Monday, January 18, 2016

A richness that's worth fighting for

Many of the people waging the fiercest anti-extraction battles are, at least by traditional measures, poor. But they are still determined to defend a richness that our economy has not figured out how to count. “Our kitchens are filled with homemade jams and preserves, sacks of nuts, crates of honey and cheese, all produced by us,” Doina Dediu, a Romanian villager protesting fracking, told a reporter. “We are not even that poor. Maybe we don’t have money, but we have clean water and we are healthy and we just
want to be left alone."

– Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014

Around the world, indigenous peoples are embracing the reality that money doesn't buy health and happiness.  Closer to home, the Northern Cheyenne of Montana mobilized themselves to successfully oppose one of the largest coal mining operations in the world, the proposed Otter Creek mine in the Power River Basin (the mining rights or land leases were given by the state to the Arch Coal and Peabody Energy corporations). 

Most people will probably be surprised to learn that 40% of all the coal that is mined in the US comes from Montana, which has the largest repositories of recoverable coal in the US, at least 120 billion tons, one-quarter of all known US reserves. [ source ]   But not one bit of that coal comes from Cheyenne reservations, and if the Cheyenne have anything to say about it; not one bit more will be mined without their approval.

The Cheyenne are, by our standards, desperately impoverished.  The unemployment rate for the tribe is 62%.  Substance abuse is a huge problem; most of the tribe lives in sub-standard housing.  Why would they opposed a mining project that would bring money (actually, lots of it) into their communities and reservations?  Why did they fight it so hard for so many years; when they were always totally outgunned by corporations which had far more political power, and almost endless financial resources?
Simple.  The Northern Cheyenne, like so many indigenous peoples around the world, decided that their culture was worth more than all the wealth that the coal mining could bring them. That's extremely hard – almost impossibly hard – for anglos to understand.  It's something we've never had to choose for ourselves, culture versus money; our culture is based on money.
What these native peoples are resisting and rejecting is "colonialism" ... not colonization.  They fought colonization generations ago, and lost that fight.

Colonization: displacing the rightful inhabitants of a territory
Colonialism: destroying the culture of those inhabitants

Colonialism, I believe, happens to immigrants too.  Destroy their culture.  Enforced conformity.
When the Canadian government passed Bill C-33 last Spring, the First Nation Education Act, it was rejected by the national Assembly of First Nations (AFN).  The funding for native schools was rejected because the strings attached to it, to control those schools, were unacceptable to natives who remember the history of Canada's residential schools.  The Assembly of First Nations rejected $1.9 billion in education funding from the Harper government.  That's huge.  To accept that money, they felt, would have meant giving control of the native schools back to the Canadian government. [more about that]

The history of the residential schools is the main reason why they would not accept that money.  Colonialism.  They would not accept the government's open apology as full recompense for past injustice.  They won't agree to "live in peace, as long as you live like us."  And I think their choice was admirable.