Hundreds of years before the orange groves or the University of Redlands, the Cahuilla people occupied this land. On Sept. 29, Redlands students and community members joined speakers to gain a deeper understanding of current Native American issues. The film, “The Snowball Effect,” was screened, followed by a panel of Indigenous activists speaking about their peoples’ collective struggles. The discussion focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline which has recently gained notoriety after the faceoff between indigenous peoples and local police were recorded and put on social media.
The “The Snowball Effect” tells the story of land injustice that the Navajo people faced in Flagstaff, Arizona. Like the church is to a Christian, the San Francisco peaks have a deep spiritual importance for 13 tribes, including the Hopi and Navajo people. Despite the vital connection that the Hopi and Navajo people share with the land, the United States Forestry Service proposed to destroy the natural landscape by building a ski resort on the land, which would be sustained by recycled wastewater for artificial snow. The area’s ecosystem contained traditional medicinal plants, as well as critically endangered species that would all be threatened by the new development. Despite living within a system designed for capital gain, the Native residents of the area fought back against the city for the preservation of their sacred land, although to no avail. Despite activist attempts, the ski resort was built and the land was ruined. Far too often, the nation’s colonial agenda pushes Native Americans into this experience.
The first panelist of the night was activist George Funmaker, who traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to bring supplies and join their protest against the oil industry and the federal government. He spoke about a recent event at Standing Rock, when the community’s water protectors were holding a ceremony to honor the land. The event, however, was violently interrupted by police with tear gas and assault rifles despite the protectors’ decision to remain peaceful and protest unarmed and by worshipping together on sovereign land. The protectors were there on peaceful terms- unarmed and worshipping together. Twenty-two people were arrested for exercising their right to protest. With survival necessitating water, access to clean water is imperative to future Sioux generations. Funmaker said that the Sioux people feel that they have spiritual guidance to fulfill their duty of protecting the earth. They believe that part of doing so is keeping fossil fuels buried deep in the ground where it cannot be violently extracted from the earth. It is in everyone’s best interest to use sustainable practices, but indigenous people often carry too much of the burden for actualizing these truths.
The second speaker, activist Shannon Rivers, focused on the cognition of the Native American experience. He asserted that to truly understand the United State’s history, we have to “decolonize the mind” from what is typically taught – incorrect indigenous history. Incorrect teachings lead people to believe Native Americans regard certain plots of land as sacred, rather than the true understanding that Native Americans believe land itself is sacred. In regards to what is happening in North Dakota, he stated that it is in the Native American peoples’ DNA to stand up for the land and the powers oppressing them.
“They may have more guns, but we have a bulletproof spirit,” Rivers said.
Mikilani Young, a Native Hawaiian and Hula instructor from the Los Angeles area, spoke on cultural appropriation and land issues. She emphasized that Hula is a form of prayer that does not resemble the costume that American culture has created an image of. She continued to speak about Hawaii’s current land issues. Mauna Kea in Hawaii, is the tallest mountain in the world from its base to summit, but much of the mountain is under water. Within traditional Hawaiian faiths, the mountain is sacred and only the most highly regarded individuals are allowed to begin the summit. In 1960, astronomers placed telescopes on this mountain to conduct research. They built the telescopes above aquifers, which endangers the vital water sources on the mountain. Although Young lives in California, she felt that she had to advocate for her people and her homeland. She planned a protest in front of Thirty Meter Telescope’s headquarters in Pasadena, California. Young stated that the indigenous people of the continental United State’s land allow her to be here, so she has a duty to protest with fellow indigenous people to protect the Lakota land from the pipeline. She emphasized that humans need to serve and protect the land, not the other way around.
Another activist, Laura Hernandez is a member of Indigenous Defense and Resistance Unity Movement (IDRUM), which is an organization located in the Inland Empire that is focused on Native American activism. She drove Native American land issues straight home to the San Bernardino Mountains. As commonly known, California is in a devastating drought, yet big corporation Nestle continues to extract water from Strawberry Creek on a contentious permit. Hernandez expressed the rage that environmental activists of the Inland Empire feel about Nestle’s practices. Corporations play by their own set of rules, regardless of environmental impact. She urged the audience to fight back against decisionmakers that refuse to be community minded and that instead, choose to side with corporations degrading sacred land. Blythe, a town 160 miles East of Redlands, is home to sacred sites with geoglyphs that are tragically disrespected and unprotected to the extent that people drive over them. Hernandez encouraged those who care about these issues to get involved with organizations like IDRUM to make a difference on both the local and national level.
Last panelist and activist, Jason Martinez, focused on the fact that the Inland Empire has some of the worst air quality in the nation. He stated that air is just as much a sacred element as water, although corporations condone destruction of air quality – and even human health – for monetary gain.
Hernandez stated that “sometimes we can’t see the mountains because the smog” and that this hurts “children and elders the most.”
Poor air quality results in missed school, health issues and even death. Hernandez felt that people of color do not have the power to fight against corporations that employ local communities. He stated that the largest setback for Native activism is that the issues are often painted as those that only affect Native communities, although issues of sustainability and land use ultimately matters to everyone.