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Standing Together

Northern California tribes join Standing Rock Sioux

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The police's brutal assault on unarmed Water Protectors pricked the conscience of the nation. Certainly, it led to far greater scrutiny from the mainstream media and members of the national political establishment. Meanwhile, the mood at the Oceti Sakowin camp tangibly changed. Despite being shaken by their experience, many people's sense of pride and determination seemed only to have increased.

North Dakota law enforcement agencies have claimed that they are merely defending the pipeline's right-of-way owners from an intrusion on their right to use their property on their own terms, and that the areas of construction they are guarding have been legally permitted by state and federal agencies.

COMMON CAUSE

On Nov. 28, U.S. Reps. Jared Huffman and Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, sent a letter to President Obama requesting an immediate meeting to "demand accountability for [the] alarming treatment of Water Protectors and peaceful demonstrators at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota."

A reason for Huffman's role in the letter may be the large number of North Coast people who have traveled to Standing Rock, and the growing political strength of indigenous people in his district. Lincoln says that indigenous people are accustomed to brutal treatment from the police. The Round Valley Reservation received national media attention in 1996 after the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office was found to have subjected local natives to brutal treatment following a shoot-out between police and a young native man.

"We deal with basically the same kinds of things where I'm from," Lincoln says. "My experience of growing up on the reservation is what has given me the instinct to come fight for all indigenous people who are part of this struggle."

For many California native people, the resistance at Standing Rock has helped draw parallels to their struggles at home. Because indigenous cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited, their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands, which face numerous threats at any given time.

In California and beyond, contemporary indigenous people are engaged in battles over mineral rights, water rights, federal recognition, honoring of treaties, repatriation or honorable treatment of sacred sites, healthcare, language preservation and other challenges.

As in Standing Rock, recognition of indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection are inextricably linked. Largely owing to some of these tribes' long struggle to maintain federally acknowledged fishing rights, for example, the Klamath and Trinity rivers region is home to the largest population of wild salmon of any river system in California, not to mention one of the healthiest populations of steelhead trout in the lower 48, and perhaps the world's most abundant green sturgeon population, although all of these fisheries are in a steep decline.

Dozens of indigenous people from the Klamath Basin traveled to Standing Rock. "We're out here in Standing Rock talking about our struggles in the Klamath, and about how nonviolent direct action has changed our world," the Hoopa Valley Tribe's Dania Colegrove told supporters at an event in Arcata in September.

Jim Browneagle, an Elem Pomo traditional cultural leader from Lake County, traveled to Standing Rock with a contingent of Pomo people in October. He too notes the similarities between the struggles for treaty recognition in California and North Dakota.

The Dakota Access Pipeline skirts around the Standing Rock Sioux reservation land by about a half-mile. The Sioux point out that the land rightfully belongs to them under the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, and that the land was later seized without their consent.

As Browneagle notes, the U.S. negotiated 18 treaties with California's 500 native nations in California, setting aside roughly 7.5 million acres of land as reservations within the then-new state's boundaries. One of these treaties set aside much of the land around Clear Lake for exclusive use and occupancy by Pomo peoples. The U.S. Senate refused to recognize the treaties, however, instead taking the unique step of having these documents placed in secret files.

Since returning home, Browneagle has given a number of presentations about Standing Rock, such as one he and his daughter gave to the Lake County Judges Association earlier this month. He notes that low-income communities of color are overwhelmingly more likely to live near pollution sources or suffer adverse impacts from resource exploitation. For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline was originally slated to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, North Dakota's capital city.

Due to concerns about contamination of the city's water supply, it was rerouted to cross the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the sole water supply for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes and thousands of other people.

Again, Browneagle's own people are a case in point. The Elem Pomo's 50-acre rancheria is adjacent to the Bradley mercury mine near Clearlake Oaks, a site formerly on the EPA's Superfund list of the most contaminated locations in the country. The mine began operations in 1871 and was among the nation's most productive mercury mines during WWII, feeding the demand for quicksilver detonators in munitions.

But the mine also contaminated the Elem's land and water with prodigious amounts of methyl mercury tailings, compounds Browneagle says caused premature deaths, birth defects, cancers and deformities among tribal members. It forced the tribe to abandon its ancient subsistence fishing culture in the 1970s after the fish became contaminated far beyond levels fit for consumption.

"Ultimately, everyone in this area is impacted by the pollution, but we as native people are on the frontline of it, just like at Standing Rock," Browneagle says. "As Standing Rock has shown, though, we can't fight this kind of battle on our own. We have to unite our communities."

Windsor's Adam Villagomez agrees.

"In Indian country, people have been dealing with these issues for a while," he says. "So when the call was put out, there was a massive amount of people who came from Northern California tribes.

"As far as the non-native community goes," he adds, "this is the most support we've seen as Native Americans."

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