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The Road Begins at the Bottom of Your Feet

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July 4, 2008

The Road Begins at the Bottom of Your Feet

The Longest Walk 2 speaks out for Mother Earth

by Sandra Cuffe

Walkers visited the most bombed nation on earth and the second largest mining region in the world - the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada. Photo: Julien Jacobs

“Being here, at this very moment, it’s going to be a moment in your history that you’re going to remember for all time,” American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Dennis Banks told participants of April's Longest Walk 2 at the Dooda Desert Rock Camp in the Navajo Nation.

Following in the footsteps of the 1978 AIM Longest Walk for native rights, on February 11, 2008, the Longest Walk 2 left on a six-month, 4,400-mile walk from Alcatraz Island to Washington, DC. The island, located off the coast of San Francisco, California, and former site of the infamous federal prison of the same name, is Ohlone territory and was the site of a historic re-occupation in 1968.

Thirty years after the original Longest Walk, many of the problems facing native communities and nations continue. The 2008 Longest Walk 2 is bringing attention to the need to protect Mother Earth against destructive industries, pollution, and the devastation of sacred sites. Photo: Julien Jacobs

Thirty years after the original Longest Walk, many of the problems facing native communities and nations continue. Participants in 2008 are bringing attention to several concerns first raised in 1978. The Longest Walk 2 is stressing the need to protect Mother Earth against destructive industries, pollution and the devastation of sacred sites, such as San Francisco Peaks.

The Walk includes two main routes: the northern route, which follows the path marched in the 1978 walk; and the southern route. Both began in California and they will converge as they near Washington, where participants will stage a three-day Cultural Survival Summit. The Summit will precede the official presentation of a Manifesto for Change to the government of the United States on July 11, 2008.

The Walk has been traversing the snaking rivers, towering mountain ranges and winding highways, through thunderstorms, blazing heat, snow and even a tornado.

Dooda Desert Rock Resistance Camp

In the windy desert in the Navajo Nation, the southern route participants gathered for a stopover at the Dooda Desert Rock Resistance Camp. ‘Dooda’ means ‘No’ in the Navajo language and references the grassroots resistance campaign against the proposed Desert Rock coal-fired steam-electric power plant. The Dine Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power are awaiting an air permit decision from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If approved, the project would generate air pollution equivalent to 12.5 million cars, according to local Dine (‘Navajo’) activists.

According to federal law, the EPA has one year to determine whether or not to grant a permit; however, the application was made in 2004. At the beginning of June, the EPA filed a consent decree in court declaring that a decision will be made by July 31, 2008. At the same time, however, there has been increasing press coverage about the declining air quality, largely due to two existing power plants in the region. According to recent news coverage, San Juan County, New Mexico, reached the federal standard for maximum ozone levels in mid-June. An EPA report stated that in the year 2000 alone, the existing power plants and coal mines in the county released 13 million pounds of toxic chemicals, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and airborne mercury.

Dine elders in the areas most directly threatened began organizing opposition to the proposed power plant in 2003 and the Dooda Desert Rock Committee was created in 2004. A resistance camp has been maintained near the proposed power plant site for the past few years. In addition to environmental and health concerns, another principal issue is that the proposed site is immediately adjacent to a sacred burial ground.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t happen,” said Elouise Brown, a local Dine community leader at the forefront of the grassroots resistance to the project. She explained that at the beginning, only a handful of people were involved and that she was often alone at the site: “I would just sit there and cry and pray.”

Over the last few years, the resistance camp and the campaign have been receiving visitors and supporters such as those taking part in the Longest Walk 2. Brown explained to participants that many others from neighbouring towns and further afield have also been supporting the Dooda Desert Rock campaign: “They felt that if this was happening in their hometown, they wouldn’t want it going on.”

Dennis Banks explained to the group that he had grown up in a military boarding school and always dreamed of a military career. When he enlisted and was serving in Japan, thousands of people would protest the expansion of a US military base. The US troops would watch as Japanese police hit people’s heads "like coconuts."

“We said they would never win. How could they fight the US government?” asked Banks, comparing the situation to the one facing local Dine activists who oppose the proposed Desert Rock power plant. But in Japan, “they halted. They defeated the US Air Force...Now the farmland is booming with crops. On that side, the grass and wheat are growing up through the runways.”

Decades after leaving the armed forces and becoming one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, Banks spoke from the other side of the fence, this time the one surrounding the proposed power-plant site. While looking over the spectacular desert in the direction of the sacred burial ground he said, “This is the way it should be left, just like this. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s almost asinine that archaeologists, anthropologists, mining people...come here and tell the ancestral inhabitants that there are no burial grounds here...Their interest is to grab the land,” continued Banks.

“It is being destroyed in the name of economic development, by people who do not live here or care about the area at all,” remarked Don Lindley, a Dine park ranger working at Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area.

He explained that what is occurring today is not new, but a continuation of something that has gone on for decades.

Interested in the resources on and in native lands, the US government imposed the Tribal Council government system in the 1920s. In 1931, despite the fact that the Great Depression had enveloped the country, the Livestock Reduction Act was passed and hundreds of cattle belonging to native people were taken away and killed, or herded away and left to decompose.

“While the rest of the United States was waiting in line at soup kitchens, they were over here terrorizing and killing our livestock,” said Lindley, explaining that from 1931 until 1956, white men working for the government rode the range enforcing the livestock quota.

Uranium mining has been occurring for decades in the Navajo Nation, fueling many of the nuclear weapons and nuclear power projects in the United States. There has been some attention to the plight of the Dine uranium workers, the affected communities and the alarming health problems, but instead of working to remedy the existing situation, the government is granting exploration permits for further uranium mining activities in the region.

Shortly before the Longest Walk 2’s visit to the area, Navajo Nation Tribal Council President Joe Shirley, Jr. voiced the Navajo Nation’s clear rejection of uranium mining to a Congressional Sub-Committee hearing in Flagstaff. The April 30 press release addressed the ‘Community Impacts of Proposed Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon National Park’ and quoted Shirley at the hearing:

Today, the legacy of uranium mining continues to devastate both the people and the land. The workers, their families and their neighbours suffer increased incidents of cancers and other medical disorders caused by their exposure to uranium...The mines, many simply abandoned, have left open scars in the ground with leaking radioactive waste. The companies that processed the uranium ore dumped their waste in open-–and in some cases unauthorized-–pits, exposing both the soil and the water to radiation...The Navajo people have been consistently lied to by companies and government officials concerning the effects of various mining activities. Unfortunately, the true cost of these activities is understood only later, when the companies have stolen away with their profits leaving the Navajo people to bear the health burdens.

The Most Bombed Nation On Earth

Just over two months after visiting Dooda Desert Rock and walking through the Navajo Nation, the Longest Walk 2 participants arrived at the Y-12 National Security Complex, just outside of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Managed for the National Nuclear Security Administration by Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, a private corporation, the Complex has been using uranium from the Navajo Nation, among other places, for decades.

According to the sign in front of Y-12:

The Electromagnetic Separation Plant was a Manhattan Project facility built in 1943 to separate U-235 from U-238. Material for the first atomic bomb was produced here. In place of unavailable copper, nearly 14,000 tons of silver were borrowed from the US Treasury for use on the manufacturing equipment. The plant was constructed by Stone and Webster Engineering and was operated by Tennessee Eastman from 1943-1947.

Approximately 30 people walked eight miles to the fence at one of the entrances to the plant. Eleven security officers in uniform walked down the driveway and watched as the Walk formed a line along the fence facing Y-12 and stood praying, drumming and chanting. Participants from different places, including Hiroshima and the Navajo Nation, shared their prayers with the Walk and the dozen local peace activists who joined them at the Complex.

“We stand against this plant that represents death and destruction,” remarked local peace activist Erik Johnson.

Activists involved with the Oak Ridge Peace and Environmental Alliance have been gathering in front of the Y-12 National Security Complex to hold a vigil every Sunday evening for the last seven years. Others have been doing the same every Monday morning for the past five years.

While most people are aware that the bombs constructed at the Y-12 complex and elsewhere were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of the Second World War, very few are aware that literally hundreds of these bombs have been dropped on a nation much closer to home. When asked what they think is the most bombed nation on Earth, most people pinpoint Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Lebanon, England, Iraq, or other countries. In fact, the most bombed nation on Earth is the Western Shoshone Nation in Nevada, visited by the northern route of the Longest Walk 2.

In 1863, during the Civil War, Americans needed safe passage west to the gold mines in California in order to fund the war. The Treaty of Ruby Valley, a treaty of peace and friendship with the Western Shoshone covering 60 million acres, was written and signed that year. This treaty did not cede any territory, despite the fact that there was a military camp whose soldiers were engaging in the murder and rape of Western Shoshone community members and despite the fact that the translator told the Shoshone that if they did not agree they would all be shot.

Over the past 150 years, however, settlers and the US government have gradually taken over the vast majority of Western Shoshone territory, leaving only tiny reservations. In 1962, the government of the United States established that the Western Shoshone had lost their lands through “gradual encroachment” and a decade later began suing elders for “trespassing” on their own ancestral lands. In 1979, the Indian Claims Commission allotted 26 million dollars for 24 million acres of “lost” Western Shoshone territory; the Western Shoshone did not accept the money or the unilateral extinguishment of their Treaty rights.

According to Western Shoshone elder and Western Shoshone Defense Project founder Carrie Dann, 90 per cent of the land included in the Treaty of Ruby Valley is currently occupied by US government claims. Among these is the huge Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada, home to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare testing. From the 1950s to the present day, there have been over one thousand nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site, located within Nellis and within Western Shoshone territory.

Underground plutonium testing continues at the base. After September 11, 2001, a new facility for biological and chemical weapons testing was built on the same base. Plans for the detonation of 700 tons of explosives with a nuclear atomic warhead detonation device in June 2006 were postponed several times due to massive opposition and were finally cancelled in July 2007. The exercise at the Nevada Test Site, named “Divine Strake,” would have been the largest open-air chemical explosion ever carried out by the Pentagon.

Dann recalls the impacts of some of the earlier nuclear tests in the 1970s and particularly after 1976, when “about 10 per cent of the calf population was deformed in some way or another.” Dann also spoke of the contamination of water in Western Shoshone communities and of health problems such as leukemia, diabetes and birth defects.

Earth versus Resources

The Western Shoshone, their lands, air and water are also affected by the intensive open-pit mining activities in their territory. It is the second biggest gold-mining region in the world, with dozens of companies present, including three of the world’s largest gold corporations: Barrick Gold, Newmont and Goldcorp. Baroid Drilling Fluids, a subsidiary of the infamous military industry leader Halliburton, has been mining barite and molybdenum-–a metal used in steel alloys with diverse military and industrial uses.

The Western Shoshone Defense Project is currently struggling against Barrick Gold’s attempts to expand the Cortez gold mine in Horse Canyon, an important sacred site for the Western Shoshone. Barrick announced the gold deposit ‘discovery’ in February 2003 as one of the largest gold deposits in the United States and has been aggressively attempting to divide and buy out the Western Shoshone communities and leaders in the area.

“These big corporations with billions of dollars-–that’s who we’re up against,” remarked Larson Bill, a Western Shoshone community leader and Tribal Council member. “It’s kind of amazing that people in the United States, even the Congressmen, don’t know what’s going on out here. They have no clue what’s going on.”

Faced with some of the most destructive industries on the planet, such as the military and mining industries, Dann emphasizes the roots of the struggles of the Western Shoshone in the video Our Land, Our Life: The Struggle for Western Shoshone Land Rights. "To a traditional, indigenous person, land means life. All the things that you have-–they all come from this Earth. Today, they call those things resources. Today, those resources are taken in the name of economy, name of money. Who does that? Multinational corporations. They don’t care. They’re not going to be here tomorrow. And what do these companies care about the children of these children? They don’t care! 'Cause they’ll be gone! Soon as they take the resources out, they will be gone."

Dann also asks all of us if we are prepared “to dedicate ourselves to the next generations to come. Or are we just ready to accept things as they are and to hell with tomorrow, to hell with the future generations? And that is one of the reasons that I try so hard to protect the rights of indigenous peoples all over the world, because they’re the ones still related to the earth. They’re still close to the earth. And they do care.”

These are the questions, issues and struggles to which the Longest Walk 2 is bringing attention, mile by mile, through reservations, towns and cities across the country. Along the way-–and via the Longest Walk 2 website--people of diverse nations, colours and countries have been joining them, making donations, sharing their own histories and situations, and welcoming the Walk into their nations, communities and homes. The Manifesto for Change to be presented to the US government is also being compiled over the course of the walk.

Back at Dooda Desert Rock, Banks insisted that action is the next necessary step after hearing about or witnessing the ongoing injustice and destruction: “That should be an obligation. You should use what you have learned.”

“The road begins at the bottom of your feet.”

Sandra Cuffe is an independent journalist, activist, and the descendant of white European settlers.

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One of the best articles I have ever read

Thank you Sandra.

Surely right up on the top of articles I have read and studied regarding climate & indigenous justice. As well as sustainability and people in action to do something about these global problems created by us puny humans.

Tami Starlight -VMC
unceded coast salish territory. (stolen land)

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