On Sunday, 400,000 people lined up along the west side of Central Park. They came from New York and Wisconsin and Canada and the Republic of Georgia. They had hand-drawn signs on cereal boxes and mass produced posters advocating divestment from fossil fuels. They had stilts, umbrellas, macaws, ukuleles, stickers, pins, and whistles. In the end, so many people showed up and clogged the march route that the crowd had to be dispersed via text message at 5PM, long before most had reached the designated endpoint. As I stood there in the morning fog waiting and waiting for the march to move forward I tried to make sense of the social media-based, corporate-funded event that was maybe going to be the biggest ever protest for environmental reform. Wasn’t it a little hypocritical? Wasn’t it too little too late? Wouldn’t the march be just another empty gesture distracting people from taking direct action? I have been called a pessimist...
The night before the People’s Climate March, I went to #FrackOff: Indigenous Women Leading Media Campaigns for Climate Change, a panel discussion where I heard the stories of women from across North America whose clean water and clean air is being threatened by irresponsible governments and business practices. This was where direct action for climate reform was happening; this was where I was able to see, unobscured, the interactions between environmentalism, feminism, colonialism, and capitalism. For these women, climate change demands specific and immediate action.
Each of the panelists shared stories that were uniquely devastating variations on a theme: their reservation land had been sold to big corporations to be fracked for natural gas without the consent of most of the residents or members of the tribe. Now, they are seeing and feeling the catastrophic consequences of that industry: they notice their drinking water is neon blue, that plants are dying and asthma rates are increasing from the perpetual dust clouds kicked up by the increased truck traffic. Tribal governments are profiting from leasing the land, and the federal government denies any culpability. Shelley Young, a Mi’kmaq leader recalled, “We had to become experts quick once we learned that it was going to destroy everything around us.”
These women and others are utilizing any and all methods to reclaim and restore the land, from new-millennium social media campaigns to old school sit-ins. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers of the Blood Indian tribe in Southern Alberta, was arrested with four other women for holding a peaceful sit-in that blocked trucks from accessing the first well that was only two kilometers from her grandparents’ house. She also made “Bloodland,” a powerful and beautiful experimental short film that visually confuses the distinction between blood and oil, between woman and land.
The video is here, but it comes with a TRIGGER WARNING for graphic violence and gore (but to paraphrase Elle-Maija, if you are reading about the struggle of indigenous women, you should expect things to get gory).
For indigenous women demanding climate reform, their fight is not just an environmental battle, it is a feminist battle. When she was arrested, Tailfeathers found herself at the confluence of colonial violence (foreign governments forcing a tribe to sell their land and resources), lateral violence (the chief and council approving fracking without consultation), and gender violence (the male police officers aggressively handcuffing the protesters). Ellen Gabriel, a panelist from Kanehsatà:ke is working towards a national response to the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women, a human rights crisis that, Gabriel argues, can be linked back to the introduction of fracking on native lands and the culture of new colonialism that this industry spawns on the ground.
The night ended with a performance from a thirteen year old girl who said, “I used to get very emotional when talking about these things... but there is a time for grief and there is a time to use our voice.”
Listening to these courageous women, there was no fog surrounding why they were marching on Sunday, and that helped me find my place, too. It is important to march for climate change, however vague and improbable a goal that is because the image of hundreds of thousands of folks getting off their butts and holding posters is a powerful one that can be used to further the causes of the women at the front of the march, the women who are at the front of the march every day.
Images and Videos via IdleNoMoreMedia, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers.