On Understanding Indigenous Leadership and Treaty Rights

From Standing Rock to the Salish Sea, Indigenous Peoples are standing up to corporations and governments that want to treat their ceded or unceded territory lands as a sacrifice zone for profit. They have a legal right to decide what happens to their land, and the climate -- and we stand with them.

The history of colonization of Indigenous land is long and complex. In the United States, many tribes signed treaties with the US Government to cede large tracts of their land in exchange for the establishment of reservations and compensation -- while retaining certain property rights on the ceded treaty land outside of reservations like the right to fish, hunt, gather, and preserve sacred or culturally important sites. These retained rights on treaty territory are known as usufructuary rights - and this legal instrument is possibly the most important term to understand when talking about Indigenous sovereignty, and fights over oil pipelines and trains. Along with this instrument, some territories have NEVER actually ceded their lands -- and are now seeking legal recognition and power.

Here are some of their stories.

Lummi & Quinault Indian Nations/Washington State: In the Pacific Northwest, a number of tribes united to protect traditional fisheries by fighting proposed coal and oil export terminals. In May 2016, the Lummi Nation proclaimed a historic victory for the protection of their treaty rights when the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the massive proposed Pacific Gateway coal export terminal in Cherry Point, Washington. The terminal would have brought 48 million metric tons of coal across the ecologically fragile Salish Sea every year. With a similar defense of fishing rights, the Quinault Indian Nation is now at the helm of the fight against numerous proposed oil train terminals on their coast.

Coast Salish Territories/British Columbia: In the wake of the federal government’s decision to approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline, over 100 First Nations from British Columbia and beyond have vowed that the Kinder Morgan pipeline “will never see the light of day". Following this First Nations’ leadership, over 18,000 people have already signed a pledge to do “whatever it takes” to stop it. This massive tar sands pipeline project would bring 890,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil each day through unceded Coast Salish Territories. The proposed route traverses hundreds of streams of rivers, across fragile salmon-bearing watersheds, and dozens of First Nations reservations -- only to be exported on enormous tankers to global markets. At Stand.earth, we're committed to that pledge and invite you to click here to add your name.

White Earth Nation/Minnesota: Led by our allies at Honor the Earth, Minnesota’s tribes hope to assert usufructuary rights of the wild rice harvest to stop Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline -- a lesser-known pipeline designed to carry 915,000 barrels of tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, across North Dakota, through Minnesota then to Superior, Wisconsin. The pipeline would cross through treaty territory of the White Earth Nation and threaten traditional wild ricing beds. For tribes in the area, wild rice is not only one of the most important sources of economic sustenance but is also spiritually significant and vital to cultural identity. In 2017, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will seek public input on Line 3’s Environmental Impact Statement. Stay tuned - we will be sure to share ways to get involved and support White Earth in the months ahead.

Whether the aggressors are government or corporations - or often both in the case of fossil fuel infrastructure projects - Indigenous Peoples have been subjected to a nearly-continuous wave of violence, forced displacement, and exploitation since first contact. The struggle to stop oil companies from building dangerous and exploitive pipelines and oil train terminals is just the latest chapter in a 400-year long struggle for sovereignty and self-determination.

Read about my trip to Standing Rock here and the strategic and collaborative work happening on the ground there.