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Resource Extraction and American Indians: The Invisible History of America

The recent American Indian protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota, protesting environmentally irresponsible and culturally damaging resource extraction, encouraged me to reach out to my American Indian friends.  The blood of the Cherokee Nation flows in the veins of my own family members.  I wanted to draw out their stories and to report on...

The recent American Indian protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota, protesting environmentally irresponsible and culturally damaging resource extraction, encouraged me to reach out to my American Indian friends.  The blood of the Cherokee Nation flows in the veins of my own family members.  I wanted to draw out their stories and to report on their view of past and present US Government actions effecting the natural resources on or adjacent to their ancestral lands. Here you will meet talented author and photographer, Caddo and Delaware tribal member Joe Whittle. His is an authentic, powerful and articulate voice of wisdom from one of the first People of America.                             Michael McBride

Thousands of years worth of history, knowledge, culture, and human identity have disappeared from the Western Hemisphere, wiped from the faces of two continents forever. Relatively little remains of the vast myriad of indigenous cultures that once populated the lands of North and South America. Those who’ve survived have done so embattled, their communities devastated by war, displacement, trauma, and disease. Most of the damage to indigenous people and cultures can be traced to one driving force of Western Civilization: resource extraction.

The first resource extracted from indigenous Americans was gold. When the (extinct) Arawak ran out of gold to bring Christopher Columbus, he turned to the people themselves as the resource, garnering the majority of his profits by selling them as slaves. This set the tone for dealings with indigenous cultures by the captains of industry who were to be the real conquerors of the “New World”. There are countless cases throughout history of tribal peoples being dislocated, abused, and even killed by resource industries and the government policies that support them. Homelands have been lain to waste. Subsistence cultures and the societies tied to them have disappeared along with traditional food sources and even potable water. For centuries indigenous people have paid the major share of the cost of civilization’s insatiable appetite for land and resources. Yet, in most cases, they’ve received little to none of the profit or benefit from those resources. Often they’ve been forced to give them away to survive wars and modern economies. Or, to embrace extraction industries as a sole source of capital after traditional territory and means of subsistence has been taken from them.


Although resource extraction has affected my own tribes (Caddo and Delaware), my journey to understand the interwoven story of resource extraction and Native American people began 17 years ago inside the hogan of Navajo grandmother Glenna Begay. There, as a 24 year old college student on my first journalism project, I was truly awakened to the depth of that story and how fundamental to the American existence it is.

Grandma Glenna lives on Black Mesa without running water or electricity, tending to her sheep and corn in the way her ancestors have for generations. Her life is based largely on subsistence and cultural tradition. Since the late 1970s, over 14,000 Navajo people have been forcibly removed from their homes and land as part of a Federal relocation program. Much of that land is now underneath Peabody Coal Company strip mining operations on Black Mesa (so named for the coal that washes out of the earth when it rains there). Glenna and her family refuse to leave their ancestral home. They live illegally just a few miles from the encroaching strip mine, resisting Federal relocation.


In the photo above, Carlos Begay stands atop boulders that have crumbled into the dry bed of Owl Creek. Blasting operations at the coal mine can be felt and heard across Black Mesa. For decades the mine drew about one billion gallons of water a year from the sole desert aquifer underneath the mesa for a slurry line to the generating station in Nevada. Many of Black Mesa’s springs and streams are now dry. Carlos, 24 years old when this picture was taken in January of 2000, remembers swimming his horse in this stream as a boy. His grandmother Glenna can remember backing her family’s wagon up to the springs that once fed this creek and filling wooden barrels with water to take to their nearby home. The Begay family must now drive miles across the desert in a flatbed truck to fill a 200 gallon water tank for themselves and their livestock. The mine offers water it has drawn from the aquifer to Black Mesa residents who can no longer find water in their home areas. Peabody representatives state that natural drought conditions have caused water shortages on the mesa, not tapping the aquifer.

Pictured below, Navajo elder Larry Price stands in front of the hogan he was born in deep within Canyon De Chelly, Arizona. His home is unaffected by mining operations on the Navajo Reservation, in part because he lives within Canyon De Chelly National Monument, which has been protected from mining activity. (Similar protections have recently affected the Navajo Nation within the newly established Bears Ears National Monument, which the Trump administration and members of Congress have said they will undo.)


The history of the Navajo Reservation reveals a tragic tale of systematic construction of Indian policy that sets extraction industries in position to manipulate and take advantage of tribes and their natural resources. It’s a pattern that has been repeated across Indian Country. The formation of the Navajo Tribal Council was enacted by the Federal Government with the direct participation of companies like Standard Oil, for the sole purpose of signing mineral leases allowing oil, coal, and uranium mining on Navajo land. The vast energy resources found within the Navajo Reservation powered southwestern cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles for half of the 20th Century. Cancer and Black Lung Disease run rampant on the reservation, which was created around the largest deposit of coal in North America, and contains many other mineral resources. Today, the results of systematic manipulation of Indian law, policy, and government, show Navajo grandmothers living in daily fear they will be dragged from their ancestral homes as their grandparents were during Kit Carson’s “Scorched Earth Campaign”. Elders living traditionally on the land who have been relocated to city tract housing under the relocation program, have succumbed to illness, suicide, and death at rapid rates.


Far north of Navajo country, Canadian First Nations have experienced their own damage from resource extraction industries. In the photo above, Lubicon Cree tribal member Melina Laboucan-Massimo examines black tar sands sludge taken from a muskeg, polluted by the 28,000 barrel Little Buffalo Pipeline Spill in April of 2011. This muskeg water resource once teemed with life, and provided an important fishing and hunting location for the Cree villagers of Little Buffalo. The oil spill was one of Canada’s worst among hundreds of catastrophic pipeline ruptures crisscrossing indigenous territories. When this photo was taken, the Plains Midstream pipeline company had called the site, “rehabilitated”, which the Canadian government seemed to accept without oversight. After the company announced that the muskeg had been rehabilitated, we ventured out to investigate for ourselves in June of 2012. We were the first non-employees allowed on the site after it had been closed off by the company for over a year, (even to tribal members whose land it was on). It’s been argued that it is not possible for an ecosystem to ever fully recover from a tar sands bitumen spill. According to the people who utilized this muskeg for generations, it was anything but “rehabilitated”.

Upon our return from the spill site we gave photos and water and mud samples to GreenPeace. They immediately released to the public our documentation of the still-toxic condition of the muskeg. The government oversight that had been lacking was finally triggered. Alberta’s Energy Resource Conservation Board ultimately issued four high-risk enforcement actions against Plains Midstream. The investigation revealed operational failures by the company, including inadequate leak detection and emergency response. A high-risk enforcement action indicates the incident has both public safety and environmental impacts. The pipeline was shut down for 122 days as part of the penalty. On April 26, 2013, Plains Midstream Canada was charged with three counts of violating environmental protection laws relating to the spill. The charges pertain to: “the spill itself, failing to take all reasonable measures to repair the problem, and not pursuing all steps possible to remediate and dispose of the oil”. (Currently, Plains Midstream is building a pipeline across my own tribe’s ancestral land and waters in Texas and Oklahoma. In 2016, they were indicted on dozens of criminal charges for a spill in California.)


The photo above shows children from the Lubicon Cree village of Little Buffalo playing in the schoolyard at a community function. Their school had to be evacuated and closed for a week after the nearby oil spill. Many children fell ill with various symptoms. Thinking that something inside the building was poisoning the school, teachers evacuated children outside into the invisible fumes released by the pipeline. Notice of the spill wasn’t issued by the company until long after people had become sick.

As Canadian oil development increases on indigenous lands, some tribes who still rely on subsistence practices have had to travel farther and farther from their homes to locate game. Others living close to oil development or downstream from refineries are finding fish and wildlife infected with strange diseases. Rare cancer rates have spiked among residents living in direct contact with tar sands wastewater and affected food sources.


Melina’s father Billy Joe, chief of the Lubicon Cree, led us on an unsuccessful moose hunt to find food for the family. We didn’t find big game, but subsistence practices are about using whatever the land provides. What we found that day was a grouse, and some wild strawberries. Billy Joe killed the grouse for dinner that night. He explained how he always leaves the meat of the thighs and legs for the forest creatures to eat. Hunting and gathering traditions require giving back spiritually and physically for the “resources” that are harvested from the Earth. They are received as gifts, not taken as rightful possessions. Upon cleaning the grouse, he discovered the stomach contained the same berries we had been feasting on. He told us when a grouse is found with berries in its stomach, a tradition was to inflate the stomach with air and tie it into a ‘balloon’ (above). It is then hung in a lodge somewhere. If a person is caught standing under it, they have to tell a story. Stories are the binders of family, culture, and life among indigenous people. We believe we cannot allow the traditions and practices tied to those stories, such as sustainably harvesting the gifts of the Earth, to be threatened or lost in the name of profit.

Back in the United States, the residents of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation recently had the Dakota Access Pipeline forcibly installed through their drinking water to transport fracked Bakken crude oil, after an Executive Order by President Trump called for its completion. The pipeline was rerouted from an original route passing through the town of Bismarck’s drinking water, for safety reasons. Instead, it was placed in an alternate route below Bismarck, crossing the Missouri River just a few miles upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation water intake. The pipeline now passes through land and water with rights belonging to the tribe by the Fort Laramie Treaty. They unsuccessfully requested an Environmental Impact Statement before approval by the Army Corps of Engineers. Many people point to the fact that water rights for the residents of Bismarck have been honored, while the tribe’s have been ignored.


Incidents like the Little Buffalo spill motivated hundreds of tribes, and thousands of allies from around the world, to stand with the residents of Standing Rock. “It’s not a question of if, but when”, says indigenous activist Dallas Goldtooth in regard to pipeline spills. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation tribal member, Stephenie Barkley, shared why her family went to support Standing Rock. “I was raised traditionally. I know that water is sacred and the bringer of life. What is happening to the Standing Rock Sioux is a large burden that weighs heavy on their hearts. The pain inflicted upon them is a weight they need help carrying. They needed us to come and lift their spirits, adding our prayers and songs to theirs.” Her family donated the tipi seen above to those encamped on treaty land resisting the pipeline. Lights from a police blockade and pipeline construction can be seen in the background.

Renown Onondaga faithkeeper and chief Oren Lyons once said, “We don’t call a tree a resource. We don’t call the fish a resource. We don’t call the bison a resource. We call them our relatives. But the general population uses the term resources, so you want to be careful of that term – resources for just you?” At Standing Rock, traditional respect for life and the natural gifts that sustain it inspired people to stand up against destruction of the “resources” indigenous people consider sacrosanct and vital to existence. The phrase “mni wiconi”, meaning “water is life” in Lakota Sioux, became the rallying cry for those who call themselves Water Protectors.

“When I was just a boy my grandma used to tell me, ‘Grandson, let’s walk out into the hills and listen’. We used to go out there and listen to the spirits, really listen to what they had to say. If you really do believe in the traditional ways, and if you actually do open your eyes, and listen to what’s going on around you, they’re trying to tell you stories”, says Standing Rock horse warrior and Water Protector, Sonny Iron Cloud. Multiple ancestral burial sites considered sacred to Sonny’s tribe have been disturbed by pipeline construction.

Indigenous people are standing to protect the values that have sustained their people for time immemorial. The cultures that have protected those sacred values for countless millennia have endured unfathomable tragedy and attacks upon their lives and traditions over the last 500 years. Yet, many remain today as strong in heart if not in numbers, as they have always been.

What’s happening at Standing Rock is nothing new. The overwhelming public response to it is, but not the inevitability of profit over people. Particularly when those people are indigenous.  Native Americans are no strangers to being taken advantage of by oil companies. For example, Phillips 66, which owns a major share of the Dakota Access Pipeline, got its start on Indian land. During the Dawes Act era which was defined by the term, “kill the Indian save the man”, Native Americans of more than one quarter blood quantum were deemed “incompetent” to manage their own lands and legal affairs. Unscrupulous businessmen took advantage of that policy by getting themselves placed as court-appointed guardians of Indian orphans who were deemed incompetent, thus gaining control of the mineral rights to their allotted land. Future oil tycoon Frank Phillips was made the guardian of an 8 year old Delaware Indian girl in Oklahoma named Anna Anderson, (to whom I am distantly related). His first gusher well was struck on Anna Anderson’s land allotment and named for its rightful owner, the “Anna Anderson Number One”. Thus began the rise of Phillips Petroleum, now known as Phillips 66. The patterns of extracting resources from Native land at little cost to industrialists have long been in place.


Above, Standing Rock veterans race to a veteran’s ceremony at the infamous Backwater Bridge on ND Highway 1806. Police violence during a protest at a barricade blocking emergency services to the camps there nearly took a young woman’s arm off and blinded another. Over 150 people contracted hypothermia after being hit by water cannons in freezing temperatures. Many (including journalists) sustained serious injuries from police during peaceful protests at Standing Rock. (My own daughter was shot at with plastic bullets while kneeling in prayer on public land.)


Responding to threat of further police violence on an impending trespassing deadline given to Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin Camp, over 4500 military veterans Native and non-Native alike showed up at Standing Rock to serve as human shields for peaceful resisters on Dec. 5th, 2016. The deadline was retracted. Veterans at Standing Rock believed they were fulfilling their Constitutional Oaths. Article Six of the Constitution designates treaties the “supreme law of the land”, and the construction of the DAPL violates the Fort Laramie Treaty. Veterans also believed First Amendment rights were violated. Protest actions generally consisted of peaceful prayer ceremonies on public lands promised to the Sioux by treaty, which were met with law enforcement violence resulting in multiple serious injuries. Many veterans at Standing Rock felt their service there was more important than anything they’d ever done before.
Today’s Native warriors continue protecting their people and the “resources” they hold sacred and essential as they always have. A Native warrior embodies the words of the famous Lakota chief Sitting Bull, who said, “Warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, is someone who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot take care of themselves, and above all, the children, for the future of humanity.” Another Lakota chief, Crazy Horse, prophesied of a day when a Seventh Generation of peaceful warriors would unite people around the Earth to their cause, bringing healing to a sick world. A powerful movement is rising with the belief that day has come.

The audio is a recording of Standing Rock horse warrior Brandon Iron Hawk singing the water protector anthem and explaining its meaning in the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the main resistance encampment as Standing Rock.


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Meet the Author

Michael McBride
He has more than 40 years experience as a wilderness guide, interpretive naturalist and bush pilot flying the wilds of Alaska. He's a Master Guide, licensed Coast Guard Captain with strong expertise in marine biology. He is an elected member of the Explorer's Club and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is a Nationally Certified Yoga Teacher. He was the first Alaskan to serve on the Smithsonian National Board, a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Foundation board member. He was awarded a Legislative Citation for Practical Activism. He was an Advisory Board member and pilot for Lighthawk, "Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in America” and a founding patron of Bateleurs, “Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in Africa” and is an elected member of the Africa Game Rangers Association. His Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge won a score of international awards and is listed in the NY Times Best Seller "1000 Places To See Before You Die" . Web site: His new book The Last Wilderness-Alaska's Wild Coast is available at Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado