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April 13, 2015

University spotlights indigenous issues

By Abbey White


Tom BK Goldtooth, executive director for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called for a drastic change in the way nations approach environmental rights and responsibilities during an almost two-hour-long presentation held at Cleveland State University early last week.

More than 100 individuals attended the April 6 speaking engagement, sponsored by the university’s Sociology and Criminology club with support from the Student Government Association.

During Goldtooh’s rather passionate appeal, members of the audience learned, among many other things, about the necessity for and implementation of the wide range of work IEN tackles.

Established in 1990, the Indigenous Environmental Network is a grassroots effort carried out by indigenous peoples and individuals as a means of tackling environmental and economic justice issues, according to the organization’s website.

Today, it is a key component of the American environmental rights movement, taking on multi-million-dollar companies and substantial leadership roles in events like the New York City People’s Climate March.

With a global perspective and indigenous focus, IEN ultimately explores and devotes itself to ending the growing negative relationships between industry, human communities, the law and the environment.

In addition to discussing their advocacy work, which includes on-the-ground protesting and political policy lobbying, a sizeable chunk of both McManama’s presentation and Goldtooth’s address centered on educating audiences about the complex relationship between indigenous American communities and the environment.

According to BJ McManama, media and campaign organizer for IEN, the group’s work sprung up out of an obligation to address the toxic relationship between humans and the environment.

"The need for IEN grew from the wounds inflicted upon the earth from the collective greed of humanity," McManama said during the introductory portion of the event.

The wounds McManama speaks of include those imposed upon human communities, according to Goldtooth. It is these very same communities, however, that can and are responsible for stopping the destruction.

"All humans have a responsibility to Mother Earth,” Goldtooth said. “I have a spiritual responsibility and my elders hold me accountable."

While all communities are responsible for, and in some way affected by, the dangers that come with things like mining for fossil fuels and poor toxic waste, Goldtooth reiterated that environmental abuses more often negatively affect a community that coexists with nature, such as his own.

More important, these violations, which include unequal access to clean water as well as habitat and food production threats, are in fact human rights issues. If they go unchecked they become abuses.

During his talk, Goldtooth asserted that the decline in the quality of living for indigenous communities within the United States was a direct result of environmental and ecological destruction at the hands of colonization, industrialization and development in the western world.

On top of the having to face limited resources and economic disparity, indigenous communities must battle powerful private and public entities that desire to either siphon out resources from their land or use it as cheap dumping ground.

Meanwhile, those who live there are expected to stay living there, despite the unsafe conditions.

"Why is that the only thing we have to negotiate is our land and our resources, and they know that?” Goldtooth asked the audience.

On top of advocacy and economic justice, Goldtooth discussed the challenges IEN faces within its very own movement.

Despite being a prominent and important face in the environmental struggle, IEN represents the most impacted — and most marginalized — people, who are, ironically, the hardest to hear.

"Why do we have to fight with the 'greens' to have a frontline voice in our own issue?" Goldtooth asked.
Goldtooth noted some of his earlier comments about systems of privilege and discrimination as the cause.

"A lot of PoC movements were steeped in environmental issues, but there is conflict about whose issues they are," Goldtooth said. "White groups have traditionally drowned out the voices of those the work most impacts."

In the end, no matter how toxic the ground a person stands on, Goldtooth urged people to get involved.

"We have a conflict in how we relate to one another," Goldtooth said. "We must create a system that recognizes mother earth."