Relational activism

Yesterday, I read the majority of the collections in “American Indian Literature” edited by Alan R. Velie. I read beautiful poems, and excerpts from Native novels. I read speeches by Seneca and the words of Lame Deer and Black Elk.

This morning, I am reading “All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life” by Winona Laduke.

I fight for the land and the water, the more-than-human relatives, mostly with my heart but also sometimes with my brain. Reading these two books has helped refocus my aim and rekindles the fire that churns for Native rights and environmental justice.

A couple of days ago, I saw updated pictures of the fracked gas storage plant being built on the tideflats, the lands of the Puyallup people. It is always hard for me to see these images because they represent the brutality of industry and the collusion between industry and agency to separate people from their inherent right to be free, sovereign beings. It tears at my heart and soul.

toddderinger frackedgas photo 12-31-17
Image by Todd Deringer 12/31/18

That might sound provocative, but if you know history, if you know the ways in which agency and industry continue to collude with each other to advance projects which make certain segments of our society rich, at the expense of all other segments, you wouldn’t see my comment as provocative at all. Having stated that, I’m not afraid to be provocative if it leads to people asking more questions.

Industry has a long and storied history of not being wise with the use of lands that have been stolen from Indigenous people. They have historically used terror and illegal actions to remove Indigenous people from their lands in the name of “wise use”, and left behind acres and decades of toxic lands and waters. Here’s an excerpt from “All Our Relations” in the first chapter titled ‘Akwesasne’.

“Katsi finds herself in a stand-off against her adversary, one of the largest corporations in the world: General Motors (GM). At its Massena, New York, power train plant, General Motors has left a Superfund site – one with approximately 823,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated materials. GM has tainted the land, water, and ultimately the bodies of the Mohawk people, their babies included. Katsi’s work is precedent setting environmental justice work that links the intricate culture of the Mohawk people to the water, the turtles, the animal relatives, and ultimately the destruction of the industrialized General Motors Superfund site. ‘Why is it that we must change our lives, our way of life, to accommodate the corporations, and they are allowed to continue without changing any of their behavior?’ she asks.”

These corporations continue to behave in ways that are destructive and chafe at any action which would potentially keep them honest and in line with wise use principles. Agency continues to allow them to get away with it. GM, Arkema, Occidental Chemical, are just a few of the “potentially responsible parties” to Superfund cleanup sites. Interestingly, the EPA does not consider petroleum or natural gas as hazardous or potentially hazardous.

The substances found at Superfund sites have been designated by CERCLA as 1) causing or contributing to an increase in mortality or in irreversible or incapacitating illness, or 2) posing a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or to the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or otherwise managed.

More than 800 substances are currently designated as hazardous, and many more as potentially hazardous. These substances do not include petroleum or natural gas. (

It is foolish to think that this hasn’t been going on since the formation of this country. The first national environmental statute was enacted in 1899, known as the River and Harbors Act of 1899, superseded by the Clean Waters Act. Industry has been taking, plundering and decimating since the beginning. It is their way.

While it might be comforting, perhaps, to also realize that people have been standing up in defense of the land, air and water, we must all come to terms with how we have benefited from the plunder, taking and decimating – especially when it comes to the effects that this has had on Native peoples and Tribal lands. It is so incredibly important for us to wake up and take responsibility.

Not just in Tacoma, but all over this continent, we must realize that we have allowed and participated in/benefited from the actions of the corporation and the agency. It is not an easy realization to come to, as evidenced by decades of denial by colonial/settler mindsets. We won’t be able to secure our future if we don’t accept and acknowledge the damage that has been done in the past and let Indigenous communities assert their sovereignty and their knowledge.

“Nothing about it is easy. Colonialism and dispossession is not defeated unless the dispossessed and oppressed rebuild and restore. Although we aren’t at fault, gov cannot give back what they tried to destroy. We rebuild. We sacrifice. We give. And that is our strength.” Christi Belcourt tweet 1/1/18 11:13 am

Christi’s tweet was specifically about reviving the use of Cree and Anishinaabemowin languages in her family and community, but I thought it was a powerful reminder of what actions are needed. You can learn more about Christi here.

I am trying to re-situate my approach as an activist. Am I engaging in a fight or am I doing the work of my soul? I am reminded of the words of Sun Tzu here. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Everything we do requires great strategy and compassion. Strategy with love. Changing the narratives with love. Telling the truth with love. Personally, I don’t want to perpetuate the negative and destructive energies that have permeated these lands and which have led to the genocide and ecocide of relatives and ancestors.

So, I read. I strategize. I listen. I try to build and restore relations.

I am encouraged by what I see happening in the community. There is more love than anger. Fierce love. Authentic love. Those who embody that love are helping to turn the tide of anger into calm, healed and strong waters. We learn to be like the water, our relative which is strong and ancient. We learn to be cleansing, moving, attentive to our other relatives. And, yes, there are fights when we encounter resistance. There is a way to fight without being destructive. My examples are Joe Delacruz, Billy Frank, Jr, Seneca, and Hazel Wolf.

I believe that the phrase “Protect what you love” is only a tip of the iceberg, because so many of us are so far removed from understanding how to truly love – each other, ourselves, our relatives who aren’t human. We are getting there. And it might help to reframe our activism as relational. We resist the destruction of waters, lands, in support of relatives. We aim for defeat. We swim in the waters of love.


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