Idle No More: Fighting Back Against Growing Land/Resource Grabs

Charlie Parke January 12, 2013 3

By Charlie Parke
Arizona Community Press |

In the 19th century Native American communities were driven to relocate to land undesired by settlers. Then as gold and oil exploration increased they were often forced to move again. This led to a loss of identity for many as their land was taken through broken treaties and war, forcing them from hunting to living on plots of land. The changes in diet seem to have led to long term medical problems like the high rate of diabetes in Native American communities. In the 20th and 21st centuries these “reservations” again face challenges as the desire to claim water & coal and build roads on the native land brings in outside forces who care little for displacing people or risking their health.

The desire to access resources on the Native American lands has led to a number of political struggles in North America at both the local and federal levels. In late 2012 a bill was passed in Canada known as C45 which reduces protections to lakes, rivers and affects use of reservation land. First Nations representatives were neither consulted nor allowed to speak on the floor of Parliament. Four women began a non-violent protest called “Idle no More” to fight back against the Canadian governments continued land and water grabs. The movement spread online and into the USA bringing together groups involved in other struggles to highlight local fights as part of a larger whole.

In Arizona “Idle No More” kicked off with a series of events in December in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tempe. The events focused on creating peaceful discussion, dance and music to bring people together. The local movement has brought together people from across the state as several ongoing struggles over the use of native land due to corporate mining and big city water demands have sprung up in recent years.

“Idle No More” event at Scottsdale Fashion Square:

Resolution Copper has actively campaigned for Congress to provide them access to mining on Apache land, with a bill called the Southeast Land Swap. The bill has been introduced to Congress in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl say that jobs could result from mining copper and the land being given in exchange. The Grand Canyon Sierra Club questions the value of a land exchange with Resolution Copper. The group says Resolution Copper is using language that prevents the public from knowing the value of the trade through “Confidential and Proprietary” language. By gaining the land through an act of Congress rather then an administrative exchange allows the company to skip steps that provide an environmental impact analysis through NEPA. In February 2012 Shan Lewis, president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, testified to Congress that mining would damage San Carlos Apache Nation land. “Many tribes go to these places for prayer ceremonies, to gather their ceremonial items, or for peace and personal cleansing” Lewis said, “These places are holy.” Congressman Raul Grijalva required consultations between the Interior Department and affected Indian tribes take place before the land exchange could be finalized. Public protests, which were supported by indigenous, activist and environmental groups, to raise awareness of the legislation may have led to the bill’s failure to make it through the senate.

In 2012 AZ Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain introduced another bill which is supported by Peabody Energy and the Salt River Project. They claim this bill would solve long disputed water rights issues regarding water given by treaty to the Navajo and Hopi Nation. Many have asked how a dispute exists over seemingly clear treaty language on how water is to be used and feel no answer has been provided by either senator. The senators visit to meet with Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, in Tuba City was greeted by protest from natives and other supporters with chants such as “Water is Life”. The offices of Senator McCain and Senator Kyl where protested by Occupy Phoenix to raise awareness of the bill. While at the office the group delivered petitions opposing the bill. Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies & History, pointed to provisions in the bill that require the tribes to waive all protections against injury to water quality “from time immemorial and thereafter, forever” and to “permanently waive all water rights to the Little Colorado River”. This bill failed to pass Congress in 2012 , but like the land swap bill it is expected to be reintroduced.

A campaign known as “Protect the Peaks” highlights use of a sacred mountain, San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona, for skiing with fake snow. Activists for tribal and environment rights have pointed to potential dangers from artificial snow made with treated sewage water which “contains hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals and steroids”. There are no studies currently available to say how this will impact human health, water or soil composition. A number of public protests and legal battles have sought to prevent use of the fake snow and expansion of Snowbowl Ski Resort outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2007 a ruling was granted in the tribes favor: “plaintiff tribes, environmental groups, and Save the Peaks Coalition called the decision a “landmark ruling” and a “victory for religious freedom, environmental justice, & cultural survival.” However the ruling was later reversed. Several protesters have been arrested, with charges often seeming politically motivated and possibly in violation of legal process to those involved. A number of groups have pointed to an Arizona law that prevents reuse of sewage water for water ski-ing, surfing, swimming, misting or other activities that might lead to a dangerous level of exposure. So far the State government doesn’t seem to agree.  Last month Snowbowl began to use the snowmaking machines on the peaks while the legal and protest continues.

Loop 202, a freeway which connects the Phoenix with the East Valley, has opened the question of using native land for transportation across the state. As urban centers grow ever outward people are looking for the fastest way between the centers that often were built around native land. Loop 202 consists of three portions. The San Tan Freeway and Red Mountain Freeway have completed construction. The third portion, South Mountain Freeway, has been halted due to crossing Gila Indian River Community. A vote by the tribe offered a choice of supporting the plan to build the freeway, a no build option or to support its being built around the community land with No Build the winner. An attempt to open a new round of voting that removes the no build option from the ballot has spurred controversy with claims of payoffs by corporate interests that would land construction contracts to build the freeway. No Loop 202 groups made several presentations at Occupy Phoenix and worked together to request the Maricopa Association of Governments and Department of Transportation to halt plans to build on native land – noting their request to De-Occupy their lands. Alex Soto, a local activist who is opposes the Loop 202 expansion, told the Citizen’s Transportation Oversight Committee that “This freeway will negatively effect my sister tribes, the Akimel O’odham who reside in the Gila River Indian Community. This freeway will add pollution that will affect the health of GRIC, encroach on GRIC, and desecrate South Mountain, which is a sacred site to all O’odham (Akimel Tohono O’odham).”

The Gila River community and environmentalist faced off against a proposed copper mine operation in 2012 by Curis Resources, a mining company based in Canada. The mine would require use of an unpopular process called in-situ which uses large amounts of water. The process also has a history of long term damage to local groundwater. A recent U.S. Geological Survey finding states that “To date, no remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions”.  The town of Florence has joined the opposition recently making the mining process a crime in their jurisdiction and have denied zoning and permit requests.  However, these actions only limit where the mine can operate in the area and with the mine backed by Gov Jan Brewer its use of state land is likely to be undeterred.

“Idle No More” has held a succession of events in Arizona gaining support from local activists including Puente, Occupy Phoenix and TonaTierra.  Actions in  Window Rock, Metrocenter in Phoenix and at Flagstaff City Hall show a continuing campaign to raise public awareness of the issues faced by native tribes. The group has continued to highlight that they are protesting peacefully in public spaces often repeating this several times and some have brought copies of the local laws in fear of attack by local police or wrongful arrests. Today, January 11th was a National Day of Action with actions planned throughout the world. Here in Phoenix an “Idle No More” event took place at Steele Indian School Park. Today marks the 1-month anniversary of Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and to honour the other chiefs and elders who have been on hunger strike with her.