Standing Rock was a pivotal moment in regards to Indigenous resistance — but it was just one in a long line of battles that Indigenous peoples have been fighting against the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism since first contact.
Since 2016, there have been countless fights between Indigenous peoples and the forces of capitalism and extractivism which have received much less attention — but they are all part of the same struggle, one in which Indigenous peoples all across the world are not just fighting against corporations and the governments that support them, but are working to regenerate and restore their culture, language, and land.
Silicon Valley’s Standing Rock
After years of delay, an environmental impact report set to be released April 8 by Santa Clara County could determine the fate of a site held sacred by the Amah Mutsun band of the Ohlone Costanoan California Indians.
Known today as Sargent Ranch, it’s currently the site of legal battles between the Amah Mutsun and a property development corporation that wants to turn the area into an open-pit mine for sand and gravel that will be used for concrete to fuel local strip mall development and suburban sprawl.
Back September 2019, hundreds of people gathered here for prayer and protest, supporting Amah Mutsun traditions that date back thousands of years.
“Sergeant Ranch was known in our times as Juristac, and Juristac translates to ‘the place of the big head,’ Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal band, explained to me. “And our big head dances were our most important and most sacred dances of our tribe. And so this right here is actually a sacred site. The developers plan on tearing down that site and monetizing our most sacred site. We are fighting to stop that.”
Juristac has changed hands several times over the past hundred and fifty years or so. During California’s Mexican period, the land was granted to two German brothers by the governor of Alta California, José Castro. Later, it was purchased by a man named J.P. Sargent, who turned it into a 1,200-head cattle ranch. Ownership of the land has changed hands a number of times in recent years, until finally, after a series of controversial and unsuccessful development projects — from casinos to golf courses — the property was foreclosed upon.
It was then that the current owner, the Debt Acquisition Company of America — an investor group that specializes in purchasing and profiting off of foreclosed properties — bought the land at auction. Not long after they announced plans to mine gravel and sand from mountains on the property, turning them into giant pits.
Approval of the Sargent Quarry Project is contingent on a number of factors that are still pending. There’s currently an ethnographic study taking place, while a long-delayed environmental impact report by the County of Santa Clara’s Department of Planning and Development is due for public release on April 8. Its contents will have a significant impact on whether or not the quarry project goes through.
But for now, the Amah Mutsun will have to continue to wait for this sluggish, bureaucratic timeline to unfold.
There’s been no regard for our spirituality and our culture — the destruction and domination of Native Americans never ended. It just evolved into what we see today. — Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band
“Juristac is being destroyed today and it’s being sponsored by county government. If this happens it will show that the perpetrators who destroyed our territories, who committed genocide, collected bounties, kidnapped and murdered — those times still continue.”
The fight against colonialism and capitalism has been a long one for the Amah Mutsun, but they’re not backing down. With the upcoming publication of Santa Clara County’s draft environmental impact report,ribal members are planning actions, and are urging members of the public to speak out during the public-comment period.
There’s not a lot of general knowledge around this fight in California — so one of the biggest aims of the Amah Mutsun is to continue to raise awareness.
“We’ve been ignored, forgotten, have no value, and our history means nothing, means nothing,” Lopez said. “But today, our tribe is not going to allow that. We are speaking up. We are telling the truth — we are saying that we are still here and our voice will be heard. And we’re asking the public to understand and to stand with us as we fight to protect the few remaining cultural and spiritual sites that we have.”
More Pipeline Problems
A thousand miles up the coast from Juristac, in the mountainous wilderness of Wet’suwet’en territory, also known as British Columbia, Canada, another fight is taking place.
For years now, Wet’suwet’en land defenders have been protecting their territory from TC Energy, a Canadian company that wants to build the 400-mile, $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territory. The pipeline would transport liquified natural gas to the Canadian coast where it will be shipped to Asia for market.
They plan to drill under our sacred headwaters, Wedzin Kwa, which is the lifeline of our territory, where our salmon spawn, one of the last clean drinking water sources in our territory. —Molly Wickham, member of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation
“They plan to do micro-tunneling to put their pipeline underneath our sacred headwaters and get it to the coast, but they have never gained the consent of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs,” Wickham continued.
The fight against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline shares many similarities with the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline which took place in 2016 — especially in terms of the militarized response against Indigenous resistance.
“Over the past three years in Wet’suwet’en territory, there have been three militarized raids on our territories because of the resistance to this project,” Wickham said. “In all of these attacks, the RCMP” — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — “have been ramping up the violence that they bring to our territories. We saw militarized RCMP with sniper rifles, attack dogs, helicopters, assault rifles pointed at us and snipers aimed and trained on us during the arrests.”
Although the violence against the Wet’suwet’en is much more explicit, this is really the exact same colonial machine that threatens to destroy Juristac. Both fights tell the story of Indigenous resistance to exploitative colonial consumption.
In California’s Bay Area, the forces of capital are relying more heavily on pens and paper — on pliant politicians — but here in the remote parts of British Columbia, in a region much further from the spotlight, the settler-colonial state has no qualms about leveraging the full force of militarized state-violence in the pursuit of profit.
“This extreme violence has been brought onto our people who are unarmed, who have not exhibited violence, who are upholding our laws as Indigenous people in our land,” Wickham said. “The intimidation and harassment and violence is definitely increasing at the hands of the police because they are determined to push this project through and to do that by any means necessary.”
If it were to be constructed on their land, the Coastal GasLink pipeline would threaten the Wet’suwet’en in many ways. Aside from being an important source of water, the forests around the Wedzin Kwa have provided medical and herbal remedies for generations, the stones along the riverbanks are used in their sweat baths, and the coho, chinook, and steelhead salmon runs have been an integral part of the Wet’suwet’en diet and culture.
“Coastal GasLink claims that they are one-third of the way through constructing this pipeline, but most of the construction in Gidimt’en territory has not occurred,” Wickham explained. We have been able to protect our territories, for the most part, and we’ve received unfathomable support from all kinds of nations across Turtle Island and around the world, actually.”
Most recently, through a campaign called “No More Dirty Banks,” dozens of celebrities — including Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Amy Schumer — have signed a petition calling on the Royal Bank of Canada to stop financing the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in northern B.C.
“This isn’t just an issue about a pipeline, this is an issue about our future, our collective future as Indigenous people and as human beings on this planet,” Wickham said. “Unfortunately for Coastal Gaslink, they don’t understand that our law predates and is higher and more important than Western law in our territories. They’re never going to see the end of Wet’suwet’en resistance to this pipeline project until this project is done — until it is failed.”
The Right to be Cold
If we travel farther north, up and across Canada into the arctic, we see a similar story — one marked by a brutal history of violence, erasure of culture, theft of land, and destruction of the environment.
“Turning to our culture is an important piece for us to be able to stand back on our feet on solid ice — pun-intended,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist and author of the book The Right to be Cold, said. “As a people who have been so colonized and so oppressed and suppressed, where our dignity and self-worth have been eroded and leading to the addictions and all of the things that with the consequences of trauma, we are now turning to our culture.”
I say culture is the medicine that we seek in our world to bring us back to those places of strength and dignity and self-worth. — Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Canadian Inuit activist and author
Watt-Cloutier grew up in a little Hudson’s Bay Company town located in what is now known as Nunavut — a massive, sparsely populated territory in the far north of Canada marked by vast expanses of tundra, craggy mountains, and remote villages accessible only by plane or boat. The territory was formally given back to the Inuit for independent governance by the Canadian government in 1999.
“That’s my humble beginnings, traveling only by dog team in the winter and canoe in the summer. And we were very traditional in our ways, hunting and fishing and gathering,” Watt-Cloutier said. “And then at the age of 10, I was sent away for school. I was one of those kids that were sent away very young to be deprogrammed and reprogrammed, so to speak, which was quite traumatic. I spent two years away with the family and then three years at residential school and three years at a high school in Ottawa, Ontario, for a total of eight years away from home.”
Much of Watt-Cloutier’s current work focuses on how climate change is impacting the Arctic — where the impacts of planetary warming are being observed earlier and with more severe consequences than in the rest of the world.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic is warming at a rate more than twice the global average. The average surface air temperature over the Arctic last year was the seventh warmest on record — and the eighth consecutive year that temperatures were at least 1°C above the long-term average.
The warming of the Arctic, and the resulting decline in Arctic sea ice over the last 40 years, is one of the most iconic indicators of climate change.
By demonstrating how unchecked greenhouse gas emissions don’t just impact the ecology of the Arctic, but also violate the human rights of the Inuit, Watt-Cloutier’s work is an important contribution to the intersection of climate change and human rights.
The contours of climate change are often shaped along class and race lines: people of color, people with lower incomes, and Indigenous peoples are most impacted by its effects.
“Having lived very traditionally, there was a very strong bond and connection to the land and to the ice and to a way of life — the ice is our life force,” Watt-Cloutier said.
This isn’t just about the ice and polar bears, this is about us trying to defend our way of life, to be able to continue to hunt and provide the nutritional food for our communities, skills [that] are very transferable to the modern world.
The warming of the Arctic has had devastating impacts on the Inuit. When it starts to form, the ice serves as a kind of highway system connecting the landscape and hunting grounds. However, it’s becoming harder and harder for the Inuit to read the conditions of the ice as it continues to thin.
“We’ve got seasoned hunters falling through the ice who would have normally been able to read those conditions. Because it’s forming so differently underneath where you can’t see it, it really starts to minimize the remarkable ingenuity of Inuit culture,” Watt-Cloutier said.
Because the landscape is transforming so rapidly, decades and millennia of incredible traditional knowledge is being lost.
“It isn’t just about the ice that’s leaving — it’s the wisdom that goes with it that we are really fighting for and defending,” Watt-Cloutier said.
Again, forces that are melting the snow and thinning the ice in the Arctic are, ultimately, the very same forces behind the desecration and destruction of Amah Mutsun land and culture and the extreme violence wrought upon the Wet’suwet’en.
Colonialism and capitalism have led directly to climate change, and when combined with racism, they have formed a tripartite of forces assuring that those who have contributed least to climate change are those who are the most at risk.
Still, the answers may lie in the practices—and pasts—of those most affected.
“It’s Indigenous wisdom that is the medicine the world seeks in terms of gaining back that sense of how to deal with these unsustainable activities that we have been in for so long which are at the root cause of climate change to begin with, ” Watt-Cloutier said.
Indigenous Resistance to Climate Change
The water protectors at Standing Rock who were resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline marked a defining moment of Indigenous resistance and land defense.
2016 has been called the “Year of the Water Protector,” but it was just part of a much broader movement of Indigenous resistance efforts across North America, including Dooda Desert Rock, Unist’ot’en Camp, Keystone XL, Trans Mountain, Enbridge Line 3, Save Oak Flat, Bayou Bridge, Kumeyaay Defense Against the Wall, Winnemucca camp, among many more.
In fact, according to a report titled Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon, published by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, Indigenous resistance alone has stopped or delayed significant levels of greenhouse gas pollution.
“Indigenous resistance and their victories against fossil fuels kept 6.56 billion metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, which is one-quarter of the emissions for the U.S. and Canada combined,” Alberto Saldamando, a co-author, along with Dallas Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon report, said. “Indigenous resistance to — and victories against — oil pipelines, against coal mines, against extraction, actually kept carbon out of the atmosphere. Our victories really contributed to the struggle against climate change.”
The report that Saldamando co-authored examines 26 Indigenous frontline struggles against a variety of fossil fuel projects over the past decade.
‘Indigenous peoples have a connection to the land — a spiritual as well as a material connection — the land provides for them,” Saldamando said. “In helping frontline communities in their struggle, we’re also contributing to their sustainability, their food security, food sovereignty, their environments, their biodiversity — it’s just woven together. All of these things affect each other. And so we’re out there trying to raise, to uplift the frontline communities and create an international movement.”
The story of Indigenous resistance is also one of Indigenous regeneration: not just of land, but of culture, language, lifeways, and wisdom.
For example, here in California, while defending attacks against their sacred cultural and spiritual sites like Juristac and Mount Umunhum, the Amah Mutsun are also focused on cultural and ecological restoration efforts, taking proactive steps towards building a sense of tribal identity through teaching their history, practicing their culture, and staying connected to the land.
Programs range from conservation and environmental education — things like archeological and fire research — to cultural relearning efforts, such as storytelling, ceremonial practices, and language.
“We went almost 90 years without a fluent speaker, and when there’s no fluent speaker it’s hard to learn” Valentin Lopez said. “So we’ve worked with linguists from UC Berkeley, University of Arizona, UC Davis, and other universities as well, and we’ve put a dictionary together — took us nineteen and a half years to put a dictionary together. And we have a very good grammar book actually. So we’re working on language and it won’t be long before we have fluent speakers brought back to our tribe.”
The efforts at relearning the Mutsun language are all part of a larger program known as the Amah Mutsun Land Trust. The land trust was established in 2012 and has the goals of “preserving and protecting our cultural and spiritual and sensitive sites,” Lopez explained.
He continued: “[The purpose of the trust] is to do research to help us restore the Indigenous knowledge of our ancestors. There’s an education component to allow us to teach our tribal members of our traditional knowledge of tending, caring for the plants and the environment. And another component is to have an actual stewardship core where we have our tribal members out on the lands actually working to help us restore the landscapes back to the conditions that were before first contact.”
There are many ways that returning land stewardship to Indigenous communities is helping to restore ecosystems.
For example, The Amah Mutsun Land Trust is researching and restoring traditional Native burning methods, which could help the state reduce the risk of extreme wildfires.
For thousands of years, the Amah Mutsun have been lighting prescribed, methodical fires across the Central California Coast. These practices were banned by the Spanish colonizers starting in the Mission period, and since then, California’s wildfires have been intensifying.
2020’s CZU Lightning Complex fire, for example, was one of the most destructive fires in state history as well as the largest fire in recorded history for the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Native stewards are regularly engaging in prescribed burns — a practice that has multiple benefits, from promoting native wildflower biodiversity to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
In fact, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed giving Native American tribes in California $100 million to purchase and preserve their ancestral lands. The proposal is part of a larger program intended to ensure that around one-third of California’s land and coastal waters are preserved by 2030.
If implemented, Newsom’s proposal would be an important step in the broader “Land Back” movement, which is focused on returning stolen lands to their original stewards with the dual aims of justice for Native peoples and the mitigation of the impacts of climate change.
“Whenever people talk about climate change, they always talk about loss of biodiversity — we are actively working here to restore biodiversity,” Lopez said. “Our land trust is recognized as changing the way that these lands are stewarded. Before, stewardship meant you put a fence around it, put a path there and call it stewardship, but our people, they actively managed and took care of their lands, the plants, the animals, and they developed a lot of techniques and strategies, including the prayers and the ceremonies and the understanding that it’s an important, intimate, loving relationship with all living things that we had. And we need to get back to that if we’re going to save Mother Earth.”
The draft environmental impact report is scheduled to be released on April 8th, after which a 60-day public comment period will proceed. Find out more at https://www.protectjuristac.org/how-to-help/ where you can sign the petition to protect Amah Mutsun sacred ground from the proposed quarry.
This story is part of an audio documentary produced by Upstream titled: Our Struggles are Your Struggles — Stories of Indigenous Resistance and Regeneration. Listen to the full documentary below or at upstsreampodcast.org.
Teaser photo credit: Upstream podcast.