by Matthew Charles Cardinale, Indigenous Peoples Issues, Sept 2, 2013
Native American tribes in the United States have taken the lead in opposing the expansion of the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, engaging in civil disobedience to the point of arrest and attempting to physically block shipments of construction equipment from passing through their native lands.
Native opposition is based on concern over the environmental destruction associated with the expansion and with the related Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would convey oil from the tar sands through Canada and the United States to southeastern Texas.
As previously reported by IPS, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says the expansion of the world’s third largest crude oil deposit so far has caused significant damage to the ecosystem, including the disappearance of bugs, decline in the numbers of migratory birds, elevated rates of certain types of cancers, and the possible extinction of caribou herds.
The Nez Perce tribe are also concerned about the Megaload shipments coming through their tribal lands, without their permission, and the ecological damage these shipments might cause. The most recent, a Megaload shipment, contains a 322-tonne, 225-foot-long evaporator to be used in the oil refining process in connection with the Tar Sands expansion.
“What it really amounts to is our association [with] our surroundings, our environment,” Tony Smith, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, told IPS in an interview at the recent Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Market, Encampment and Pow Wow.
“Outsiders believe they’re apart from the environment, that we’re above it, that we can control it,” Smith said. “But we believe we’re a part of the environment; it’s a symbiotic relationship. Whatever we do to our environment we do to ourselves.”
“The issue is really hot,” he added. “A lot of emotions are flowing over, with the protests that happened.”
Protests and arrests
Nineteen members of the Nez Perce tribe, including eight members of the tribal council, were arrested for disorderly conduct on Aug. 6, 2013, near downtown Lewiston, Idaho. They were released shortly thereafter. About 200 protesters had gathered beginning the night before, according to the Spokesman Review newspaper. They chanted and banged drums until the Megaload shipment approached in the early morning hours on Aug. 6.
The protest delayed the Megaload shipment by about four hours. About three quarters of the protesters were estimated to be Native Americans. Others included activists with an environmental group, Wild Idaho Rising Tide. A video of the protest has been posted to Youtube.
The protesters continued to block the shipment at four different points over four different days as the Megaload shipment attempted to move through tribal lands.Other tribes, however, have received advance payments from TransCanada for allowing the Keystone Pipeline to come through their tribal lands, according to Silas Whitman, chairman of the executive committee of the Nez Perce Tribal Government.
Whitman also said he was concerned about how companies were shipping equipment “without any consultation with the tribe or without any impact study”.
“Corporate Canada has been used to rolling over indigenous populations for quite some time. We thought the only way to get their attention is to conduct civil disobedience. We tried diplomacy, we tried outreach,” Whitman said.
“They’re using our wilderness corridor, where our treaty rights are still intact. They’re using us to further more misery and exploitation of Native resources in Canada. We’re taking a stand for those who can’t speak for themselves – the fish, the wildlife, the cultural resources, including our brothers in Canada who are having a tough time,” Whitman said.
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