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Justice Embodied

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Issue: 76 Section: Gender Topics: birth, climate justice, Indigenous Peoples

May 23, 2011

Justice Embodied

Bearing the future to protect the Earth

by Sandra Cuffe

VANCOUVER—A boy found his younger brother’s body hanging in the basement. Another mine passed the environmental review process. More women are going missing and are murdered. The search for a nuclear waste site continues.

Stories told by the media are presented as a series of disconnected incidents and issues. Most governments, federal or otherwise, work in a similar framework of disconnection, whether to determine jurisdiction or to deflect accountability. Public discussion often separates reality into compartments.

The discourse of many groups and campaigns working on environmental and climate issues explicitly rejects this disconnected perspective. However, that same discourse has been questioned for its failure to make many other connections that Indigenous peoples, women and others have been pointing out for decades.

“Once you go to a birth, you know how connected you are to the earth, and to all creation around us,” says Neddie Thompson, a traditional midwife from Akwesasne, in Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) territory. “It’s the women who give birth to all of our children...to take care of this land.”

“As an Indigenous feminist, one of the links I, as well as many Indigenous women across the world, see is between reproductive health and environmental justice. Simultaneously I am angry about the lack of recognition of this link within most environmental discourse,” wrote Cree/Norwegian Indigenous feminist Erin Konsmo. Also a student, she added that “[it’s] insulting to hear in environmental classes that the idea of any form of sustainability is a new concept.”

The declaration from the International Indigenous Women’s Environmental and Reproductive Health Symposium held last year in California states that “[sovereignty] and autonomy in relation to our lands, territories and resources are intricately connected to sovereignty and autonomy in relation to our bodies, minds and spirits.”

In occupied Canada, and throughout Turtle Island (North America) and Abya Yala (the Americas), the language used to describe resource extraction and environmental destruction is often framed in terms of the war on the land. The phrase is often used as though this were somehow separate from the wars on Indigenous peoples, on women, and on all beings inhabiting the planet.

The identification of the planet as living, life-bearing, and feminine—Mother Earth, among many other names—has been adopted by many environmental and climate activists. Resource extraction and environmental destruction are often also framed in gendered language, particularly using analogies of rape. The use of these words, however, often does not include any kind of analysis of the connections between violence against the earth and violence against women.

An entirely different worldview is illustrated through the spoken and written words of Indigenous peoples throughout this hemisphere, the original keepers and defenders of the lands on which environmental and climate campaigns are now carried out.

“Grassroots and land-based struggles characterize most of Native environmentalism,” wrote Anishnaabeg author and activist Winona Laduke in All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. “We are nations of people with distinct land areas, and our leadership and direction emerge from the land up.”

“Western European peoples have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view. And a singular difficulty faces peoples of Western European heritage in making a transition from thinking in terms of time to thinking in terms of space,” wrote Sioux author, teacher and activist Vine Deloria Jr. in his now-famous 1972 book God is Red: A Native View of Religion.

“The very essence of Western European identity involves the assumption that time proceeds in a linear fashion; further it assumes that at a particular point in the unraveling of this sequence, the peoples of Western Europe became the guardians of the world,” continued Deloria.

Many environmental and climate organizations and activists now support the ongoing struggles for collective Indigenous rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) over any activity or policy that may impact their territories. Less well known is the story of how the struggle for the right to FPIC is rooted in the organized response of Indigenous women some 40 years ago to the involuntary sterilization of Indigenous women in different territories otherwise known as the United States.

“It’s a really interesting history how it became central to our work and recognition of our rights as Indigenous people—the right to FPIC now relating to development on our territories, laws, toxins being used on our lands related to cultural items, and it all started as medical [terminology]. It started with the right of women to say yes or no, to be fully awake and not under threat when they give their agreement or any kind of medication,” longtime International Indian Treaty Council organizer Andrea Carmen told multiracial Indigenous hip-hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter Jessica Yee. The transcript of the conversation is included in Yee’s introduction to Feminism FOR REAL.

In the words of the SisterSong Women of Colour Reproductive Justice Collective, a network of dozens of grassroots organizations, the reproductive justice framework “represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.”

“We believe reproductive justice exists when all people have the social, political and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about our gender, bodies, sexuality and families for ourselves and our communities,” wrote Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, one of the founding members of the SisterSong. “Reproductive Justice aims to transform power inequities and create long-term systemic change, and therefore relies on the leadership of communities most impacted by reproductive oppression.”

The terms “reproductive justice” and “environmental justice” have been used to emphasize this broader analysis and the need for long-term systemic change. The “justice” framework is not new; it has been used for decades by marginalized women and communities, and in particular, Indigenous women.

“Climate justice” is a term now used by many different people and organizations to make a similar distinction between their perspective and the narrow framework of much environmental discourse. However, if the centuries of experience and voices from the same people and communities the climate justice movement purports to support are ignored, dismissed, romanticized, or silenced, then perhaps the inclusion of “justice” is a cosmetic touch to the same environmental discourse.

Regardless of intentions, a mission statement or policy document is only words on a piece of paper. They can either become an ongoing reality, or they can join a long trail of broken treaties.

In 1992, longtime Sioux activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman recited some of the lyrics from his 1973 song “They Didn’t Listen” to conclude his testimony at the World Uranium Hearings in Austria: “And I told them not to dig for uranium, for if they did, the children would die. They didn’t listen, they didn’t listen to me. And I told them if the children die, there would be no keepers of the land. They didn’t listen.”

“If our midwives pass on Indigenous concepts of respecting our environment and keeping it healthy for the next seven generations, should they not be central to environmental discourse?” wrote Erin Konsmo in An Indigenous Feminist Reminder of Women and Environmental Justice. “They absolutely need to be. Otherwise, the ideas of risk will be greatly slanted away from our women and our future generations.”

Sandra Cuffe’s mom used to borrow her own mother’s old typewriter so her little daughter could type her stories. Thanks!

This article was published in A People's Forecast: The Climate Justice Issue, our 2011 special issue. To read more articles as they are published, click here.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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