Jan. 26, 2019

Indigenous Peoples March- The Environment and Social Justice

Indigenous peoples and other rural or remote populations often bear the social and environmental cost of extractive industries while obtaining little of the wealth they generate. Rights of indigenous peoples are very often violated when extractive industries move onto indigenous peoples’ territories following authorization from governments. Human rights abuses associated with the exploration and exploitation of non-renewable resources include, among others, violation of the right to life, forced displacement and destruction of the environment on which indigenous peoples depend. Extractive industries have had impacts on the health and well-being of indigenous peoples and destroyed sacred sites thereby affecting the right to religion of the peoples concerned. The consequences of such projects have violated the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to food, water and subsistence. We need to recognize that indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination constitutes a right to determine the outcome of decision-making processes in relation to extractive projects in their territories, and imposes a duty on States and corporations to ensure participatory social, cultural, spiritual, environmental, and human rights impact assessments.  

The Indigenous Peoples Movement is a collective of Indigenous activists, organizers, tribal leaders, social entrepreneurs, artists, educators, innovators, youth leaders, and change-makers who are working to build the collective power of Indigenous Peoples, communities and Nations. The Indigenous Peoples March was a demonstration and march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on January 18, 2019. The event included speeches, prayers, songs, and dance. Its goal was to draw attention to global injustices against indigenous peoples. Currently, many Indigenous people are victims of voter suppression, divided families by walls and borders, an environmental holocaust, sex and human trafficking, and police and military brutality with little or no resources and awareness of this injustice. The march was intended to build strong coalitions to make homes, families, and lands a safe, protected, and a clean place to live.  

But, the Indigenous Peoples Movement was not the only protest group on the mall that Friday on January 18th. There was also a March for Life and a protest by the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group known for provocative speech. An altercation began between these two groups. Nathan Phillips, a tribal elder decided to step in and attempt to diffuse the situation with a Native American prayer, which involved drumming and chanting. One of the March for Life protesters stood in front of Phillips and the interaction between the two was videoed and went viral. Different interpretations of the incident seem to have added controversy to the incident. Perhaps many are putting their own biases into the event. As an educator, I give the boy some slack because of his youth. The look on his face may not have been intended to look like a smirk. He was in an uncomfortable situation. At the same time, many might not have understood that Phillips was praying, in the tradition of his native culture, in an attempt to de-escalate the altercation.

I will admit that when I first saw this on the news, my heart was heavy. I felt the boy was being disrespectful to the elder. Isn’t respect for elders a common value of native people and those of European descent? I imagined that boy standing inches from a Protestant minister or Catholic priest who was praying with that look on his face. It surely would have been considered to be disrespectful. But then I put myself in that boy’s shoes and realized that smirk may not have been intentional. It may have simply been an expression of discomfort.

We have become a nation, entrenched in opinionated media, that loves to make mountains out of molehills. We are so polarized and are too quick to jump into our ‘tribes’ to make political points. The TV pundits and Facebook memes dominated. The actual altercation was not between the indigenous people and those who marched for life that day. But it was the interaction between the boy and the elder that made the news, not the message of the Indigenous Peoples March or the March for Life. It seems we totally missed the point when we became entrenched in the debate over appearances and our personal interpretation of the events.

At any rate, I am most saddened by the fact that the message of the Indigenous People’s March was lost. Native people around the world are on the frontlines of environmental protection movements to preserve natural resources along with native lands. There is a huge area of overlap between protection of the environment and social justice starkly clarified from the perspective of native peoples. The political and economic self-determination, as well as the self-sufficiency of most tribes depend on maintaining their land and natural resources. This involves helping tribes to safeguard their land rights; water rights; hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; resource rights; and environmental rights. Basically, their right to sustain their lives and cultures. Isn’t that a more important message than what our sensationalized media put our focus on?