As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock
Beacon Press, 2018, 224 p. | commenté par : Julie Jacquet
What would environmental justice look like if Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews were placed at the centre of the concept and movement (p. 13)? This is the question that Dina Gilio-Whitaker asks in her second book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock. Gilio-Whitaker is a member of the Colville Confederate Tribes, a journalist, a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University, a consultant for tribal and environmental issues, and has previously co-authored All the real Indians died off and 20 other myths about Native Americans (Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker, 2016, Beacon Press). As Long as Grass Grows, published by Beacon Press in 2019, came out shortly after the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in the historical lands of the Lakota people, between the states of North and South Dakota in the present-day United States. Gilio-Whitaker begins with a detailed description of the DAPL project, how, like many other pipeline projects in the United States, it perpetuates environmental injustice for Indigenous Peoples through multiple treaty violations, human rights violations, and environmental racism. Despite their defeat, the #NoDAPL movement claimed itself as a victory since it was, and still is, the most significant Indigenous protest in recent US history. It is also an illustration of the recent and growing proximity between the Indigenous Peoples’ movement and the environmental movement on a global scale. This growing proximity is perhaps due to what Gilio-Whitaker describes as a recognition that what has occurred to Native nations around the world is now happening to everybody outside of a small and privileged elite. However, a dearth of knowledge persists in both activist and academic spaces regarding exactly what environmental justice is and looks like for Native American Nations and As Long as Grass Grows aims to fill this gap. Specifically, the author argues that Indigenous Peoples’ pursuit of environmental justice requires employing a lens which goes beyond the model of distributive justice which is anchored in a capitalist framework and typically used by environmental justice (EJ) scholars. Indigenising environmental justice means expanding its current scope to take into account the full weight of settler colonialism, thus recognising it as an ongoing and structural process of environmental injustice. It signifies embracing the ways Indigenous Peoples view land, nature and human relations with it. In other words, Indigenised environmental justice is restorative; Indigenised environmental justice acknowledges the political existence of Native nations and explicitly respects the principles of their nationhood and rights to self-determination (p. 12).
Gilio-Whitaker’s first chapter raises epistemological questions regarding environmental justice and specifically how it has been defined by civil society groups and the US government, without regard or respect for what EJ might actually mean for Indigenous Peoples. For example, classical environmental justice, as defined by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), collapses all ethnic communities into one block—people of colour—which disregards the unique political and cultural circumstances of Native nations and does not account for the complex and historical ways Indigenous communities have been displaced and assimilated (p. 19). Yet, Native Americans, unlike other minority groups, are in fact nations with political relationships with the US government. They also have unique and very different relationships with the land due to their ancestral tenure and also due to the processes of colonisation. Gilio-Whitaker references multiple Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars on these questions of justice, notably David Schlosberg, who highlights the different conceptions of justice within the EJ movement, and that too often Indigenous conceptions of justice—and Indigenous manners of understanding land and human relations with it—are in fact obstructed or unrecognised. Yet, for a conception of EJ to be relevant to a group of people, it must fit within the conceptual boundaries that are meaningful to them. Even more problematic, Gilio-Whitaker notes, are the numerous barriers preventing the actual participation of Indigenous nations and members in environmental governance. The EJ movement needs to recognise a decolonial framework and also recognise that colonialism is racism. Furthermore, EJ must be about justice, not equity. It must be about restoring balance in relationships, both human and non-human, which are out of balance. Finally, it must transcend a distributive capitalist model of justice and adopt a restorative orientation.
In the following two chapters, Gilio-Whitaker looks at the historical processes of both settler colonialism and the Industrial Revolution to show how racism underpinning these processes set into motion a torrent of environmental consequences. Place is a fundamental aspect for Native societies, and disrupting place hence impacts every aspect of Native societies. To illustrate this, Gilio-Whitaker details the multifaceted consequences of the flooding of ancestral lands due to the construction of dams, the clearcutting of forests, and the poisoning of Indian lands and waterways for railroad development, uranium mining, and fossil fuel extraction in the American West during the twentieth century. To be Native today comprises disconnection from land, the culture, and the lifeways that emanate from it, such as language, ceremonial and religious practices, culinary and medicinal knowledge. For these reasons, the author defends that the displacement and destruction of Native lands are ecocide, a form of genocide, because the environmental conditions for a community to perpetuate itself are no destroyed.
In the following chapter, Gilio-Whitaker addresses the links between land access, Indigenous traditional culinary practices, and the health of Indigenous communities. Settler colonisation and the environmental disruption which constitutes it, have made traditional food systems inaccessible to Native societies. It is the symbiotic relationship with place and their sense of responsibility to those places that guaranteed the health of the people and the lands they lived with. Combined with the imposition of qualitatively and quantitatively insufficient rations in the reservation system, Native Americans populations now have higher rates of lifestyle diseases and shorter lifespans than non-Native Americans. Interfering with a people’s food system, Gilio-Whitaker also argues, is to interfere with a group’s collective capacity to self-determine how it chooses to adapt to metascale forces like climate change or major economic transitions. Forces, she reminds us, which are not of Native making, are out of their control, but which they have been swept into.
This leads the author, in her fifth and sixth chapters, to shift towards the question of resistance, and specifically to unpack the historical relationship between the environmental movement and the Indigenous People’s movement. At its start, in the 1870s, with the creation of state and national parks, the environmental movement is rooted in white supremacy. The creation of enclosed parks forced and disguised the displacement and the dispossession of Native peoples from their historical homes in the name of the false myth of virgin wilderness, supposedly devoid of human life and intervention. This paradigm of human-free wilderness laid a foundation, Gilio-Whitaker reminds us (p. 95), for the 20th century environmentalist movement in extremely problematic ways. Among other processes, she looks at the making of various tropes of Indigenous People’s closeness to land: from the noble savage to the ecological Indian in the 1970s, all of which dehumanise, fetishise, and infantilise Native societies. She questions in the fifth chapter how, today, environmental awareness can be balanced with histories of injustice and disregard for tribal sovereignty. She examines ways the environmental organizations like Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club have clashed with the Indigenous Rights movement in the late 20th century over questions of land use, landscape and resource management. Yet, as demonstrated by the #NoDAPL movement, as well as by global summits, there has been recent and unprecedented levels of cooperation between the two movements. The author situates this cooperation in a broader context of growing fury as Big Oil continued to make record profits, as new massive pipelines were being planned, and in a climate of growing wealth and social disparities following the 2008 economic recession. Given the vulnerability of Native peoples around the world to abuses by the State and by the private sector, it seems logical that they would rise as global leaders of the climate justice movement (p. 109). This paved the way for critical mass at Sacred Stone Camp in 2016, the biggest tribally led act of civil disobedience in US history, to protest the DAPL, described in the book’s introduction. Nevertheless, there continue to be tensions and conflict between different segments of the protesting communities, notably regarding gender, which Gilio-Whitaker deconstructs in her sixth chapter. The author defends the need to critically analyse these conflicts, rather than overlook them, so that non-Native activists can learn to be respectful, effective allies, and constructive partners. And also to free the movement of white supremacy and saviourism (p. 112).
In the seventh and penultimate chapter, Gilio-Whitaker reminds us that the DAPL was controversial not only because it threatened the water sources of Standing Rock but also because it was directly in the path of sacred and ceremonial lands, which are outside today’s reservation borders, but within the unceded territory of the original Great Sioux Reservation. Battles to protect sacred sites have, in the past, been fought as religious battles, and they have tended to fail because the Eurocentric legal system in the United States is incapable of recognising Native Peoples’ worldviews. Worldviews composed of relationships of reciprocity, respect, and responsibility between humans but also extending to the entire natural world, forming a sense of kinship with the land itself. Humans are only a part of the natural world, neither central to nor separate from it. Yet, in failing to understand the religious frameworks of Indigenous Peoples and how land factors into them, the US legal system thus makes it impossible for Native peoples to win any sacred sites battles on the basis of religious arguments. Which is why, as Gilio-Whitaker proposes, a paradigm shift which regards the protection of sacred sites as an environmental justice issue would be beneficial.
The eighth and concluding chapter provides some ways forward; Gilio-Whitaker describes how alliances are forming between Native and non-Native peoples aligned against Big Oil and the extractive industries behind climate change. Fighting together has become a necessity; Native peoples can provide a road map and the leadership on how to develop a much saner relationship to the Earth, one that will ensure justice for everyone, including the Earth, as well as our survival. Indigenising environmental justice is thus necessary for all of humanity to resolve the profound social, political, and environmental crises we are in.
As Long as Grass Grows provides a thorough account of a major environmental and human rights concerns, that have been marginalised and deliberately obfuscated in the past decades and centuries in the United States. As a scholar and activist striving towards increased environmental justice for Indigenous Peoples, Gilio-Whitaker details a broad spectrum of issues encompassed by the fight for environmental justice for Native nations in the US but also globally. In each chapter, she poses specific and complex questions which she addresses through analyses of past and contemporary public policies, Indigenous thought, and academic work. This work shows how her experiences as a First Nations member, journalist, and academic can come together in a comprehensive way, contributing to existing questions and paradigms regarding environmental justice in academic and activist spaces. She also very successfully demonstrates how spiritual, ceremonial, and food practices are in fact questions of environmental justice. She also identifies the potential barriers to achieving EJ, namely the pervasiveness of white supremacy and settler colonialism at the governmental level but also within the environmental movement. She clearly demonstrates how the EJ movement could fail Indigenous Peoples if it does not recognise their unique place and worldviews. Nevertheless, Gilio-Whitaker ends the book with a chapter regarding possible and innovative ways forward for attaining environmental justice. Perhaps most importantly, As Long as Grass Grows highlights the importance of building alliances between groups, across social and racial divides, to fight a common enemy, corporate power and Big Oil.