The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice: A Conversation with Dina Gilio-Whitaker
These past few weeks, we have witnessed militarized police actions against the peoples of Wet’suwet’en to make way for fracked gas pipelines across Canada. Dozens of solidarity road and railway blockades have been erected in support of the land defenders and Indigenous self-determination. As these struggles unfold, they evoke the memory of Standing Rock — and the many battles to protect Native lands and sacred sites throughout Turtle Island (North America) and beyond.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s new book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock provides excellent context for understanding the inseparable link between colonization and environmental injustice in these ongoing struggles. She also explores the often-fraught terrain of solidarity and the role of alliances in the fight for environmental, food, and climate justice.
I spoke with Dina in November for the Real Food Reads podcast. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tanya Kerssen: Your book centers on the concept of “environmental justice” and efforts by scholars and activists to indigenize environmental justice. First of all, how did this phrase enter our popular and legal vernacular? And what are some of the ways environmental justice, at least at first, wasn’t addressing the needs of Native peoples?
Dina Gilio-Whitaker: The term environmental justice can mean a lot of different things. It emerges in the early 1980s, born out of Black communities in the deep South who were experiencing what they suspected to be the deliberate targeting of their communities for toxic waste dumps. And it led to a series of community-based studies and then government-sponsored studies seeking to understand if there really was such a thing as what they were calling “environmental racism.” And the studies showed that indeed there was: that communities can be targeted for these kinds of toxic development because of their race and culture. This led to action on the governmental and legal level.
This concept of “indigenizing” environmental justice acknowledges that the way we understand environmental justice is far too narrow to fit for Native Americans. Environmental justice is about the fair and equal distribution of environmental risks and harms that disproportionately expose communities of color. But that depends on understanding all communities as equal as ethnic minority communities. And this just does not fit for American Indian people and communities because American Indians are not ethnic minorities. American Indians are nations with territories, sovereignty, and jurisdiction and entirely different histories that go back millennia on the land as well as histories of colonization, which is not true for any other population on this continent.
Tanya: The book opens with the story of Standing Rock as an illustration of the ongoing environmental disruption and environmental injustice faced by Native people as well as the critical role of alliances in defending Native lands. Why do you start with Standing Rock and what does it illustrate about indigenous environmental justice?
Dina: My book with Roxanne [Dunnbar-Ortíz], ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans had just come out in October of 2016 when the Standing Rock conflict was escalating. And my editor posed the question: What does environmental justice look like through the lens of settler colonialism? And I said, well gee, it’s funny you should ask. I have a long history of writing about that. And so it just came out of that particular time.
I went to Standing Rock that Thanksgiving weekend when the population was at its peak. Prior to that point it had been mostly Native people there. But after the human rights abuses really started with the dog attacks on Labor Day, that’s when people started pouring in. What non-Native people came into was a space dominated by Native culture, specifically Lakota — Lakota protocol and Lakota worldview. Everything was determined by Lakota people, which was a very different orientation for people.
As I document in the book, there were rumblings of people treating it like a music festival; like it was a fun thing. People talked about going because they felt “called” to be there. People sort of made it about their own individual spiritual journey when that was not the focus of what was happening, right? This was a serious protest gathering, a resistance event where people were defending the water and the land with their lives.
Yet these other narratives were playing out in an almost New Age kind of way — which has been very common with the advent of the New Age movement and the counter-culture. [Non-native people] were looking to Native people to imagine a different kind of society and there was a lot of cultural appropriation. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well-intended, but they brought with them their worldviews steeped in white supremacy and white privilege and they demanded their right to practice the religion and spirituality of other people. And this has been a problem ever since.
Tanya: The problem seems to be when non-Native — even Liberal or Progressive environmentalist movements — come with all of this unexamined baggage around the settler colonialist framework in which they operate.
Dina: Absolutely. And it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow for Lefties who like to think of themselves as politically enlightened. I mean, we can have this conversation, for better or worse, since the Trump election. All this in-our-face white supremacy and racism has given us an opportunity to have an honest conversation about it — to acknowledge that we don’t live in the post-racial state. The scales are not balanced just because we had a Black president.
But for Native people, it’s not just about racial privilege. This is some of the work that I’m going deeper into: understanding that white privilege goes beyond the concept of race. We have to be able to talk about these systems of oppression beyond race because for Native people it’s way beyond that, which is why the discourse of environmental justice and environmental racism is so inadequate.
Tanya: When you say that environmental justice needs to go beyond environmental racism, what you’re explicitly referring to are the different worldviews and relationships to place and conceptions of the sacred. This is something that struck me as a main thread throughout your book — that these things can’t adequately be contained, maybe, within a racial justice or a racial equity frame.
Dina: Exactly. Especially in a legal system that systematically denies Indigenous worldviews of the sacred. That’s the reality of the legal system in this country going back to the 1980s with a decision called the Lyng Decision [Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association] that basically denied the ability to protect a Native sacred site in effect because it didn’t acknowledge Native religions as legitimate in the same way Christian religions, for example, are recognized.
Tanya: I was surprised to read about the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which wasn’t passed until 1978, allowing Native peoples to freely practice their religion and spiritual and ceremonial practices. But also that this act didn’t guarantee the environmental integrity of sacred sites or the conditions necessary for religious practices in those spaces.
Dina: Most people don’t realize that Native Americans are the only people who didn’t have religious freedom in this country. Our religions were outright banned beginning around 1883. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was the marking point for officially overturning that. But yes, it sounds good on the surface, but it’s one of those kind of toothless laws. And as you said, it might protect access to certain sites, especially in public lands, but it doesn’t protect the integrity of those places.
That’s why we see conflicts like the San Francisco Peaks [outside Flagstaff, Arizona] where they fought for years to stop what Native people see as the desecration of this place by the spraying of treated sewage water on these public lands. This not only has health risks associated with it, but is also seen as a desecration of these sacred places. And there’s absolutely no kind of legal structure to protect from that. These are the kinds of battles we’re fighting all over the place.
Tanya: The conversation about sacred places is also linked to, and probably inseparable from, access to land and territory and food-producing resources. As a food activist, I loved the chapter in your book about food sovereignty and health, which also looks at traditional plant medicines. Can you ground us a little bit in the history of how food has been used as a weapon against Native people and how that legacy of violence is still experienced today?
Dina: We are talking about settler colonialism as a system that is intent on eliminating indigenous existence and replacing Native people with a different population. That’s how we as scholars write about it. It’s in the process of separating people from their lands and placing them on reservations—that’s one way. But it goes deeper than that: settler colonialism is this violent process [that also involves] the targeting of people’s food crops. This is something that happened a lot. It was a technology of war, this scorched earth policy in order to starve people into submission. They attacked their food sources — from plant-based foods to the decimation of the buffalo.
It happened in other ways, too, like with the building of dams in the 20th century. Even well after the Indian Wars period is over, when settler government was building infrastructure and harnessing hydro-power for irrigation and electricity. Well, all these dams had devastating effects in Native communities. These included the blockage of salmon passage in places like on the Columbia River, which led to the near extinction of salmon there.
Nick Estes has written about the Pick-Sloan dam project on the Missouri River, flooding so much land that it became the most destructive to Native life of all the histories of dams. It robbed people of food, sources of timber, access to medicines, all of these kinds of things. These are hugely devastating actions that continue to play out. Settler colonialism is a structure of genocide that continually plays itself out.
Going back to the idea of food sovereignty, there’s a lot to learn from Native people and their projects to reclaim their foods. The food sovereignty movement is a way of reclaiming not just culture, but health and life. Because the way this genocidal system has affected Native people has played out in people’s physical bodies.
Native people were known to be some of the most healthy people in the world, and certainly healthier than Europeans. We didn’t have nutrition-related diseases like Europeans had until our food sources were taken away and we had European diets imposed on us. So we went from being people of robust health to being people who were being starved to death. And then when we start having these Western foods brought into our communities in order to stave off the starvation, we went from being starving people to being obese within a generation. And so now Native people are commonly afflicted with diet-related illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure and cancer and diabetes that increasingly affect all of modern America.
Tanya: Does a particular example come to mind of a way food sovereignty is being used to upend that model of food dependence and dependence on unhealthy foods and return to and revitalize Native foodways?
Dina: I worked on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, which is often held up as a model project. The Muckleshoots are in Washington State in an area that, prior to colonization, was so rich in natural resources that the people there didn’t even need to farm. Their natural environment provided them with so many different food sources and ocean resources and they had this amazingly diverse diet. But their reservation now is very small. The way that the environment’s been compromised means that they can’t really practice their food practices the way they used to.
So they’ve come up with different kinds of programs to re-instill their traditional medicines and food banks. In areas when you can do hunting they’ll teach the youth on how to hunt and fish, bringing back those practices. Re-indigenizing their systems is what it amounts to. How do you indigenize your system in the context of a very colonized society? These are big challenges, but there’s lots of innovation that people are coming up with to do this.
We were working on an assessment that looked at how spending money outside the reservation community, in grocery stores for example, is a drain on a tribal economic system. Because that money is not circulating within the tribal community. And when we did that assessment, we discovered that something like $3 million a year was leaving the reservation and not coming back. It’s part of that extractive economy. So we talk about an extractive model, it extracts in all different kinds of ways.
Tanya: Speaking of the extractive economy, in your book you talk about some of the regulations being rolled back under the Trump administration, regulating extractive industry and air and water pollution, drilling, infrastructure, and lots more. You mentioned there were 67 rules being rolled back at the time the book was published. I looked up the most recent figure in The New York Times and it’s now 85, which is really disturbing. This is bad news, obviously, for everyone not just for Native peoples, but can you offer some perspective on this from the long history of Indigenous resistance?
Dina: I want to be sanguine. I want to be hopeful. I want to be optimistic. But what I can say is that for Native people, we are people who are surviving genocide. To be Native today is to have survived a 95 percent genocide. Maybe that’s something to take heart in. I don’t know how else to think about it. I think the reason that we survived is because of our unending resistance. We just kept going. And so here we are. Now we are at the point that we are leading the resistance movement — the environmental resistance movement, the climate justice movement. Native people are the forefront of it. Maybe it’s because of the fact that we have survived this total devastation.
Tanya: I don’t think I would call it a silver lining, but maybe if there is a positive outgrowth of the last couple of years it’s been a greater willingness to understand how real and ever-present racism is in our political and legal structures — and also in our movements, unfortunately. And understanding that is really incumbent on all of us in order to build the movements that we need.
Dina: We have to be brave enough to understand how settler colonialism built a system that benefited a whole lot of people at the expense of a whole lot of people. How do we get our heads around that? How do we decolonize that? What does it mean? Who has to give up what? What is it going to take to build a system that affirms life for everyone that’s not built on the death of other people and the death of the environment and other species? This is what’s being asked of us and it means we all have to look at whatever privilege we have and who sacrificed for that. This is about how anybody who’s not Indigenous to this land benefited from indigenous death — and exploited labor, right? A system in which [enslaved] people were forced into developing stolen land.
We have to grapple with this stuff and be able to talk about what decolonization means — it’s not just racial justice. But what does racial justice mean in the context of decolonizing a settler colonial system? These are obviously structural, paradigmatic issues and they implicate capitalism. And none of us are going to survive if we don’t confront it. You know, Europeans brought with them a worldview that was built on the domination of the natural world. We find ourselves, as a result, in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event. And so how do we shift that? This is where indigenous knowledge is so important.
Native people understand the world in a whole different way. We understand ourselves as related and part of this web of life. We have to change our relationship to the natural world. And this is where Native people and Indigenous knowledge have so much power to effect that change. Part of indigenizing environmental justice is infusing environmental justice with this indigenous worldview, with traditional ecological knowledge so that we can create these changes.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a descendant of Colville Confederated tribes, is a lecturer of American Indian studies at California State University San Marcos and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. She’s also an award-winning journalist, co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of the book, ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’ and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and author of the 2019 book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock.