‘We are not terrorists for wanting to live.’
“We are here after dog attacks, we’re here after (being attacked) with chemical agents, military combat tactics, grenades, aerial surveillance, military vehicles, inhumane detention — instruments of war.”
These were the words of human rights lawyer Michelle Cook, describing threats posed to her and her clients while camping out at Standing Rock during the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
“We are not terrorists for wanting to live,” Cook said.
Cook was joined by more than 30 indigenous people and representatives of native communities, gathered at the UNM School of Law on Feb. 25, waiting for their chance to speak out against energy development on native lands across the United States.
Hosted by United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz as a part of a series of five visits around the U.S., the conference aimed to observe and collect information on energy development within indigenous communities.
Tauli-Corpuz will deliver a comprehensive report on her findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council at a U.N. conference in September.
Speakers shared with the special rapporteur their concerns for health care, issues of sovereignty, alcoholism on reservations and safety in tribal communities.
The two most pressing concerns brought to attention, however, were water rights and the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
“(DAPL) is an issue that keeps on coming up, and it’s not an issue that’s only limited to the United States,” Tauli-Corpuz said.
Cook, a UNM Law School alumna, had recently returned from Standing Rock where she lived for several months with her mother Leoyla Cowboy, a Diné tribal member and former Red Nation Coalition member.
“We didn’t know what community was until we got to Standing Rock,” Cowboy said.
She and her family traveled to the camp outside of Bismarck, North Dakota, with “hopes to stop the drilling, stop that pipeline,” she said.
Cowboy’s eyes filled with tears as she pleaded for help from Tauli-Corpuz to restore her peoples’ sacred lands and begin the infrastructure needed to establish renewable energy.
“Coal, oil and gas, as well as uranium, has had a huge negative impact on our lands, and has taken us away from our lands,” Cowboy said.
“All we’ve ever wanted was to live,” Cook added.
Though the issue has not recently received as much attention, water in indigenous communities is currently endangered by proposed nuclear testing, mine site contamination and waste runoff that have the potential to pollute rivers and groundwater.
Cathy Sanchez of Santa Fe said that Los Alamos National Labs is on grounds that her people consider sacred, and that the polluting of the land has a lasting “mental, physical, emotional and spiritual impact” on the surrounding native community.
Sanchez, who grew up in the pueblo of San Ildefonso, “just downwind of Los Alamos National Labs,” claims that Los Alamos and neighboring communities still suffer from the impacts of chromium pollution from LANL, which was discovered more than 10 years ago.
Calling for action to be taken by the U.S. government in order to restore the land occupied by the Los Alamos labs, Sanchez said the facility “must use their intelligence to conduct practices that promote life to the ultimate of what is possible.”
Petuuche Gilbert, Indigenous Worlds Association president and Acoma pueblo descendant, brought to the attention of Tauli-Corpuz the proposed Roca Honda Uranium Project.
If permitted, the mine would cut into Mount Taylor, located in northwest New Mexico and considered by the Acoma people to be sacred land.
“Our concerns are for the amount of water that has to be removed from the ground,” Gilbert said.
The so-called “dewatering” procedure would remove and contaminate between 4 and 10 million gallons of water per day, according to Gilbert, a process which would “allow wastewater to desecrate the mountain.”
Tribal leaders also voiced concerns about financial deficits, which affect how much money can be allocated to environmental protection.
“As a tribal leader you look at your growing population and it’s very dynamic,” said Cota Holdings President Roger Fragua. “You look at all those things (tribal leaders) have to afford with decreasing federal support coming in, and you’re told that you’re sovereign so you have to do this yourself. How are (tribal leaders) going to feed these people, how are they going to support these people?”
Celia Raney is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Celia_Raney.