March 10, 2017, file photo, America Indians and their supporters protest outside of the White House in Washington, to rally against the construction of the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline.
( Jose Luis Magana, File
Eric: On the first flight of the day between Los Angeles and San Francisco, an oil company executive exchanged pleasantries with a fellow passenger in the window seat. Glancing down at the oil rigs dotting the Santa Barbara Channel, the passenger remarked, "Something looks strange in Union Oils' newly erected platform A." Leaning over to look, the oilman paled visibly. "Oh my God," he murmured. What he saw was the start of the Santa Barbara oil spill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. You're listening here to a 1984 documentary produced by Eric Werbalowsky. The film was part of a large conference hosted by the University of California to examine the effects of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. That 35-mile-long spill released more than 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific, killing birds, fish, and sea animals. Responding to the disaster, the junior senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, established Earth Day in 1970. The senator's goal was to focus the country's attention on our responsibilities to protect the resources of the natural world. His legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, reporting on the very first Earth Day.
Walter Cronkite: Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Within 50 years later, Americans continue to pause mid-April to acknowledge the earth. Throughout the next few days, schools, scholars, communities, and towns will mark Earth Day with public education, outdoor events, and service projects. For many of us, Earth Day might feel less like an urgent plea for survival, and more like a motivational kids' tune from YouTube.
Reduce, reuse, recycle, it's very easy to do.
It's simple to remember, recycle what you use.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you think environmentalism began in 1970, led by white male midwestern advocates, well, then you haven't been paying attention.
Nick Estes: Hello, my name is Nick Estes. I'm a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. I was born and raised in South Dakota. I'm also a professor and a writer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In his most recent book, OurHistoryistheFuture. Nick Estes reframes environmentalism, revealing that its roots lie not in the five decades of official government concern, but in centuries of indigenous resistance to violence, land theft, resource extraction, and settler colonialism.
Nick Estes: In our culture, we have the Lakota way of living. The aspiration of the Lakota way of living is a special one that's dictated by kinship relationships with our human relatives, as well as our non-human relatives. That's how we measure time. That's how we measure what I guess you could consider justice and peace.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we begin the story of Earth Day with the history and future of indigenous nations, the story takes a new shape.
Nick Estes: I think if we think about the framing of an indigenous perspective, especially like a Lakota perspective from my community, it would be more of a place-based perspective, saying that, we can look at this location where we came from, where our emergent stories came from, where our history came from, and say that we can notice the changes in the land, the decimation of certain species of animals, the degradation of our sacred rivers, our sacred waterways, our mountains and why that has taken place.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nick walked me through some of what we can learn by reframing our understanding of environmental activism on this Earth Day weekend.
Nick Estes: This notion of a water protector, which was inaugurated in 2016 at the Standing Rock Camps against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Missouri River, a river we know as Mnišoše, but that wasn't just about indigenous people, and also it's to say that, being a water protector wasn't something that happened in 2016. Of course, we can go back in time and look at how people have protected water since time immemorial, but there was something unique about 2016 that I think, really shaped and changed the consciousness around environmental issues, especially indigenous-led movements.
It wasn't an exclusively indigenous project, everyone who walked through those camp gates became a water protector by act of merely being there, with the intention of protecting the Missouri River for the millions of people who depend on that river for the countless non-human relations that depend on that river for life. We have people like AOC, Deb Haaland, people who have since become elected and appointed leadership within the federal government, that's a very important thing. Now, with the recent IPCC report, you have scientists who are supergluing themselves to window panes on Chase Manhattan banks, urging us to take serious the science.
I don't think we would have the same level of consciousness had it not been for indigenous-led movements. It's not just an intangible psychological factor here in terms of raising the consciousness. There was a report that came out last fall by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International that found indigenous resistance or indigenous-led resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual US and Canadian emissions. That is pretty phenomenal given the fact that indigenous people, both in Canada and the United States are the minority of the minorities.
There is a tangible element in a tangible success that indigenous-led movements in the air of the water protector can point to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind people about 2016 and water protection, and what that movement looked like, and what it was doing.
Nick Estes: You saw the coming together of the Oceti Sakowin, the reuniting of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people, the nation that I come from. Any kind of indigenous form of sovereignty, unlike western forms of sovereignty, it's not exclusive to just indigenous people. Our diversity, our multiplicity is our strength, not our exclusivity as a singular nation or "race of people," as you would find in the Western notions of nation. We invited all allies, including non-Indigenous peoples and movements, that all came to the camps north of Standing Rock at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. It was quite a historic event.
I remember being there, I think it was around the time of Thanksgiving, and just seeing an endless stream of headlights flowing into the camps. As much as it was very perilous in the sense that we were completely surrounded by over 70 different law enforcement jurisdictions, including federal agencies, the National Guard had set up checkpoints, there was a constant stream of helicopters flying above, taking aerial photography, there were constant clashes with the police, there was macing, there was clubbing, there was all kinds of police violence being directed towards water protectors who had gathered in prayer.
It sincerely was a prayerful act, it was an act that is almost indescribable if you hadn't been there. I'd seen things that I had never seen in my entire lifetime. Anywhere you went in the country, you could tell somebody about indigenous struggles, because Standing Rock was going on, and they understood it, they had an image in their mind, for better or worse, of native people, native water protectors being brutalized by police. It was almost as if it was the image of the colonization of this country in the state that we were entering into in terms of the backlash against the Obama era and the rise of Trump. All of these kinds of factors were playing into this moment in time.
It was the only sustained resistance movement against the Trump administration, incoming Trump administration. It encapsulated a lot of hope and a lot of optimism. As we saw with Trump, and I would say, even continuing into the Biden administration, the promises that a lot of these elected officials and the so-called elite leadership in this country, really failed to materialize an alternative vision to the status quo. We can see that now with the mass federal leasing of lands for oil and gas development, the new push by the Biden administration to increase oil production, and flooding the markets with oil and gas, thus locking us further and further into carbon emissions.
We're really not headed in a good place right now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It can be hard to talk about climate change and not feel simply horror. Where can our current movements for climate justice and environmental justice, connect to hope in this moment of horror?
Nick Estes: That's a good question. I am not feeling incredibly optimistic right now with our leadership I should say but I do feel incredibly optimistic about the tangible successes of front-line struggles against a variety of fossil fuel projects across all stages of fossil fuel infrastructure that have happened in the recent years. At least the last decade. An indigenous-led movement ended the Keystone XL Pipeline. Indigenous-led movements have challenged key fossil fuel infrastructure. We've also lost some short-term battles against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was built. It went forward despite the Obama administration's feeble attempts to set up roadblocks.
The Line 3 Pipeline which goes through the northern part of Minnesota went through under Democratic leadership at the state level as well as the federal level. That pipeline alone which is essentially a re-route from the Keystone XL Pipeline is transporting oil to the Gulf of Mexico. It has a carbon footprint twice the amount of the entire state of Minnesota. I do think if we are to get serious about a viable and liveable future a lot of the people and I'm not trying to be ageist here but a lot of the people who are being incredibly detrimental to not only our present but our future are those who will not have to live with the effects of climate change.
I think one thing that gives me hope that water protectors have taught us is that they are trying to be good ancestors to future generations of people. Not just indigenous people but future generations of people in a specific place. The water protectors from Giniw Collective to Camp in northern part of Minnesota are preserving an omen for future generations. Wild rice for future generations. They're preserving freshwater for future generations so too were my relatives. My Lakota Dakota relatives at Standing Rock they were preserving freshwater for future generations.
Not just indigenous people but it's important that these movements are tied to these specific places because that's where the values and that's where the knowledge comes from.
We've tried this by trying to win elite politicians over in this country that we are human. That we have rights essentially. Deb Haaland, God bless her, went into the Department of Interior, the first indigenous woman to sit at a cabinet-level position in this country went in and said very stridently that she was going to stop oil and gas leasing on federal lands. We have seen since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the skyrocketing prices of oil, and the refusal of the oil and gas industry to lower prices and to pump more oil.
We see somebody like Deb Haaland who is at the Standing Rock camps going back on her word. That to me is a very dire sign and it shows the limitations of that kind of politics. It's not to say that it's hopeless and I know deep down inside her heart I'm sure that Deb Haaland is against this decision but what elites consider hard political choices are at the end of the day questions of existential importance to the rest of the planet.
That I think the only sane people who are operating right now or living on this planet right now are those who are doing everything in their power to curb emissions. To dismantle the fossil fuel project and to essentially provide an alternative for life on this planet.
Melissa: Nick Estes, author of Our History Is the Future. Thank you so much for joining us today.
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