Over 530 climate activists were arrested this past week when thousands of activists descended on Washington, D.C., to demand that the Biden administration protect indigenous communities and the environment. The protests began on October 11th, Indigenous People’s Day, and were planned to connect the issue of indigenous rights with the need to dismantle the fossil fuel industry in the lead up to the COP26 conference, gathering sponsored by the United Nations to discuss climate change, that begins later this month.
The daily marches and protests were spirited and assertive. For the first time since the 1970’s, indigenous activists occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the government agency created in the 19th century to regulate their existence while the expanding United States, protecting the settlers who pillaged indigenous land and resources. The protesters are demanding the abolition of the Bureau, the restoration of 110 million acres of stolen lands, the return of the remains of all indigenous buried at the infamous “Indian Schools,” and no new leases for fossil fuel or other extractive industries on public lands.
This weeks’ protests are an extension of decades of indigenous resistance to the repression of their people and destruction of their land. Most recently, indigenous people and environmental activists have fought numerous proposed and partially constructed pipelines throughout Canada and the United States.
Some activists hoped President Biden, who trumpets the fact that he appointed Deb Haaland as the first ever Native American cabinet head, would stand up to fossil and other extractive industries. They have been sorely disappointed. “We go to all the hearings, we do the petitions, we make the phone calls, and it’s not working,” said one activist. “They’re still allowing pipelines to go through illegally, Dakota Access Pipeline is still an illegal pipeline…and they did not do a full EIS (Environment Impact Survey) on Line 3 and they’re ignoring Treaty Rights on Line 5.”
These activists are right. The use of fossil fuels must be completely stopped now, not in the future. And they are courageous to continue to stand against the settler colonialism of the United States government, which has helped the destruction of indigenous culture and land continue unabated since first contact.
But we can’t look to Joe Biden, Deb Haaland, or any other politicians, whether indigenous or not, to “give us” our rights, or our land. Ordinary people make history, not politicians.