Talking about the future of Mother Earth


Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) held its 15th Protecting Mother Earth conference July 17-20. IEN, a national network of indigenous peoples, officially began its meeting at dawn by igniting the sacred fire with coals from its previous conference held in Leech Lake, Anishinaabe territory in Minnesota. The fire was maintained during the four days of the convening and was extinguished the last day at a ceremony where coals were rescued for the next conference in two years. The meeting was held outdoors under canopy tents and conferees slept in tents, which surrounded the conference grounds. Spiritual cleansing sweat lodges took place early mornings and evenings in which water was poured over burning rocks heated with firewood.

This year’s IEN conference was held in territory of the Western Shoshone Nation in Newe Sogobe, Nevada and hosted by the Western Shoshone Defense Project. Desert temperatures fluctuated more than 40oF between day and night. The sacred fire was a common gathering place during cool nights, where participants continued their conversations on global problems, challenges and solutions. More than 600 attendants, mostly from indigenous nations of the United States and Canada, but also from as far as Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, and Europe, discussed energy and climate change as it affects indigenous peoples. Stories were told of health damage and ecological destruction brought about by oil refineries, coal power plants, gold mining, and nuclear military activity.

Participants talked of how pipelines take oil from and through indigenous lands and in the process create environmental devastation and sickness. A project to extract oil from the tar sands in Northern Alberta, Canada has cleared old growth boreal forests. This development has devastated the Dene, Cree and Metis people who live largely off subsistence from the land. The companies mining the tar sands have proposed to build tar sand refineries in North and South Dakota, and other states. These refineries would be the first built from the ground up since the 1970s.

A proposed 1,600-mile new pipeline expansion to transport Alberta’s tar sand oil would run diagonally across northern Minnesota along an existing pipeline all the way to Superior, Wisconsin. The “Alberta Clipper” pipeline’s expansion would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in the Upper Midwest. Opponents say the pipeline would contribute significantly to global warming for the way oil is extracted from the tar sands, which is extremely energy intensive. Tar sand oil extraction requires stripping all the trees and vegetation, scooping up and steaming the sands. Potential oil spills on Minnesota’s wetlands is also a concern. IEN states that very few of these projects are assessed for their social and cultural costs or their cumulative environmental and health impacts, which would cause fragmentation of the boreal forest, disruption to indigenous cultural life-ways and production of greenhouse gases.

Concerned community members at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, site of a proposed tar sand refinery, have formed the Environmental Awareness Committee to educate the community about the impact of the oil refining process. An environmental impact document for public comment will be available on EPA’s Region 8 web site and at IEN’s web site.

Kandi Mossett, IEN’s Campus Climate Change Campaigner, and a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation was diagnosed with cancer at age 20. She grew up in New Town, North Dakota in an area surrounded by eight coal fire power plants and one refinery. Kandi said “Back home cancer is not a matter of “if,” it is only a mater of “when.” I lived to tell my story and it became a decisive factor in my life as an activist for environmental and racial justice.”

Casey Camp-Horinek from the Ponca people of Oklahoma said, “We are on the frontlines of genocidal environmental attack by major corporations like Conoco Phillips, Continental Carbon Black, and Ponca Cities Landfill. They are poisoning the air, the water, the earth and all connecting relatives such as animals, plants, fish, and rivers. Indigenous peoples have outlived centuries of abuse, we have the strength, the knowledge and the courage to survive.”

In the past decade the Western Shoshone Nation has challenged the legality of mining and nuclear activity granted by the U.S. government on Shoshone land. Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone Grandmother and member of the Western Shoshone National Council has requested an explanation from the U.S. government on the invasion of Western Shoshone territories. The Council has approved a national seal for government documents, began issuing passports for foreign travel, and authorized an office of Western Shoshone Marshals to observe, record, and document U.S. actions within Western Shoshone territory.

Larson Bill, Community Planner of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, led a tour to a gold mine owned by the Barrick Gold Corporation, the largest mining company in the world with alleged serious human rights violations. Nevada’s portion in Shoshone land ranks third in gold production after South Africa and Australia. Larson said that mining is desecrating indigenous sacred places and inflicting a devastating effect upon their homelands, water and cultural areas. Water from aquifers is being depleted for the sake of mining operations.

Louise Benally from the Navajo Nation in Arizona remarked “The more we want to be glittery, the more poison we are creating.” She used to have a gold ring with a diamond. Once she read about the suffering of the people in Africa she decided to get rid of the ring. She added “It is time to go back to the horses. It is time to go back to the basics.”

The Western Shoshone people oppose current U.S. government plans to store nuclear waste from all over the country and from abroad at Yucca Mountain, Nevada because they view it as a sacred place and for the potential risks to human health from radioactive contamination. Ian Zabarte, Secretary of State of the Western Shoshone Nation (Principal Man for Foreign Affairs of the Shoshone Nation) said “We have an obligation to future generations to do the same as our ancestors who took care of our land. When I grew up my people suffered hypothyroidism and died from cancer. We did not understand what was going on. There was no epidemiological data, so we relied on qualitative information to understand the relationship between our diseases and nuclear radioactivity. People remembered seeing the “flash” coming from nuclear test sites and feeling sick after they ate food from their contaminated gardens. They remembered how their children fell ill.”

Bob Shimek, Aanishinaabe IEN’s mining campaign organizer in Minnesota, said “Many indigenous people believe that uranium is buried in the world because it is evil and it is for a very good reason that it should stay buried.”

Shawna Larson, Ahtna Athabascan and Supiaq, Aleut/Eskimo from Alaska, working with the Alaska Community Action on Toxics said that heavy metals and highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, such as DDT, PCBs, and dioxins, some already banned and rarely used in the Artic are found in very high levels in native people and wildlife in Alaska. These pollutants used somewhere else are transported by wind, water currents and migratory species and concentrate in large quantities in the Artic. Alaskan indigenous people according to their cultural traditions feed on local fish and wildlife, which are considered to be the most contaminated in the world.
Andrea Carmen, Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council urged the audience to use as a tool the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007. The UN Declaration was the result of 20 years of work by indigenous peoples worldwide, together with governments and UN experts. The UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights is a landmark towards international recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. Among the states who voted for the UN Declaration,144 states were in favor and only the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand voted against it. However, earlier this year the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, that monitors the legally binding Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, informed the US that it must apply the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Today only Bolivia has >adopted the UN Declaration as national law, although many states and indigenous peoples around the world are beginning to implement its various provisions upholding rights to lands, natural resources, treaties, recognition, free prior informed consent and self-determination, among others.

Arthur Manuel of the Secwepemc Nation and spokesperson of the Indigenous Network on Economics and Trade from British Columbia said “Indigenous peoples can provide a strong foundation for the rest of the world. We believe in shared economies.”

The conference was powered from a mobile solar energy system, provided by the EarthCycles radio bus. Also, Solar Energy International from Paonia, Colorado gave demonstrations using solar cooking ovens.

Tom Goldtooth, Dine’ and Dakota IEN’s executive director, based in Bemidji, Minnesota expressed his thoughts on the conference: “This is a convergence of information and political strategy to confront industrialization and the role of multinational corporations that are infringing on the rights of indigenous peoples. We reaffirm the utilization of our indigenous traditional knowledge and cosmo vision around specific issues of mineral extraction, energy, climate, globalization, and toxic contamination.”

Chela Vázquez from Pesticide Action Network North America attended the 2008 IEN conference in Nevada.