Common Ground Guest Commentary
When I am asked who I am and where I come from I am able to answer with one word, Penahwabskek. Penahwabskek is the name of a place, ‘the place where the white rocks come out of the water’, and; it is the name of a people, the tribal nation who makes its home along the waters of the Penobscot River. For me, being Penahwabskek means that my roots are embedded in the land and nourished by the waters of the Penobscot River.
We are deeply entwined – me, the land and those waters, and I am tied to the generations of others who have their roots embedded there, past, present and future. This world view forms a framework that is shared by tribal communities across the globe. Indigenous peoples around the world have all woven their own deep cultural and spiritual ties to their homelands.
For many the land is seen as an extension of their bloodline, not in a purely metaphorical sense, but through tangible connections to the ancestors who reside there.
One Crow elder described this connection when he said: “The soil you see beneath your feet is not ordinary soil. It is the dust of the blood, the flesh and the bones of our ancestors.”
Thus, the land is more than a place to plant crops or to build structures, it is an extension of the communal and familial networks of the people.
My connection to Penawabskek exists in the footprints of all those who have walked upon that land before me, and it exists in my shared experiences with them when I place my feet into those footprints and walk the paths that they have carved out for me. It is these generations-deep connections to the land that make the forced removal from and destruction of those lands an act of unimaginable violence, an act of continued genocide.
No matter where we come from, or what we believe, we all have deep umbilical connections to the Earth, and we are all reliant upon her for our survival. Understanding the worldview outlined above is essential for us all at this time. We have reached a nexus point, where indigenous rights, environmental justice and human survival all collide. Today, issues of Indigenous rights are connected to more than localized justice concerns for a specific group of people; they are at the heart of global justice issues that impact all life on this planet.
Felix Cohen, author of the Handbook on Federal Indian Law once said: “like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poisonous gas, in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, marks the rise and fall in our democratic faith.” Mr. Cohen was attempting to inform the larger population that what happens to the Indians will eventually happen to all.
For decades, the Native communities have faced overwhelming rates of disease and poverty, that have resulted from the destruction and contamination of their local environments by industry. Tens of millions of Indigenous peoples across the Americas have been forced off their lands in the last two decades alone, so that industry could exploit those lands for profit. In the process, they have completely destroyed the subsistence lifestyle of the people, leaving them in abject poverty and exposing them to horrific health impacts. Today, these same impacts are leaking out into the commons, and the larger population is becoming aware of how these practices will affect their own livelihood and wellbeing. As a result, people all over the planet are beginning to rise up in opposition to these practices. As people rise up to protect the Earth, it is important to remember that many of the remaining untouched lands and waterways are still in the hands of Indigenous people. And, many of the current battles over the lands and waters are in some way connected to the rights of Indigenous people. In order to preserve those lands and waters, it is imperative that the Indigenous title to those lands remain intact. People can no longer afford to ignore the Indigenous struggle for justice.
Today, more than ever, the health of the planet and the continuity of life is tied to the retention of healthy ecosystems, which is tied directly to the protection of Indigenous land rights. When you make a stand to support Indigenous land rights, you make a stand for the preservation of the Earth, and for a way of life that is in harmony with the preservation of life for all.
Sherri Mitchell is a member of the Penobscot Nation. She is an Indigenous rights attorney and activist. She currently serves as Executive Director of the Land Peace Foundation, working with tribes in the United States and Canada on the protection of Indigenous lands, waters, and sacred sites. She also provides training on the creation of effective nonviolent Indigenous rights movements to tribal groups and their allies.