Activism On and Off the Reservation

pretty much linked to the rest of it. I had the benefit of presenting the research I had
done to the UN. Then I asked if I could go and work in these communi­ties that were
impacted. So I began by working down in the Navajo reservation in the Southwest on uranium
mining, and then I moved up to South Dakota and worked there for some time. Mostly on
uranium and mining issues, trying to stop mines from opening up, translating documents
from academic government-ese into common English and then into the local languages,
Navajo, Hopi, or Lakota.

This was in your
late teens, while you were still a student at Harvard?

I took a lot of
time off from school. I went back and forth to Harvard, wrote research papers, mostly on
this. I have a degree in native economic development and a masters in rural development.
Pretty much all I know about is reserva­tion economies and reservation development

The term “a
person of color” was not being used at that time. How was it for you at school?

I grew up in
Ashland, Oregon. It was a small town. I come from a bi­cultural family. My Mom is a
Russian Jew from New York and my father is an Ojibwe. So it was a no-win situation. My
parents were both very politi­cal. I was raised in the middle of the Vietnam War. My
parents were antiwar activists. My stepfather was in the picture at that point in time. I
was pretty much across-the-board unpopular in my school. I was the only Indian in my
school at the time. When I went to Harvard I found that there were a lot of people who
were more like me. I became politicized over a period of time. I realized that the fact
that I was unpopular in my school didn’t have to do with being a bad person as much
as it had to do with issues of race and prejudice.

What about gender

Gender bias, I
would say, too, but all of these things. I had the benefit of being with a lot of people
of color at Harvard. I enjoyed that. It expanded my horizons. It was also during the
middle of the divestment campaign for South Africa.

Did you get
involved with that?

I sure did. I was
with the American Indians at Harvard, which was a small group. We were right there with
the African American students. We worked on that. It was a really good politicization
process. At the same time I was working on these issues of multinationals on the
reserva­tions, the same multinationals that are in Namibia and South Africa.

That divestment
campaign in the 1980s, primarily on U.S. college campuses, was quite successful and a good

It was a very good
model. It was, I believe, the foundation for some of our work on James Bay in northern
Canada. A lot of the campaign we waged trying to stop the big mega­dams up there on James
Bay—that would flood an area the size of Connecticut or impact an area the size of
New Eng­land—was based on this same model: You pay your tuition, you should have
some say that your tuition shouldn’t go for violating other people’s human

To go to recent
events, Iraq is denounced by many U.S. political leaders and the media. They say it cannot
be trusted to honor its agreements. What is the U.S. record on agree­ments and treaties
with native peoples?

Pretty dismal.
Indian people find it so ironic that the U.S. is all about Iraq keeping their agreements
or bargains. The U.S. has no record of keeping agreements with native people. I always
find it ironic today, because Indian people are saying, Our treaty rights need to be
recognized. We’re in court and we’ll have a court decision like in Minnesota
that recognizes we have the right to harvest in the northern third of the state outside
our reservation borders. The non-Indian people will say, Those are ancient rights. That’s
how the press refers to it. I think to myself, Well, that Constitution’s pretty
ancient, too, isn’t it? There are certain things that are the law, and those treaties
between nations are the law. According to the Constitution that’s the law of the

That might connect
with the invisibility of Native Americans in U.S. culture. When you hear discussions, if
people of color are mentioned at all, it will be African Americans, Asian Americans,
Latinos, but Native Americans don’t seem to register on that Richter scale.

My theory is that
the mythology of America is about denial of the native. That’s the foundation of
America, this whole idea of Manifest Destiny, the great emptiness that is out there. You
cannot discover some­thing if somebody lives there. You create a mythology that it’s
this vast, untamed wilderness and that nobody was there. The mythology of America says
that there were “a few” Indians, and those Indians died mysteriously. We had
some mistakes, like Sand Creek in Colorado or Wounded Knee, but most of the mythology of
the great expansion of America is based on the denial of the existence of native people.
America has been, for 500 years, in the process of denial of holocaust. I don’t say
somebody’s holo­caust is worse than somebody else’s, but I will say that we
have to acknowledge that holocaust occurred. But America has been in denial about that
having occurred. So today, over that period of time, native people have been totally
removed from the American psyche. We permeate America. A third of the country is named in
indigenous names, states, river systems. We are the food that people eat, the technology,
in all of these things, but at the same time we get no intellectual property rights credit
for that. I ask people all the time, How many of you can name ten different kinds of
native people? They can’t. Most people can’t name four different kinds of Indian
people. Why is that? Because schools don’t teach about native people. It’s a
totally systematic process which denies our existence. Ask people what kind of Indians
they know, most people can name Indians from Westerns. What’s happened over time is
that the image of the native person has become a caricature.

Like the Lone
Ranger’s faithful and obedient servant Tonto, which incidentally in Spanish means
“stupid.” Other Indians were like Cochise, Geronimo, and Crazy Horse—menacing,
threatening warriors.

You look now and
the only two Indian women that we even know are Sacajawea and Pocahontas. Why did they
permeate America’s consciousness and get in there with Disney? Because they helped
the white guys. Those are really not the imagery of native people, native women. That is
some of the issues we need to con­front in terms of de-mythologizing.

One of the
topics that you write and talk about is environ­mental racism.

racism links native people to other poor people of color. The problem is that in the case
of native people, this is a systemic issue. This is the relation­ship between the settler
and the native. This is the relation­ship between an industrial society and an indigenous
soci­ety. The issues that occur in the native community today are not new. We have a
couple hundred years of environmental destruction which has occurred in the Americas. The
best example is the destruction of the buffalo. You can’t remove 50 million buffalo
from the Great Plains, remove the single largest herd of migratory animals that ever
existed, and not have a huge environmen­tal impact. That’s part of the relationship
between the native people, because that was a military policy. So envi­ronmental racism
is a term used to talk about a disproportionate share of environmental problems in
communities of color. Few benefits, more impacts. And native people are part of that as
communities of color.

You had a rather
stinging criticism of some portions of the establishment environmental movement.

Which one?

You felt that parts
of it were racist?

Of course they are.
The environmental movement by and large, comes out of a very white, middle-class preserve.
In my gut, I want all American people to engage with nature, to reestablish relationship
with earth. Environmentalism is a strange term. I think it is really about rediscover­ing
your humanity and how your humanity relates to life. What we have is a colonial society in
America which is trying to come to terms with the fact that it’s run out of
frontiers. The depth of environmental­ism, the relationship of humans to the natural
world, is what we need to recover. Unfortunately, mainstream environmental groups are
still very much preoccupied in this centerpiece. My experience with the big ten groups is
first of all, you can’t have boards and the majority of your staff be all white,
privileged, middle-class people and expect that that group of people can make a set of
decisions for the rest of the world, or make a set of decisions that are reflec­tive of
native communities. Native communities today face environmental threats on most of our
reservations. Two-thirds of the uranium resources in the country are on Indian lands.
One-third of all Western low-sulfur coal. We have the single largest hydroelectric project
on our lands, the James Bay project. We have nuclear waste dump proposals on reservations.
Most of the mainstream environmental groups do not deal with those issues. They want to
save this parcel or that parcel or fix this greenway. These issues are convenient to those
groups. By and large they do not engage in building partnership with native communities or
other communities of color.

You went to Chiapas
and wrote an article for
Indigenous Woman,
the journal of the Indigenous Women’s Network, which you founded. You comment that
“Chiapas is a wealthy region in theory.” This resonates with a lot of the
geography of North American native peoples as well: wealthy regions in theory, but not in

That’s right.
It’s just like the question of why Indian people are poor. They have the poorest
socioeconomic statistics, the worst health statistics.

Who asks that

Why Indians are
poor? People don’t usually ask that ques­tion. I don’t preach to the choir.
Most of the time, I’m trying to engage with the Chamber of Commerce in Detroit Lakes
or businesses in border towns to my reservation. I talked to the Rotary Club in the town
of Park Rapids one day. They said, You Indians are all up there on welfare and you’re
lazy. If you’d just go get yourselves a job, you’d be okay. You’d have a
lot more self-respect and you wouldn’t be so poor. I believe that that is a statement
that is not isolated to that little border town. Some people say, Why don’t you
Indians just get a job? Get with the program. Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. I’m
talking to a room entirely of men, 50 middle-aged men. I said, The problem is that you
guys got our boots. We can’t find our bootstraps because you have our boots. You
control all the land on my reservation. Ninety percent of it is held by non-Indian

Indian people are poor because of structural poverty. Structural poverty means you don’t
actually control your land, your economy. We don’t have a multiplier. That is to say
that a town like Boulder has a multiplier of seven. A dollar comes in and it’s spent
over and over, unless you get a Wal-Mart, then you’re kind of screwed. Up in our
reserva­tion, a dollar comes onto the reservation, it’s spent the next day in the
border town, because we don’t have a retail sector. That’s structural poverty.
You can’t fix that until you restructure your economy. You control your land and you
control your economy.

You make a
direct connection between land and political power.

Land is the basis
of political power. Why do you think the U.S. government is the largest landholder? If
land wasn’t power they would have turned it all over, wouldn’t they?

What did you find
on your trip to Chiapas?

I interviewed four
women about my age. They were all Zapatista comandantes. They wore ski masks. There were
armored personnel carriers and tanks around. I asked, Why is it that you stand up and
fight? Why do you take up arms against the Mexican government? Look at all the force they
have on their side. One woman said to me, Because we’re tired of being animals. We’re
treated like animals. We have no health care. Our children are dying of diseases. Things
you could prevent. They take our corn. They take our land. We can’t live like this.
We’re tired of living like animals. We want our dignity. We demand our dignity. This
is how you get your dignity. You have to stand up. They don’t give it to you. You
have to fight for it.

The Indigenous
Women’s Network, which was founded in 1985, says that it “works in rural and
urban communities applying indigenous values to resolve contemporary prob­lems.”
What are those values?

Each of our
communities has our own instructions, our cultures. Our cultures, like minobimaatisiiwin,
a term in Ojibwe, talks about what’s called “the good life.” An
alterna­tive translation is “continuous rebirth.” It talks about how you’re
supposed to live to respect all that’s around you. Honor your elders. Listen to your
teachings. Care for your family. Women are the center of our nations, the mothers of our
nations. These are some of our teachings. Those are not teachings from the dominant
society. Those are teachings from our cultures. In our cultures we have prophecies. Each
community has its own prophecies. The Indigenous Women’s Network believes that you
have the wellspring for healing your community within the cultural framework and spiritual
practice of your com­munity. The instructions are not about going back. It’s about
taking and learning from your traditions, carefully reflecting on them as you make your
decisions for now, for your life way. That’s what they call it in our community, the
life way. It’s our path. There’s so much pressure on us to assimilate, to become
commodi­fied, to buy your life at The Gap. The challenge we face in this most confusing
of times is to take that which is ours and use that as the framework from which we make
our decisions for the future. That’s what the Indigenous Women’s Network is

You travel around
the U.S. and the globe. Do you feel a connection over the chasms of culture and language?

I feel a connection
with indigenous women from a small village in the Philippines. I feel a connection with
indigenous women from Rwanda. The closer they are to experiences which resonate with mine,
that in their heart they struggle on the same issues, I understand that. They can be all
colors. I believe that the Creator made all colors of people, and they’re all
beautiful. There is an immense amount of beauty in each of us. What compels me, and what I
find most beautiful, is when people struggle to regain their humanity, do not take what
was handed to them by the society, do not just accept blindly. I want to be a feminist and
I want to be better than a white man. Why would you want to do that? That’s my
question. Why would you want to compete? Why would you want to be in the military? That’s
the question I’ve got to ask. Those are value questions. I embrace and am inspired by
all kinds of people. Father Roy Bourgeois, who fights the School of the Ameri­cas, is a
great inspiration to me. I met him 20 years ago. He said something I will never forget. He
and I were at an Exxon stockholders meeting in Chicago. It was an inter­esting place to
be. I had a resolution there trying to get Exxon out of the Navajo reservation. They all
looked at me like I was from outer space. I sat down, and Father Roy Bourgeois stood up
and went to the microphone. He said, I’m a Mary­knoll priest. I don’t have a
resolution. I’ve been living in Latin America for the past ten years, in El Salvador.
He said, I don’t have a resolution, but I’ve got a question. The people in El
Salvador gave me this question to ask you. They want to know if there’s a direct
relationship between their poverty and your wealth. That’s all he said. That’s
what it’s about. That relationship between their poverty and their wealth.

In your new novel, Last Standing Woman,
published by Voyager Press, you trace the life and times of seven genera­tions of
Anishinabe. Why is seven such a key number?

Seven is an
important number in a lot of our spiritual practices. In this case, it happened to be the
same time that I was writing about. The book commences around 1862, with the Sioux
uprising in Minnesota and the impact of that on our community and the relationship between
these two women and ends in 2018, which is about seven generations later.

Tell me what goes
on in the Honor the Earth tours you do with the Indigo Girls. You just did 21 concerts.

Our tours are to
raise money and political support for Native American issues. We try to reach out to a
section of people who probably wouldn’t hear about these things. We launched the most
recent tour in upstate New York at the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation. Then we moved across
the East Coast. We raised about $200,000, which we gave away to grassroots native
organizations. It’s also about trying to change consciousness, because, as you can
imagine, people who go to an Indigo Girls concert are probably not familiar with native
environmental issues. For example, we were interested in talking about this law they are
trying to pass. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act proposes to move nuclear waste from 108
nuclear reactors in the U.S. to Yucca Mountain in Western Sho­shone territory. The young
people who go to these concerts, and everybody else, are going to face a huge public
health hazard. They are going to move that nuclear waste from those nuclear reactors and
transport it on highways. They’re talking between 80,000 and 90,000 shipments of
nuclear waste on America’s highways.

Is this from Oak
Ridge, Hanford, and Rocky Flats?

All of those, but
it’s much more. It’s from places like Sea­brook, Millstone Three, Maine Yankee,
and Indian Point. Most of these nuclear reactors have only so much storage space. They
want to continue to operate as long as they can, although they’re pretty much
economically a disaster. They want to move that nuclear waste. They billed it in America
as one nuclear dump. They said, We don’t want to have 100 nuclear dumps like we have
now. Rocky Flats is a nuclear dump, as is Oak Ridge, as is any place that government and
industry have made a nuclear mess. They said, We want to just have one. That will make it
easier. It’s a total misrepre­sentation, because what we’re going to have is
109 nuclear dumps. They want to move it across the country within half a mile of 50
million Americans. We’re going to move between 30,000 and 90,000 shipments of nuclear
waste. Each cask is well over the capacity of a Hiroshima bomb. On the high­way.

nuclear industry is lobbying for this bill. I believe that decision-making in this country
is not a democracy. Corpora­tions make most decisions, whether it’s evidenced
through financing of campaigns and elections and special interest money, or whether it’s
just how public policy is shaped and formed. How do these guys all get to be special
interest groups, to have little hearings? Right now in northern Minnesota you’ve got
the deer hunters special interest groups. They’re trying to get the wolf off the
Endangered Species List in northern Minnesota. Somehow deer hunters have equal standing
with the wolf. Equal standing with native people who have lived all these years with the
wolf. They get to be in the policy-making arena, as stakeholders. Fifty of the largest
econo­mies in the world today are not nations but corporations.

That intersects
with Ralph Nader’s analysis. What did you learn from running with Nader in the 1996

What you learn from
Ralph is tenacity. That guy fights for all these years. A lot of people say, Oh, I think I’m
tired of this cam­paign. I’m going to bag it for a while. A lot of people are like,
It’s so big. Look at that man. The fact is that most laws in this country today that
are consumer laws, airline safety laws, workers rights laws, are because of Ralph and
people like him. Not Ralph alone. Workers are the ones who got workers rights. What you
have to remember is that any rights we’ve got in this country today is because
someone fought for them. No one ever handed us anything. That’s what Ralph reminds
you of, that you’ve got to go out there and have your voice heard. He stood up in the
last election.

Europeans that came to this country had no framework for democracy. They came out of
monar­chy and feudalism. They fled looking for religious freedom. So where did Ben
Franklin go? Up to the Six Nations Iro­quois Confederacy to get the idea of
representational gov­ernment. Those guys were all up there, follow­ing around the
Iroquois Nation. So they founded their ideas on that Iroquois Confederacy. Missed major,
essential points, though. For instance, one-man-one-vote. That had to do with only white
men who owned land. That was a big missing point. Actually, in the Iroquois Confederacy
the interesting point is that it is women who appoint the chiefs. It is women who have the
last word. Interesting point. Missed essential point.

What are your views
on casinos on Indian land?

It’s a
difficult issue. I support the right of Indian people to have casinos. I think it’s a
huge problem, though. The problem that Indian people have is that I don’t think as an
economist I would hang my development policy on a casino. The problem is the federal
government says to Indian people, I’m going to recognize your sovereignty if you
either want to have a nuclear or toxic waste dump or a casino. That’s pretty much the
only way you get your sovereignty recognized as Indian people. Let me be clear about this:
we are sovereign. I don’t care if the federal government recog­nizes me, my nation,
and my people. That’s of little conse­quence to me in the long-term picture. The
federal govern­ment, as far as I’m concerned, is by and large illegal. Most
transactions are illegal. It’s like being recognized by a bunch of hoodlums. But
under the law, they recognize your sovereignty in those two things, a dump or a casino. So
Indian people are in this ironic situation that our choices for economic development are
so limited. In Minnesota I see two examples. I see a reservation like Mille Lacs. They
have two casinos. They built schools, houses, roads, clinics, and community build­ings.
They bought land. Nobody was going to do that for them. No federal appropriation was going
to be given to those Indian people to do that, although their land was mostly taken from
them. The federal government is supposed to provide those things for them. That’s not
going to happen, so they did that with their casino, and that’s right. They’re
making some long-term investments that are smart. They don’t think those casinos are
going to last forever, but they’re doing the right thing. My reserva­tion’s a
bad example. We’re poor. My last tribal government was so corrupt they spent all
their time skimming the top of the casino money. It never got down to our community. So it’s
a mixed bag. I support that we have the right to have them, but I think it’s an
unfortunate situation. As long as we have structural poverty in our community, we’re
always going to have these problems. You cannot change that situation unless you address
the issue of land economy.

Perhaps a program
of decolonization?

I’m big on
that decolonization program. That’s the way to go. It’s not only for native
people. I think the challenge for American people is decolonizing your mind. Letting go of
the imagery you have of how you relate to native people, of how to relate to the land, the
idea of a frontier mentality. The Great Plains is a perfect example. We have this whole
mythology of the Great Plains based on the yeoman farmer out there tilling the soil that
should never have been tilled. You had 50 million buffalo out there and you had 250
species of plants and a totally different biodiversity. Today you’ve got 45 million
cattle out there and the single largest loss of life of any biome in North America. You
have loss of topsoil. The Oglala Aquifer, the great freshwater area that underlies the
Great Plains is drying up. That’s going to be gone in 30 years. Then what are they
going to do with all that agriculture they’ve got on the Great Plains? That Great
Plains, that farmer facing the wind, that is the mythology on which America is based. The
idea that the rights of cattlemen are sacred. Jeremy Rifkin talks about that in his book Beyond
. Beyond sacred is what it is. The rights of cattlepeople and the rights of the
beef industry and the rights of corporations to federal rangeland in the West. The
chal­lenge in America is decolonizing. Not just native people, but decolonizing federal
policy, decolonizing the assumptions of what is America. Deconstructing America from
patriotism to a flag to patriotism to a land.

When you said the
Great Plains was the site of the greatest single loss of life, you meant the buffalo

I meant the whole
thing. You have no biodiversity left on the Great Plains. You go from 250 different
species of grass in the natural Great Plains that existed in the indigenous prairie grass
patch, not to mention all those other critters that were out there. You go down to a
Nebraska wheat field and you’ve got one variety. One seed on there, mono-crop­ped.
That is what the problem is. If the winter of 1996 didn’t teach Americans that you
lose, I think they lost over 400,000 cattle. In October 1997 they lost 15,000 cattle right
outside of Denver. Why is that? Because cattle do not belong in this ecosystem. Frank and
Debra Popper, demographers from Rutgers University, have a proposal called the “Buffalo
Commons Proposal.” They talk about the fact that what occurred in the Great Plains in
terms of the whole rise and fall of the farming culture in the Great Plains is the result
of the largest economic and ecological miscalculation in American history. Interesting
phrase, but it’s true. The fact is that the Dust Bowl was only about the fourth
decade of that problem. You had a continuing crisis on the Great Plains that is not going
to get solved until you deal with the fact that what America has done to the Great Plains
is what America has done to the continent. That is not ecologically sustainable and is
never going to sustain American agri­culture.

Poverty amidst
isolated islands of great wealth. You’ve talked about this disparity and paradox.

Coming from the
poorest community in the country, we observe the wealth on the other end. Our one percent
observes the other one percent with great interest.

So you don’t
quite live in a gated community on White Earth.

Is that like the
suburb with the little gate? I don’t want to misrepresent my situation. I like my
community. I like my reservation. I like the land I live on. I do a lot of harvesting. It’s
a good quality of life. I choose my life there. I don’t choose material life. I have
cultural wealth that far sur­passes any material wealth that I could ever buy. But also,
my community suffers great hardship. The crime rate is probably on the scale of Detroit
about 20 years ago. They’re talking about epidemic suicide rates on Indian
reservations these days. You have a decrease in crime rates in the major cities, but you
have a 50 to 70 percent increase in crime over the past 3 or 4 years on the reservations.

Are you visited by
sociologists and anthropologists who describe the social pathologies of native peoples?

I had some
anthropologists show up about a year ago be­cause they were working on this land issue.
They happened to walk into my house just as I was butchering a beaver on my kitchen table.
It was like an anthropologist’s heaven. They could not believe their good fortune. I
had to laugh. It just happened someone had dropped this beaver off at my house. I’m a
carnivore, I eat all those things. Beaver tastes really good to me. So I was butchering
this beaver in the middle of my kitchen table. But of course I had to draft them, because
that’s a big job. One of them was kind of squeamish, but I got one of them right up
there to his elbows in that process, kind of a participatory anthropologi­cal study.

Is a member of
society someone who goes to the mall and consumes things?

That is becoming
what it is to be a member of American society. It’s a consumer culture. But that’s
the difference maybe between society and community. As a member of my community, I am
responsible for my community. Society is so much more amorphous. But you are responsible
for your community. I could sit and bellyache about my tribal government, who did what to
me, but ultimately I am responsible for my community, for my children.

How are your
children doing?

My children are
doing quite well. My child is in a tribal school. My fourth-grader came home from school
one day with the Bering Strait theory to discuss.

And the Bering
Strait theory is …?

This is the
American mythology about how Indian people got here. We refer to it as the BS theory.

They took a
Greyhound bus from Asia?

We took a Greyhound
bus from Asia and partied all the way. In our community in a tribal school all full of
Ojibwe people, we have a whole story of how we got here. We followed a shell from the
eastern seaboard. We stopped at these different places. We have a map. A shell that
appeared in the sky. Is that inter­esting, or what?

A creation myth.

We all have our
stories. I believe that our children should know that before they know that BS theory.

recovering the land on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota parcel by parcel, acre by
acre. How can people find out more about your work?

They can write to
us, the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Route 1, Box 291, Ponsford, MN 56575; Tel.:
(218) 573-3448; Fax: (218) 573-3444; E-mail: It’s a small,
community-based effort to recover our land, culture and environment. I believe that
everyone should try to do something in their own community. You’ve always got to keep
your eye on the big picture, though. People make bad decisions sometimes that affect you,
but also you make your own community a good place to live, because that’s who you’ll
be related to for the rest of your days.

You’re writing
a book for South End Press.

It’s on
grassroots native environmental work on the conti­nent and a little bit into the Pacific.
I have seven or eight chapters done. The title is Voices from the Front. It’s
about different people who do really valiant work, and how they’ve changed their
communities and what they struggle with. I’ve really enjoyed writing it. It’s
different than writing a novel. It’s been great getting to know these communities.

David Barsamian is
the founder of Alternative Radio. For information about obtaining cassette copies or
tran­scripts of this or other programs, contact: Alternative Radio, PO Box 551, Boulder,
CO 80306; e-mail: