Colonization never ended in the so-called United States. Since the first European settlers made incursions on the North American continent, the U.S. government has only discovered new types of natural resources to extract from the land they stole, including the reservations of formerly undesirable land parceled out to indigenous communities, and steadily undermined the sovereign power of indigenous nations and communities. From coal, to natural gas, to uranium, U.S. capitalists have established predatory industries, dumping toxic waste on indigenous reservations, and contaminating foodways, water supplies, and the air that people breathe.
It should be no surprise that indigenous people, on the whole, have shorter life expectancies than average Americans — on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the life expectancy of 66 is shorter than in Sudan and Iraq (around 67), places where imperialism has established permanent war zones. Nor should it be a surprise that rates of rare cancers balloon where toxic industries take hold — among indigenous people in the Four Corners region, where uranium mining is prevalent, testicular and ovarian cancer rates are 15 times greater than the national average.
This process has not only choked indigenous communities with pollution and illness, but has led to horrific rates of sexual violence. Indigenous community organizer Jen Deerinwater, in her Oberlin talk on November 5th, pointed simply to a photograph she took of the Pocahontas coal mine in Pocahontas, Virginia. The sordid story of Pocahontas, kidnapped as a barely pubescent child and held captive until her forced marriage to a white man, may have been thoroughly Disney-fied in the Amercan public’s imagination. Yet, to Deerinwater, it’s yet another story like those of so many missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two spirits (MMIWG2S). The Pocahontas coal mine illustrates one intersection of colonialist destruction: said Deerinwater, “they’re raping our women; they’re raping our Earth.”
Deerinwater’s Oberlin talk listed off the litany of impacts of colonization. Suffice it to restate only a few takeaways here: more than 1 in 3 indigenous women experience sexual violence in the course of a given year; 4 in 5 indigenous women are raped by white men; and 44% of Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities, which are (obscenely underfunded) government healthcare facilities for mainly rural indigenous communities, cannot care for rape victims, without trained professionals or rape kits in stock. It’s worth emphasizing that these crises are made worse by extractive capitalism: when pipelines like Dakota Access or Keystone XL need to be laid on or near tribal reservations, massive amounts of male workers are plopped into “man camps,” and reservation communities observe dramatic rises in sexual violence, aggravated assault, and domestic violence — observations confirmed by the few studies that have produced data.
Clearly, something must be done. The Spectre talked with Jen Deerinwater about intersectional organizing for justice: for survivors of sexual violence, for displaced and destabilized indigenous communities, and for the lands stolen and spoiled by the U.S. and the predatory industries it backs. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: Your talk illustrated the connections between sexual violence and environmental violence in indigenous communities. How did you become aware of these connections?
The really big connection for me was when I started learning about man camps. “Man camps” refer to when pipeline companies come in and take over towns, small hotels, campgrounds, park spaces, setting up temporary housing for their workers. You have this very large influx of almost always out-of-state workers, who are not part of the community, and that creates a lot of violence against indigenous women and two spirited people. When I learned about that, I had that “aha!” moment.
But before learning about man camps, I was aware of how these pipelines and mining projects and big agriculture projects that happen on indigenous land cause issues: reproductive health issues with our people being poisoned, our children having diseases, our high miscarriage rate. As I’ve done this work and I’ve thought about it more as a person with disabilities, I can absolutely see how disability justice and environmental justice intersect, and so on: it’s right there, so glaringly in our faces, but it’s so rarely talked about in that way, which is why I try to have that conversation around intersectionality.
Some of it I just knew from growing up where I grew up, but I thought “it might not be like this in different places.” Even when I was in college, social media wasn’t really a thing yet, so a lot of information that we have such ready access to now I didn’t have access to when I was younger. I was in my early 20s when I began to grasp the magnitude of these issues — that these weren’t just my community’s issues but all indigenous peoples’ issues.
Q: Your organizing “résumé” is long and decorated. Can you talk about some of the most instructive actions you have participated in? Which actions taught you the most about successful organizing tactics?
I’d like to start by saying that a diversity of tactics is crucial to any fight, regardless of what that fight is. There’s a place to fight, for example, a pipeline company in the courts, or in electoral campaigns — if this politician isn’t going to stand on the right side of this issue then we’ll work to not get them elected. There is a place for that sort of more liberal organizing, but I certainly don’t think it’s the only way that we’re going to get free.
Two examples come to mind. I was on the programming committee for NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. We were trying to get something called the buffer law passed into state policy — a fixed 30-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics. The way the law was written at the time in Massachusetts was very vague, so, as long as they didn’t touch you, anti-choice protestors could be right next to a clinic door. It created a lot of violence, so this buffer zone bill was written in a way that doesn’t take away anybody’s free speech rights, but also to protect anyone coming and going from the clinic. I helped bring in voters to the Massachusetts state house: we did a lobby day and I helped lead them through the state house and go over “here’s how to talk to your representatives and Senators and such” — we ended up passing the bill, which was amazing!
However, a couple years later, this made its way to the Supreme Court and the law was ruled unconstitutional. This was this really important bill that I worked on, that I felt very passionate about, that was a very personal issue for me, and all it took was a few justices on the Supreme Court to undo it. The experience helped me learn how to lobby our elected officials in the most effective way, but it also made me really stand up and go “okay, it doesn’t matter how good we are at this kind of organizing when the government can just undo everything we’ve done.” That’s when I started looking at more radical forms of action and organizing. The longer I've been alive and done political work, the smaller my faith in our system has become. I personally don’t want to be part of lobby days anymore.
Back in 2017, I took part in No Justice, No Pride, a collective that was formed in DC to hold Capitol Pride, the organization behind DC’s pride event, accountable for all their wrongdoings. At the time there was only one person of color on their executive board, the entire executive board was all cis men, only one trans person was on the board, there were no indigenous people, no disabled people, no bisexuals, maybe only 2 or 3 women, and the board was actually quite large, 17 people, which is a huge board. As for the Pride festival, not only does the Metropolitan Police Department march, but there are floats and booths out for the NSA, CIA, FBI, DOJ (Department of Justice), Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both weapons manufacturers. I believe it was Lockheed Martin that year whose float actually had a drone on it. There were very, very few local queer organizations represented because most couldn’t afford the fees to be in the parade or to have a booth. So DC Pride is just one corporation after another, and it’s not at all reflective of our communities.
No Justice, No Pride held a community meeting with the pride board, held them accountable, and they were very dismissive —when I read a statement about why I didn’t believe Wells Fargo should be in the parade, because of their harm against the #NoDAPL fight, I watched one of the board members actually roll his eyes at me. I didn’t personally feel like anything would come from that community meeting, but I felt like we still had to show, “hey, we did try and hold you accountable in the ways that mainstream liberal society says is appropriate, and you didn’t work with us, so now we’re going to do things our way.”
That’s when we came together and organized a bunch of events. There was a family friendly march, we had a movie screening — the big thing that we’re really known for was holding three separate hard lockdowns to block the parade. The first lockdown was for the Metropolitan Police Department, the second was for one of the two weapons manufacturers, and the third and final was the Wells Fargo blockade. We rerouted the parade two times that day, and by the time they got to the Wells Fargo blockade we just shut it down, period, and they couldn’t finish their parade. We were out there locked down for 2 or 2.5 hours — we really thought we would only be out there for 30 minutes originally — while some of our people were trying to negotiate with the Pride Board individuals. The man who was going to become the board president the following year said “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” When I found that out, I shared it online and it went viral, and he was not the board president the following year. So, you know, is Capitol Pride all fixed? No, it’s not all better. But we made our voices heard and we did pass an impact as a result of those lockdowns.
Those two moments in my history of organizing work really helped to define the kind of work I do, and where I see opportunities to create change, opportunities for us to learn and do better in our organizing. I do still think that a diversity of tactics is important. With pipeline battles, it’s important to go through the courts and regulatory challenges because that’s partially how you can slow down pipelines. You also make it significantly more expensive for them as well, so maybe they’ll think differently next time they’re considering another pipeline. But that’s not enough. You also have to have people out there doing tree sits and locking down on construction equipment, because the regulatory system does not make the companies stop working even when a stop work order has been issued.
Q: My perspective on the crisis of MMIWG2S comes from reading and viewing media, and from attending your lecture — this is to say, from across a gap of lived experience. What does the crisis look like from where you stand?
When I don’t hear from indigenous friends for quite a while, I get worried. I don’t know if they’ve been kidnapped, I don’t know if they’ve been murdered, I don’t know if they’ve been arrested and they’re sitting in a jail cell, I don’t know if they’re in a hospital somewhere — I have a lot of fears for my indigenous relatives that i don’t necessarily have for white people. If the person is two spirit, queer, disabled, that just makes it doubly more scary.
I sit with indigenous women and two spirits and we talk about who’s gone missing, who’s been found, whose remains are we trying to bring home. These are not conversations that I’ve ever had at a table with any white people. I’m also very aware that when I go out to these pipeline sites, I’m in rural areas, I’m traveling, I’m a journalist, I’m an indigenous two spirit woman, I write on man camps, on violence by pipeliners and the companies. When I’m out doing this work, I’m especially afraid for my own well being. I take a lot of extra safety precautions doing the work I do — I’m not stupid, I know what would happen to me if they got ahold of me. I know that.
I feel like it’s important to say that I am not necessarily the most hard-hit by this crisis. I grew up mostly in Oklahoma, and there’s one small town in Oklahoma where more pipelines intersect than anywhere else in the world. So we do have a long history of oil and gas in Oklahoma, and I’ve seen this as a loss of our land, but I haven’t personally been impacted by MMIWG2S the way some of my friends have. My relatives that live in the Dakotas, for example, are dealing with so many pipelines, uranium mining, all of these things, and I’ve heard their stories — it’s heartbreaking and infuriating.
But then, on the flipside of that, there is a problem of urban MMIWG2S, because 71% of us live in urban areas. That’s due to the 1950s “termination era,” which was a series of U.S. government policies that tried to end our nation-to-nation relationships [relationships between tribal nations and the U.S. under which both nations recognize mutual sovereignty], partly by relocating us to cities — so 71% of us are urban-based now. And the issue of violence against us is still happening in urban areas, it’s just not as widely talked about as what’s happening on our reservations and tribal villages.
There is some talk about this, but even our boys and men are going missing and being murdered, kidnapped, and trafficked. It’s not at the same rates as our women and girls and two spirits, but it is still happening at fairly alarming rates. An elder of mine said that 69% of the people who go missing are indigenous women, girls and two spirits — so that means that 31% of those who go missing are boys and men. That’s a significantly higher number than what I would have ever imagined.
Q: You recently spent 9 days traveling in West Virginia and the Appalachian region. What did you learn, and how does it connect to the struggles you have participated in?
I learned quite a bit about the history, as well as the present conditions of coal mining in West Virginia, particularly Southern West Virginia. Then, I did some travels through a little bit further north, where a lot of the fracking infrastructure is currently being built, and it was alarming what I saw.
There is this widespread message that coal’s dead and we’re not mining anymore — yeah, coal is on the way out, but there is still a lot of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining happening. I’ve seen it from the ground and I’ve seen it from the air. And the levels of pollution in the water — 3/4ths of West Virginia waterways are not fit for recreation, and that’s of the waterways that still exist, because West Virginia has lost a lot of their streams as a result of MTR. Then, the fracking that6s occurring is just mind boggling. The gas industry is doing everything it can to frack the gas reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shales.
Looking at the destruction of the land and the way that people have been harmed by coal mining, and what’s happening now with fracking, they’re very similar. The way these industries got a foothold in West Virginia and the way they are still operating are very similar. It’s outside corporations coming in, exploiting the labor, dictating the entire economy, polluting the land, harming people, killing people, and all for the profit of just a few individuals in these industries.
Something else that I’ve encountered a lot is the idea that Appalachia is white. That’s just inaccurate. There are a lot of white people in Appalachia, but indigenous people still live in Appalachia — it is still our ancestral lands — and there are plenty of black and brown folks there. Black folks were brought up from further south to do coal mining in West Virginia, and right now, there’s a large immigrant population from Central America — I don't personally think of them as immigrants because many of them are indigenous but that’s what they’re being classified as — lots of those people are doing the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs on pipelines like the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
I made that trip with a couple of friends and we were either directly told, or repeatedly overheard, people saying “y’all aren’t from around here.” And while no, none of us grew up in West Virginia, it’s not where we currently live, it made me go, “well, who gets to be ‘from around here?’” This is part of where my people are from. That’s another big question I’ve been grappling with since that trip: “who gets to be from these lands? Who gets to have a say in what happens on those lands?”
Q: Oberlin students are, for better or worse, stuck in Northern Ohio, often confined to our small town, juggling classes, work, self care, and social and family commitments. How can we plug into the movement against environmental and reproductive violence where we’re at? Or: what does effective campus advocacy look like to you?
For one thing, I haven’t been in higher education since, like, 2011 — I don't have children, I’m not involved in campus life, so it’s not appropriate for me to say what campus advocacy should look like. That’s something that should be determined by students, and determined not just by students saying “oh, this is what campus advocacy should look like” but what should campus advocacy look like on your own campus? That’s gonna look different for everybody.
We’re always gonna be busy people. We are always going to be busy trying to stay alive, keep our families alive â€” capitalism keeps us in that rat race. Even the most privileged of people are caught in this system of basically working ourselves to death. We’re always going to have to find a way to resist and stand up.
Even if you all are only gonna be in Oberlin for four years and then you go off wherever you go, there’s always going to be some kind of fight where you are. All of that fracking infrastructure for the Marcellus and Utica shales is being built in the Ohio River Valley, not very far from where you all are now. There are ways you can plug into environmental organizations in the area, find out what they need, and, from there, figure out what you all are able to do. I think it’s also a matter of taking classes that cover whatever justice issues speak to you, finding time to watch movies, read books, take in as much as you can about the stuff that speaks to you, find out about what you’re passionate about. When you leave college, you can work on those issues wherever you land, because there’s always gonna be a fight for those issues, unfortunately, within our lifetime.
Q: What is Crushing Colonialism?
We are an international indigenous multimedia collective. We’re still in our early stage of getting our organization up and running, filling our board of directors, this sort of thing, but once we’re fully operational, we are here to support indigenous media makers. That can be anybody doing the kind of journalism I’m doing, it can be a documentary filmmaker, it can be painter, a sculptor, a poet — if you’re indigenous and you’re doing some form of media work, we’re here to support you.
Some of the ways we will do that is by helping people find jobs, paid internships, fellowships, grants — eventually, we’ll have a grant fund to help fund people’s projects. We want to help people find professional representation — agents, business managers, lawyers, particularly those well versed in tribal law, because our people are not just working with the U.S. or Canadian or whatever governments, they’re working with tribal governments as well.
Further down the line, I’d like us to have a research arm, where we look at the rates of indigenous people in media work, who’s working where, who’s making x amount of money, how many of our indigenous youths are studying journalism or creative writing or whatever it is in college, what are the average incomes. If we don’t have that data, we can’t accurately fight — if you don’t know exactly what the problem is, you can’t really fight the problem and, unfortunately, there is a big need for data for a lot of our people on almost every issue, including this one. I would like us to eventually do that, as well as promoting people’s work and helping them get more coverage.