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Water Is Life

On May 19th, 2017, members of Deep Green Resistance Santa Barbara attended the Water Is Life: Standing With Standing Rock conference hosted at UC Santa Barbara.  This conference was presented by the Carsey-Wolf Center, the American Indian & Indigenous Collective, the American Indian Student Association, the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, and Red Lightning, in addition to receiving support from many other co-sponsoring organizations.

The conference commenced with welcomes from members of the Chumash Nation and conference co-organizers.  The history of environmental activism in Santa Barbara was mentioned, being catalyzed by two large oil spills in the Santa Barbara region.  Despite environmentalists’ efforts, fossil fuel production has only expanded in the region, most recently with three large oil & gas projects proposed in the past few years.  The conference co-organizers expressed their gratitude to the Standing Rock water protectors who traveled to the university to speak, and recognized that we have a lot to learn from them about how to protect the water and land here in Santa Barbara.  After the introduction, there were three panels centering around different themes.

The first panel, entitled “Protecting the Land and the Water,” was moderated by Margaret McMurtrey, a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies with an emphasis in Native American Studies.  Participants included Mark Tilsen, Jasilyn Charger, and Joye Braun.  Tilsen is an Oglala Lakota poet, and he served as a nonviolent direct action trainer and police liaison at Standing Rock.  He shared his experiences with security at Standing Rock, noting that the water protectors were aware that there were many malicious infiltrators, in addition to well-meaning “visitors” in the camps.  Their presence made adhering to security culture paramount because of the risk of these infiltrators spreading news to law enforcement or others.  Tilsen now focuses on helping communities to divest from the pipeline, criticizing the “extractive economy” of the dominant culture.  Jasilyn Charger and Joye Braun are both members of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, and two of the first people to camp at Standing Rock in resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Charger helped found the International Indigenous Youth Council, and stated that she became a water protector after hearing the Earth telling her to help.  She reminded the audience that the entire Earth is connected, and that “we need water…[but] we don’t need iPhones.”  That may sound like common sense (and it is probably completely rational to anyone not infected with the wétiko virus), but it is a profound statement in a world where members of the dominant culture have perpetually destroyed the very land and water on which they depend.  Braun spoke of the universal values that united people from many difference backgrounds at the camp, including generosity, honesty, respect, and compassion.  She emphasized that hierarchical social systems like the dominant culture don’t work–those hierarchies are what have gotten us to where we are now–so we need to throw them away and decolonize in order to establish a sustainable way of living.

Panel 1: Protecting the Land and the Water.  From left to right: Margaret McMurtrey,  Joye Braun, Jasilyn Charger, Mark Tilsen.  Photo by Charlie Mountain.

After Tilsen had to leave because of a prior engagement, the conversation turned to the role of women in leadership.  Charger encouraged women in the audience to disobey the traditional feminine gender role: to be brave, powerful, and outspoken, and not to care about being pretty.  She believes women are sacred and have a spiritual connection to the Earth because they can create life.  But patriarchy has caused women to forget that they are sacred because they are so disrespected, especially native women who suffer much higher rates of abuse than the general population and are raped in “man camps” that accompany large extractive projects.  Braun agreed with Charger, and added that the western, civilized, patriarchal point of view has distorted relationships between native women and men by introducing the male supremacist power dynamic.  Patriarchy was enforced in indigenous communities through the Christian church & boarding schools, and the destruction of traditional indigenous knowledge, spiritualities, and cultures.

The second panel focused on media at Standing Rock.  Independent filmmaker Todd Darling, who spent several months at Standing Rock documenting the struggle against DAPL, moderated.  John Bigelow, Paula Antoine, and Myron Dewey spoke about their experiences as part of the media team.  Bigelow, a Hunkpapa Lakota, created the Oceti Sakowin Camp website and media team to send communications from the camp to the outside world.  He spoke of how he lost his “journalistic objectivity” after seeing the way the police abused the water protectors at Standing Rock; he also emphasized the importance of freedom of speech, especially under the current White House administration.  Antoine, a Sicangu Lakota and grandmother, co-founded the Rosebud Spirit Camp in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.  She served the role of cultural adviser for various tribes at Standing Rock.  Dewey is from the Walker River Paiute Tribe, and founded Digital Smoke Images.  He mentioned the Water Protector Legal Collective, which is providing legal assistance to 814 people arrested at Standing Rock.  Antoine added that about 20% of those cases have been dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Panel 2: Media.  From left to right: Todd Darling, John Bigelow, Paula Antoine, Myron Dewey.  Photo by Charlie Mountain.

Dewey echoed Bigelow’s concerns about freedom of speech and the importance of independent media, as the mainstream media largely ignored the events at Standing Rock.  He live-streamed video footage from the camps on Facebook many times, providing one example when law enforcement was harassing him.  Dewey believes that had he not had his camera rolling at that time, his life may have been taken.  The morally reprehensible behavior of law enforcement towards the nonviolent water protectors was a constant theme throughout the struggle against DAPL, and drawing media attention to these events helps to garner public sympathy.  Corporations and governments know this, which is why they attempt to intimidate journalists and curtail freedom of the press.

The third and final panel of this conference was titled “Decolonization and Indigenous-Centered Leadership,” moderated by Paula Antoine.  Terrell Iron Shell, one of the founders of the Indigenous Youth Council, Michael Cordero, an elder of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, and Joye Braun participated in the panel.  Iron Shell, an Oglala Lakota and Eastern Band Cherokee, conducted nonviolent direct action trainings at Standing Rock.  He believes that the youth must be the spark to light a fire in the next generation, and we must take our power back from those who are currently in charge.  He asked the audience, “How long are you going to let someone else make decisions for you?”  Cordero helped to found the Santa Barbara Standing Rock Coalition and to write the resolution in support of Standing Rock, which was passed by the Santa Barbara City Council in November 2016.  He drew parallels between the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Chumash’s struggle against a proposed LNG plant at Point Conception in the 1980s.  He believes that one of the most important messages he learned from Standing Rock was that alliances must be formed, especially between native peoples, in order for movements to be successful.  Braun shared the story of the day that the Treaty Camp was established on land that the pipeline was meant to cross, but had never been legally ceded by the tribe.  She described the experience as freeing, and encouraged us all to think outside of the box like she and her comrades did that day.

Panel 3: Decolonization and Indigenous-Centered Leadership.  From left to right: Paula Antoine,  Joye Braun, Michael Cordero, Terrell Iron Shell.  Photo by Charlie Mountain.

Extraction Economy

Oil pipelines are everywhere, and they affect everyone.  If you are white enough, rich enough, and/or lucky enough, the pipelines might not be built in your backyard, but no matter who you are, they contaminate the water, air, and land upon which you depend for your life.  The distance does not keep you safe, it only delays alarm.  There are no safe places to hide from a culture and economy based on extraction, drawdown, theft, genocide, and ecocide; this culture eats beautiful forested lands, rich seas, and clear skies and leaves behind deserts, toxic dead zones, and, possibly in the near future, an inhabitable planet.  If it doesn’t seem like this culture and its economy steals wealth of all sorts for the benefit of a few, it’s very likely that you live in an exclusion zone rather than a sacrifice zone.  The exclusion zones are where resources are sent, where power is concentrated, where the in-group is nourished.  Sacrifice zones are where resources are extracted, where power is enforced to maintain subjugation, where the out-group is impoverished.  Even if you recognize the material problems this culture produces, its strong tradition of silencing dissent, erasing indigenous cultures and knowledge, and spreading self-serving disinformation obscure the root cause of these problems.  For thousands of years, the dynamic of the haves and the have-nots has been at the core of an evolving culture that dominates and erases other cultures.  It has taken many forms, including city-states, empires, kingdoms, feudalism, mercantilism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and fascism.  The common denominator is a selfish urge to profit at the expense of others, beginning about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and male subjugation of women.  This developed into various socioeconomic structures that depend on and thus facilitate the destruction of life.  The dominant culture abuses the earth just as it abuses women.

People who live in the Santa Barbara area know firsthand what oil infrastructure means.  Whether the infrastructure takes the form of offshore oil platforms, oil pipelines, or something else, spills are almost a guarantee.  In 1969, an estimated 3 million gallons of oil spilled from Union Oil’s Platform A into the Santa Barbara Channel; the spill continued at over 1,000 gallons an hour for about a month.  This was the largest oil spill that had ever occurred in US waters, and is considered by many to have catalyzed the modern environmental movement.  Stretching over 35 miles long, the oil slick covered beaches, birds, and marine life, the blowout was caused by inadequate safety measures taken by Union Oil (aka Unocal), similar to how the more recent spill from the Plains All American Pipeline in May of 2015 was caused by inadequate maintenance.  When approximately 143,000 gallons of oil are spilled into the ocean, someone should be held accountable for his actions. Plains All American, the company responsible for the pipeline, is still under investigation for their disastrous operational record of the pipeline.  Since the spill in 2015, the pipeline has not been in operation.  This has recently forced Venoco, an oil company who operated an offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel as well as onshore facilities, to file for bankruptcy, leaving the decommissioning bill to the State Lands Commission.  The global economy is based on the unsustainable extraction of natural resources.  The top decision-makers of corporations, mostly white men, take what they can and try to sell as much of it as soon as possible.  When some of the real, non-financial costs come to light, these rapacious entities move out and leave the clean-up to somebody else.  There is no justice under business as usual.

Oil surrounds the feet of local resident Morgan Miller as he patrols the beach for oiled wildlife on May 19, 2015 north of Goleta, California.  Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Resisting Ecocide

How do we effectively resist something that is powerful enough to eliminate entire species and cultures from our world, colonize and enslave many lands and populations, pollute and scar our homes, and even drastically change the global climate?  Effective resistance begins with properly identifying a few key points: the problem, our goal, and a strategy, i.e., a path to achieving said goal.  The problem we face is immense and complex.  It is a global network of systems that consolidate power by taking it from others.  It is huge and powerful, but it is vulnerable.  We can’t sit idly by out of fear, incompetence, or naive hopefulness.  We must act.  As Tilsen said at the Water Is Life conference, “We need incredibly brave, unreasonable people to step up… and we need to follow them.”  If we don’t, civilization will eat our planet until there is no life left.

But what does it meant to resist?  Speakers at the event discussed the decision that water protectors made in differentiating themselves from protesters.  For many people who spoke at the conference, the distinction is dedicating your life to protect the water, rather than  committing a one-time act that accomplishes no material change.  Resistance isn’t a fad, it is a state of living.  It is not a lifestyle choice, it is a life-changing choice.  We must stand collectively against fossil fuel and other key infrastructure that maintain the global industrial complex.  The tactics we employ must be specific to our goals, but we also must be wary of the unintended consequences of our actions.  Michael Cordero advised that in order to be successful as a movement, we each need to look at the material impacts of the status quo and understand what it will take to resist, what are the specific challenges we face, and who are these challenges going to affect; this is necessary to consolidate smaller, more individualized efforts into a more effective collective effort and helps to create an effective long-term strategy.  The easiest way to form an effective strategy is to look at what worked in the past.  When a nearby sacred place known as Point Conception was threatened by the construction of an LNG plant, local Chumash and their allies used similar tactics as were employed at Standing Rock to ensure it was never built.  But victories like this will only be temporary as long as corporations still have the power to steamroll local communities.  And no matter how peaceful the resistance is, the backlash will be extremely violent.

Indigenous peoples on this continent have been resisting the dominant culture for centuries.  Photo by Orlando Begay.

Restoring Indigenous Cultures

Contrary to what most “environmentalists” say, there is no sustainable future with solar panels and wind turbines or some other “green” energy.  Do you ever wonder why the question is: how do we keep the power flowing and growing? instead of: how do we improve our landbase? how do we enter into mutually beneficial relationships with those around us, both humans and non-humans?

Instead, we should look to those who have continued traditions that have lasted for thousands of years.  We need to listen to indigenous voices for many reasons, and self-preservation is just one.  Restoring relationships between people is another.  Healing the land is yet another.  Civilization has been destroying landbases for thousands of years.  Contemporary environmental destruction is so starkly “destructive” only because it is industrialized and mechanized.  In the US, specifically, the governments have been committing ecocide and genocide since their arrival.  The attack on indigenous peoples has not stopped, the tactics have just shifted.  We can’t keep trying to reform the global culture of colonial imperialism.  We need a serious resistance movement to create biophilic human communities, for the sake of life on Earth.  And to figure out what that means today, we can start by listening to those who have been fighting this fight for generations.