Sometimes you have a blogpost which ends up so much longer than you ever intended it to be, and it just kept getting longer and longer, but you didn’t want to split it up into multiple smaller posts, so you just left it as is, in its crazy rambling length. This is one of those posts.
Homeland is a powerful documentary, which shares the stories of struggle of four indigenous communities in North America. The Penobscot Indians of Maine, fighting the pollution of their river by paper mills. The Northern Cheyenne in Montana, fighting against natural gas drilling which is destroying their land. The Gwich’in of northern Alaska, similarly fighting against oil drilling in their most sacred places. And the Navajo, who have suffered for decades the catastrophic effects of uranium mining.
I was on the verge of tears throughout much of this film, and once it was over, we all sat in stunned silence for a few moments, speechless at what we had witnessed.
Learning of these four stories made me feel great anger, but more than that, a deep sadness, for these peoples, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, and who have suffered so much at the hands of our government. Native peoples today control only 4% of the land area of the United States – when only, what, seven or eight or nine generations ago, all of it was inhabited only by Native peoples. It is not only what was done in the distant past – in terms of Western expansion and settlement, Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, etc. – but also what continues to be done today. Granted, local, state, and federal government do a lot of good things for Native communities; we should not demonize them entirely. But they do a lot of bad things, too, prioritizing industry and economics over protecting Native lives and lands – are these people not Americans as well? Are they not deserving of the government’s protection? Indeed, doubly so, since they are not only US citizens like the rest of us, but also have an entire federal bureau dedicated to their protection, in accordance with America’s own paternalistic rhetoric and laws regarding indigenous peoples. Though, indeed, our government and society, our American values seem, on a very fundamental level, to prioritize industry and economics over human lives and non-human ecology in general, destroying the land, air, and water for all of us, Native Nations and all other Americans alike.
Half the notes I took during the film, and during the conversation afterwards, are merely of terms: environmental racism, the disposability of human lives. Some lives, clearly, are held to be more disposable than others.
The Penobscot River. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
We learn of the Penobscot people of Maine, who once lived all across Maine, and whose recognized territory is now limited to a few islands within the Penobscot River. And that river, which flows from the most sacred mountain in the entire world according to Penobscot beliefs, that river in which people canoe and swim, and from which they get their fish, continues to be polluted, day after day, by paper mills. This story struck me particularly for several reasons. One, the three other stories deal with severely extractive and “dirty” industries. Coal, natural gas, and uranium mining are easy to see as the face of Big Industry, as major environmental destroyers, and as connected to major political issues regularly debated politically – fossil fuels vs. nucleaar vs. clean “green” energy; and in the case of the uranium, the issues of nuclear weapons and of war, overseas military deployment, the military-industrial complex more broadly. But paper mills feel so much smaller, so much more local. Who knew a paper mill could be as destructive as these other things? And yet, for a small people who rely so closely on this river, it truly is. And, as they explain, it’s not just about Native lives and livelihoods – everyone in the US is poisoned by this sort of thing, which goes on all around us. The process of bleaching paper produces a number of by-products, including dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known. And paper mills in Maine spew billions of gallons of untreated by-product water into the river. People who swim or play in the water get rashes or lesions on their skin, and the dioxin concentrates in the flesh of the fish, and then in the bodies of those who eat the fish. Looking at the white foam that floats in that river, it made me wonder how many times I, too, in streams or rivers, saw curious white foam and assumed it must be natural, or something not to worry too much about, when in fact it may very well have been evidence of serious pollution. Of course, this dumping of untreated pollution into the river is illegal, but the fines are only, at most, $3000 a year, a simple price to pay for a paper company that doesn’t want to pay a far larger amount to retrofit their factories to run more cleanly, and perhaps more importantly for a company that simply doesn’t seem to care. Instead of regulating the industry more strongly, the local or state government opted to simply issue health warnings, warning people not to eat more than 8oz of fish a month, or for pregnant women & children to not eat fish at all. Yet the Penobscot people eat far far more fish than that – they are modern people, in modern homes and modern clothing, like anyone else, but just like anyone else, they have their customs and traditions, and fishing and eating fish remains a central part of their culture, their identity as Penobscot. It was devastating to me to see one man talk about comparing a fish to a cigarette. And, again, I don’t know which is more moving – to think of these people as uniquely affected, their traditional foodways and their land being destroyed, or whether it is more moving to think of how similar processes are destroying all of our land, all of our food. The Native Americans are not the only ones affected by this – the destruction of clean air, of clean water, of the land itself, and the pollution of our food sources, affects all of us. I don’t even want to think about how much dioxin and mercury are stored up in my body from all the things I’ve eaten over the course of my lifetime.
Image found here. Original source/creator unknown. Investigation of origin of the quote, traced most likely to an Abenaki, Algonquin, or Mohawk speaker in 1972, described here.
I was struck, too, by the language and rhetoric that was used, as the film spoke of Native Americans having to sacrifice – sacrifice their land, their well-being – for the benefit of all Americans. Not only were Navajo lands used for uranium mines, but the air and water was severely polluted by those mines, and a whole generation of Navajo men – working adults in the 1970s or so – worked in the mines, exposing themselves and their families quite directly to very long-term radioactive dangers.
As citizens of any country, yes we all must be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard”) taken to its extremes would mean no factories, power plants, military bases, anywhere (because everywhere is someone’s metaphorical “backyard”). And so, I cannot deny there is nuance and complexity to be had here – there is a certain degree of logic to it, that the Cheyenne and the Navajo should have to sacrifice as well. If I have to deal with factories in my backyard, they should have to as well, or so the logic goes. But, there are also special conditions that have to be taken into consideration –
(1) these are a people who have been profoundly extremely wronged by the United States, its people, and its corporations. They have been killed in great numbers, their lands stolen, and it is about damn time they got a little justice;
(2) these are sacred lands – you wouldn’t build a factory or a power plant or a strip mine on the National Mall, or on Mt. Rushmore, and you wouldn’t build it in Bethlehem or the Old City of Jerusalem, so if we are sincere in our respect for other cultures, for diversity, then why should we be okay with building it on lands just as sacred to Native Americans as those other places are for us?;
(3) these people are formally recognized by the federal government as possessing a special status of national sovereignty that all the other NIMBY-ers do not. They are a Nation. A Nation that deserves to have a greater say than anyone else in what happens on their land, and to their people. We (the US) seek to protect our borders, our people, and our interests otherwise, both on US soil and beyond, and yet we deny that same freedom, that same right, to the sovereign Nations within our nation.
And let’s not even get started on the question of what does and does not count as “the greater good” (good for whom? by what metric? according to whom?). Yes, all people (including the Bundys and Hammonds) should have to sacrifice some of their freedoms, and their money (taxes), and so forth for the benefit of the whole. Locke and Rousseau, among many other thinkers upon whose thought modern Western political philosophy is based, argued as much quite convincingly. But all people should receive equal rights in return, and equal membership in the society – such that the society should care about their well-being. And this is not being extended, in a great many cases, to Native American peoples.
Returning to the point about language and rhetoric, I am struck by the parallels between the “sacrifice” of Native American lives and land, and the “sacrifice” of Okinawa and its people. The notion that Okinawa must sacrifice for the good of Japan runs deep, to the core of the modern narrative of Okinawan history and identity. In the 1870s, Ryukyu, a kingdom just as independent and sovereign as Japan itself1, with formal treaties signed with the US, France, and the Netherlands, and with strong political ties to China going back 500 years, was unilaterally overthrown and annexed by Japan. This was followed by decades of assimilation efforts to make Okinawa just as much a part of Japan as anywhere else. And yet, in 1945, rather than being considered more fully a part of Japan, to be protected as fervently as the rest of Japan, Okinawa was allowed to become a battleground, a land-stand location, in order to protect anywhere in “mainland” Japan from having to see on-the-ground fighting, and the death and destruction which would inevitably result. The island, and its people, essentially, were “sacrificed.” And when Okinawan people sought protection from their own country’s soldiers, they were told they must be willing to sacrifice themselves gloriously for the Emperor – they were made a target, placed in harm’s way as their homeland was made a military base and then a battlefield, and then they were forced to commit mass suicide rather than be protected by their own government’s army. Something like 50-75% of the island’s homes etc. were destroyed, and around 1/4 to 1/3 of the civilians killed. After the war, all of Okinawa was given over to US military control for nearly 30 years, and was allowed to remain under US martial law, “sacrificed” yet again, so that the rest of the Japanese people could be free and could return to self-governance. When Okinawa was returned to Japanese governance in 1972, some 1/5 of the island remained (and still remains today) under US military control – another sacrifice the Okinawan people have been told they must endure, for the benefit of all Japanese, for the sake of the military defense of the entire region against potential Chinese or North Korean aggression. Just as the Cheyenne and Navajo are told they too must sacrifice their lands, their health, their very lives, for the benefit of America as a whole.2
I think that all too often we think of Native communities as something different from the rest of us. We don’t understand their notions of ties to the land, their ties to their traditions. We see them through stereotypes of being opposed to modernity, opposed to progress, and as stuck in the past. But as we see clearly in this film, through conversations with real people, they really are modern people just like any of us (and, even if they weren’t, they’re still people and we should respect their culture, and their right to maintain their culture just like anyone else) … When you think about it, really, are their stories really so different from those of any of us? All of us, whether we are Irish or Polish, Vietnamese or Lebanese, we have stories of our people being invaded, colonized, or otherwise attacked or oppressed. We have stories of our people nobly and bravely fighting back, and stories of either winning against all odds, or of surviving the indignities of defeat and of the suffering which ensued. As a Jew, most certainly, I know of these stories. We were slaves in Egypt, but we escaped and suffered forty years of wandering in the desert to find and found a new homeland in Canaan. We were driven from that home by the Babylonians, and then by the Romans, suffering in the Crusades and in the aftermath of the Black Plague, and after that, the Inquisition. In lands further east, we suffered pogroms, and then in the 20th century, the Holocaust. My own grandparents survived Buchenwald, and saw nearly all of their friends and relatives rounded up and brutally murdered, along with some six million other Jews (as well as Roma, LGBT people, and those with mental difficulties). I have recently found hundreds of photos of my family in the refugee camps, in Poland & Israel in the 1950s, as well as some of their entry documents for the US. .. The United Nations granted my people a homeland, where we might be safe from persecution; one of the only cases in the world of an indigenous people returning to their homeland, enjoying true sovereignty there, with membership in the UN and so forth, and truly building an incredibly successful, stable, prosperous society there. And yet, this homeland remains one of the most controversial and embattled countries on earth.
My grandparents’ friends and neighbors in a refugee camp in Germany, in the late 1940s. Sure, the details are different, but at the core of the narrative, the Othering; the persecution; the loss of land, property, and livelihood; the restriction to camps or reservations… are we really so different? Can we not understand and sympathize with the plights of (other) indigenous peoples the world over?
If we think of what an indignity it was to lose Ireland, to lose Armenia, to face invasion, to be forced to assimilate to an invader’s culture, or to be driven from our homes, then whether we are Jewish, or Irish, Korean, Armenian, or whatever your background, then, I think hopefully we can sympathize with a people like the Cheyenne. After decades of fighting to retain their lands, and their sovereignty, the Cheyenne united with the Sioux and several other groups in 1876 at Little Bighorn, to make a last great stand. Think of William Wallace in Braveheart. They were defeated, and they were brought to Oklahoma. Somehow (I didn’t quite follow what the film said), the Cheyenne were able to convince their captors, the US military, to allow them to go, to walk north to attempt to return to their homelands. And walk they did, over a thousand miles. By the time they got to the Tongue River area in Montana, only 300 people remained. Only 300 people out of what was once a great nation. The 8000 people or so who live on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation today are their descendants. Only 8000. Embattled as I often feel as a Jew, a people who comprise only 1.4% of the US population, and whose homeland is smaller than New Jersey and being constantly in danger of being destroyed entirely, still we have something like 13-14 million fellow Jews in the world. To be one of only 8000, and to have your home constantly under threat from mining companies, I can hardly imagine.
A sign on the borders of New York State and Seneca land, alerting the driver that they are entering sovereign territory.
One issue that really stuck out for me from this film was the question of sovereignty. Many of these groups – the Penobscot, the Cheyenne, the Navajo, the Gwich’in – are formally recognized by the federal government as sovereign Indian nations. And yet, what does this sovereignty really mean? The Gwich’in live in a federally-designated nature preserve, which comprises only 5% of Alaska – the remaining 95% of Alaskan land is open for drilling. And yet, oil companies, with the backing of the George W. Bush administration, wanted, and still do, to drill for oil in what the Gwich’in people call “the sacred place where life begins” – the caribou birthing grounds. Disruption of this site could be devastating for the caribou, and for the Gwich’in people, who see themselves as intimately tied to the caribou. It burns and disgusts me that the woman still today calling for “drill baby drill” is not from some other part of the country, where they might not be aware of such issues, but rather is a former governor of Alaska, precisely the person who should, more than most, know, understand, and appreciate the concerns of the people of Alaska – the Gwich’in.
I know it can be difficult for those of other religious/cultural backgrounds to understand, but the caribou are important to the Gwich’in not in a hand-wavy, hokey superstitions sort of way; they are important in a deep, profound, way that cuts to the very core of what it means to be Gwich’in. If you wouldn’t drill for oil under the Temple Mount, or under the Church of the Nativity, then you should understand and feel the same for this caribou birthing site, and you should feel the same for the Penobscot River. Really, what it all comes down to is respect. Respect for others’ beliefs, whether based on recognizing the parallels with your own and having some sympathy, or whether it comes from stepping out of your own bubble, and simply more abstractly recognizing that not everyone should have to live by your values, your beliefs, your worldview.
The government of the sovereign Penobscot nation attempted to resist the paper companies’ demands for certain documents – they resisted by asserting that as a sovereign nation, they are not subject to US Freedom of Information laws. But, rather than recognize that sovereignty, Maine courts found the Penobscots in contempt of court. And when the Penobscots asserted that they have sovereign rights to protect their own lands and waters, and that since all Indian affairs are managed by the Federal government and not by the states, that Maine therefore should not have the power to issue licenses to the paper mills, the EPA, under Pres. George W Bush, for the first time in their history, sided with the State over a Native nation. Up in Montana, there are Federal agencies whose entire job is to help protect the Cheyenne and their interests. And yet, the Cheyenne have spent more time and money fighting these agents than anyone else. What does sovereignty mean, when the very government that has formally recognized that sovereignty, ignores it, pays it no heed?
This film opened my eyes to all kinds of issues I had not known about. And by the end I was wiping away tears. Native Americans are not some Other, to care less about. They are Americans like the rest of us, members of our society, members of our democracy, and their voices deserve to not only be heard, but to be respected, to be sympathized with, to be understood and appreciated. These people were here for thousands of years before us, and all they want is what most of us want – to live in peace, on our own lands, to observe our own traditions and to be able to pass them on to our children.
And, not only that, but the environmental issues they face affect us all. The people being poisoned by dioxin are not just the Penobscot – we all are. We are destroying our own land, air, and water, putting corporate profit first. This isn’t just a Native American problem. It is an American problem. It affects us all.
1. Well, Ryukyu was a feudal vassal under Satsuma domain, and a tributary to China. But, then, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Siam, were all Chinese tributaries, too. Tributary status doesn’t make you any less independent. And while Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma is complicated, Satsuma and Japan (the Tokugawa shogunate) both asserted Ryukyu’s foreignness and separateness in numerous ways on numerous occasions, even as they also claimed it in certain ways.
2. And that’s a whole other conversation, the centuries-long rhetoric of (neo)liberal capitalism and imperialism that equates the wealth of some with the well-being of all. We see it as early as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689) – I don’t know if it appears earlier: the notion that whoever uses an area of land to its utmost productive capacity is doing a good for all mankind, because God created arable land for us to farm it, and placed resources in the earth for us to mine it. Nature exists to be exploited for Man’s benefit, and if you are not using that land to its utmost, then you are not only depriving Mankind of those resources, of that wealth, but you are also acting against God’s plan. But, is “all of Mankind” really benefiting? Who is reaping the benefits of the extraction of those resources? Corporate coffers. Certain subsections of the population. Not *all* Americans, and most certainly not all mankind.
This sort of logic was fundamental to the stealing and pillaging of Native American land across the country in the 19th century, but of the histories with which I am most familiar, it is in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi that I find it most glaring. (see To Steal a Kingdom by Michael Dougherty, and Dismembering Lāhui by Jon Osorio) When Americans and Brits were brought in to serve as advisors to the Hawaiian government, to help the kingdom develop itself into a modern, democratic, and prosperous country, Western advisors chiefly advised them as to how to make it easier for (white) entrepreneurs and (American) corporations. They gave white men the right to own land, and then they gave them a great deal of the land, and for a certain period they even added in the right to vote without having to be a citizen (without having to swear loyalty to the King and Kingdom). They avoided regulation of industry, and put into place a variety of policies and arrangements which made it all the easier and more profitable for plantation owners and other big-business types. Corporate profits within the islands were seen as the goal, and were equated with being the strength of the national economy. When Native Hawaiians submitted formal petitions to their government, hundreds of petitions with thousands of signatures, saying that few if any of these policies had improved their well-being at all, that many of these policies in fact severely damaged or harmed their well-being, and that the people – the people of Hawaiʻi – were suffering, the Western advisors insisted this was irrelevant and petty, of no concern. The wealth of corporations, and not the well-being of the people, is the wealth of the nation. And this same bullshit logic continues to dominate much of our political discourse, and most especially when it comes to Native issues like these.