right to land that has game to hunt on it. That distinction may seem insignificant, but when mining companies were trying to take over much of the Ojibwe's ceded land during the "fishing wars" back in the 80s, the tribe was able to successfully argue against mines based on how harmful the mines would be to the land. If the lands are completely devastated by mining, there will be no game to hunt, and the US would be held liable. The argument proved so successful in a state that is traditionally pro-mining but ALSO pro-hunting, that the Ojibwe wound up gaining support from people who had started off protesting the Ojibwe's "special protections" AND winning the battle against the mining corporations.

You see a very similar situation going on with today's Idle No More movement. Although the original movement began in Canada with the First Nations peoples, the fight they were putting up was very similar to the fight of the Ojibwe. After a series of laws were passed that would've affected tribal peoples' right to water access (and horribly polluting and harming the water in the process), tribal peoples organized around "Indigenous Ways of Knowing rooted in Indigenous Sovereignty to protect water, air, land and all creation for future generations."

Idle No More has since expanded and become a world wide movement--but it's roots throughout the world remain grounded in the principles of sovereignty and as such, the principles of generational land protection. Another action involved First Nations from Manitoba serving eviction notices to mining corporations that were on their land. Idle No More groups have also been very vocal in their opposition to tar sands, fracking and oil pipe lines being built and they have used sovereignty as a way to fight these harmful practices. 

Tribal sovereignty is a hugely complex subject. There are many cases in court centering on tribal sovereignty that have been going on for decades. As stated at the beginning of this post, one single little blog post will not even begin to uncover the many layers around sovereignty. But it is an extremely important concept for non-Natives to understand. If we don't, we stand in danger of siding with the narratives around "special privileges," rather than with the reality of justice.

More reading:

Andrea Smith: Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
Vine Deloria: The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty
The Supreme Court Strikes a Hard Blow to Tribal Sovereignty in Adoption Case
Cherokee Nation's Baby Girl Goes on TrialWikipedia page on tribal sovereignty in the US


From the Directors: Streetcars and Highway Widening Projects Paving the Way for Injustice

August 5, 2013

Photo from http://www.publicadvocates.org

by Diana Copeland 
Detroit has long struggled with access to transportation issues and the two main transportation projects recently introduced to the city do not appear to offer any reprieve.  
As a representative of East Michigan Environmental Action Council, I regularly attend North End Woodward Community Coalition meetings. There, I witness testimony of Detroiters that have waited for over an hour for a bus; people that have lost their jobs because they were late for work because of bus delay; and folks waiting for buses only to have 2 or 3 busses pass them by at the bus stop.  It is clear that what Detroiters want and need is a reliable accessible rapid transit system. But, in recent project proposals for transportation that I have carefully pored over, there is no sign of help coming any time soon.  
In April this year the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) finalized the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the streetcar project.  This project was approved to replace the Woodward Light Rail project but it is a far cry from the Light Rail plan in terms of serving the people of the city of Detroit.  Despite overwhelming community turn out against the proposal, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) voted June 19th, for their 2040 transportation plan which includes a very controversial highway widening project of I-94 and I-75 freeways.
These elaborate and expensive plans (the streetcar will cost 137 million and the highway widening 4 billion) make little mention of a connected transit initiative.  If anything, that is still far off in the future.  The main issues with the justice implications of both projects are that they do not address improving health and quality of life, accessibility and affordability for the majority of Detroit residents. The Northend will be especially adversely affected by the streetcar’s Vehicle Storage and Maintenance Facility (VSMF), as noted in the EIS, by noise pollution caused by the streetcar turning in and out of the facility, storage of potentially hazardous materials and maintenance activity.
Neither project address accessibility issues in a meaningful way.  The streetcar system would serve less area than the original Light Rail plan and even less than an alternate improved bus service with increased number of buses, stops and system throughout Detroit would.  On both the original Light Rail and Streetcar EIS's, very little information was given explaining why a sophisticated bus system was not considered in place of the Light rail or Streetcar. It is essential to demand a cost comparison of both plans to an upgraded Bus System.  
Both projects come with large price tags for the city and residents.  The EIS states the system would largely serve the economic development of Downtown and Midtown, yet residents throughout the city will be stuck paying the unwieldy bills.  A majority of funds, $86 million, are coming from private and public investors, $25 million in Federal grants and $16 million in New Market Tax rebates for a total of $137 million.  For the amount of money that will be spent on the Streetcar system, a sophisticated bus service efficiently serving the entire city could be created that would more effectively meet the needs of the majority of Detroit residents while still bringing tourists’ dollars to local businesses. The Highway widening project is billed as part of a 4 billion dollar project.
As part of a variety of community transportation initiatives, EMEAC brings a race and class analysis to the forefront of the debates over transportation investments; we want to make sure that equity is at the heart of the transportation movement.  We do not feel like it is too much to expect that Detroit has basic transit service since our low-income people and people of color rely on them every day.
As an organization we strongly urge officials to guide transportation policy by the following principles:
   Accessibility: Transit systems must support the critical, day-to-day travel needs of the “transit dependent” - people without reliable access to a car. Transit routes must be reliable and well coordinated to allow for trips to school, work, shopping, recreation and medical care.
   Health and Quality of Life: Vehicles must be clean running to prevent toxins from polluting our environment and poisoning our bodies.
   Affordability: Fares should not exceed what families can reasonably pay.  Youth should get free rides or significantly discounted rides as many Detroit youth depend on buses to attend school.
   Public Participation: Community members must have a meaningful voice in decision making about how services can be improved and how dollars are spent.
   Accountability: Transportation planning and funding should reflect community priorities.
   Fairness: Low-income riders must receive an equal benefit from public transit dollars as higher-income riders do. Subsidies should be targeted to those who are least able to pay.
We reject both the street car proposal and the highway widening proposal.  Detroit’s businesses, residents, and families would be better served by transportation systems that include Accessibility, Quality of Life, Affordability, Public Participation, Accountability, and Fairness as policy principles.
We strongly encourage concerned citizens to attend the Northend Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) meetings held every 1st and 3rd Monday at St. Matthew & St. Joseph Episcopal Church (8850 Woodward Ave. Detroit 48202) at 5:30pm. For more information about the meetings please call Rev. Ross at 313.460.7076.