Sometimes it’s a good day to die and sometimes it’s a good day to divest
On this third recognized Seattle Indigenous Peoples’ Day I am preoccupied with thinking about one of the greatest current threats to Indigenous people in this country. More than 500 years ago, the greatest threat was disease, enslavement, displacement, and murder at the hands of a man who until recently was celebrated in this city (and still is to this day in cities across the country and in fact federally by the US as a whole) along with other European (and later American) men who followed his lead in colonizing the American continents. Today, though, my thoughts are with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the more than 280 tribes who have joined them in protecting the water sources of thousands from the potentially devastating threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline that cuts through their treaty lands in North Dakota.
As many have read in recent weeks, these Native water protectors and their non-native allies have faced arrest and felony charges, attack dogs at the hands of private security firms, and militarized police action for protesting on treaty lands in North Dakota, mostly near sacred cultural sites. The oppressive force of fossil fuel companies and the banks that are funding their $3.7 billion pipeline has been reinforced with the unparalleled force of local, state, and federal police who are being deployed to protect these private interests.
The company that is building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, along with the other corporations involved, represents some of the worst but not uncommon attributes of the fossil fuel industry. It has acquired both private and public land through more than a billion dollars worth of purchasing land as well as the controversial use of eminent domain, which allowed the Iowa Utilities Board to seize private lands and appropriate it to Energy Transfer Partners for private economic development. One thing that must be made abundantly clear is that the private (and public) lands which all North American fossil fuel extraction and transportation projects exist on are lands that were acquired through forced displacement of Indigenous Peoples, military and paramilitary violence, and dubious “legal” cessions.
Energy Transfer Partners has also deliberately destroyed important cultural sites after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit arguing that the presence of these archeological burial sites warranted a halt on construction. Instead, the company rushed ahead of its proposed construction route to demolish the sites. These acts amount to the most recent forms of cultural genocide that Indigenous people have faced from private and federal government entities.
This project also provides us with an informative example of environmental racism committed against Indigenous communities. The current proposed route was not the original or only route considered when it was being planned. The original plan was to cross the Missouri River 10 miles North (and upriver) of Bismarck, ND instead of half a mile North of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, both of which draw heavily on the river for municipal water. The difference that lead to the second route currently under construction? Bismarck is 92.4% white and the Army Corps of Engineers deemed it a “high consequence area” where the effect on water supplies could be dangerous to its citizens. The contention is apparently not whether the pipeline is hazardous (it is) but rather whether white or Indigenous lives are of higher consequence.
For all these reasons and more, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its allies have engaged in peaceful direct action since April 2016 to halt the construction of the pipeline while they continuously seek legal injunctions and await rulings on lawsuits. Their Sacred Stone camp, composed of multiple campsites across the region, has brought more than 5,000 people to North Dakota and has inspired others in Iowa to protect the Missouri River and all those who depend on it for water and therefore life.
As this growing struggle is unfolding, cities across the country are abolishing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. This follows the work of Indigenous organizers since the idea came to be in 1977 at a conference in Quito, Ecuador. This change has not come without backlash, somewhat surprisingly from certain Italian-American communities who see an overturning Columbus Day as an affront to their heritage. It is well documented, though, that the biggest consequence of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas was the devastation of Indigenous nations and displacement through more than 500 years of continuous colonization and occupation. That cities and states are finally recognizing this and changing this holiday to one of celebrating Indigenous resistance is a testament to the successes of that resistance.
Our own university, as was announced in President Sundborg’s recent email, has begun to officially recognize Indigenous People’s Day. This is significant especially when one considers that Seattle University is built upon unceded Duwamish land, just as the surrounding city is. But I found myself called to write this article because of a gnawing knowledge that despite what it says officially, Seattle University is actually acting in direct opposition to the interests of thousands of Indigenous people.
As is common for universities and other institutions, Seattle University invests portions of its $2.2 million endowment (a pool of donated funds held in reserve) in investment portfolios that include various fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and refinement companies. In 2012 when students brought the idea of ending current and future investments in the companies that are driving climate change, ecological degradation, and the infringement of Indigenous sovereignty to the university leadership’s attention, they refused. The Board of Trustees, as well as President Sundborg, responded with a resounding ‘no.’ To this day they have diverted students’ efforts to divest from fossil fuels and even refuse to commit to divestment within a concrete timeframe of three years.
What we see with struggles like the one against the Dakota Access Pipeline (and the same company’s other pipeline, the Texas Trans-Pecos Pipeline) and with more frequent climate disasters, the communities that we care about and come from do not have more time to wait. The fossil fuel industry will not stop its assault on communities of color and poor rural areas and its business model will not change until the oil runs dry or it is stopped by people fighting for a different model. Divestment and reinvestment are not actions we take symbolically or in the vacuum of our campus but rather serve as steps towards a larger Just Transition, one that changes our sources of energy from polluting fossil fuels owned by private corporations and billionaires to renewable sources owned by communities themselves. It is a transition that will not abandon fossil fuel industry workers or construction crews who are laying the pipelines that affect working-class communities like their own but rather will support them in finding and being trained in jobs in renewable energy.
Seattle University has been called out for many contradictions and hypocrisies in the past but this one rings particularly loudly on this day. Indigenous People’s Day is one where those native to this continent celebrate their long history of resistance, survival and beyond, and where we as non-Indigenous people are called to reflect on our role in supporting that resistance. Part of my role for the past three years has been doing my part to undermine the huge economic power that the fossil fuel industry and lobby have at their disposal to exploit and extract from the communities that I hold dear and that are to this day struggling under a system that has for so long (525 years to be exact) oppressed, enslaved, and even tried to exterminate them.
This institution, along with the hundreds of other universities whose students have gathered together to demand a different way of sourcing energy, has the opportunity to divest itself from an industry that has committed so many crimes against Indigenous peoples, communities of color, and the environment. As President Sundborg so wisely told us all, “We must do more than simply look back on this shared heritage. We must confront with openness and honesty those instances in which we, as a university, have not lived up to the ideals of our mission in our engagement with Native peoples.” Indeed.
Credit goes to poet-author Sherman Alexie for the title, from his screenplay Smoke Signals: “Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to play basketball.”
Special thanks to Monica Chan and Dominique Friz for envisioning this piece, doing research for it, and editing it.
Nicolás is a Chicano Seattle University student of environmental, racial, and gender justice. In his spare time he studies biology and sociology and most of the time is dreaming and scheming about direct actions for climate and racial justice. He is a part of Sustainable Student Action, which is demanding that Seattle University divests from fossil fuels in order to fulfill its mission for justice and sustainability.