Their Mother's Keepers

By Knox, Margaret L. | Sierra, March-April 1993 | Go to article overview

Their Mother's Keepers


Knox, Margaret L., Sierra


Distance are deceptive and directions easily lost on the vast grassy midriff of America, but the cruelest trickster in Indian Country is the wind. It harries the cars along the straight, determined lanes of Interstate 90, and swells at sunset when the earth gives up its heat to a surge of cool night air. On unlucky days the wind will circle around, grab its own tail and "come from the left," as the Lakota say, forming a dark, powdery cone that storms across the prairie wreaking vengeance on the flimsy works of humans. Above all, the wind of Northern Plains Indian Country carries dirt, tons of topsoil and pulverized clay that coat the tongue, clog the pores, sneak through closed windows, and make rivers run muddy.

Which is one reason Bill Koenen hates the idea of strip-mining the badlands of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota-- home to the Oglala, one of the many tribes calling themselves Lakota. (The French called them Sioux.) Koenen, a great disheveled bear of a man who looks something like Oliver Hardy with a ponytail, rummages through his desk and mutters furiously. "We have 80-mile-an-hour winds--if they mine in Wanblee, we'll breathe the dust here." The wind, as though participating in the conversation, rattles Koenen's weathered mobile home in Porcupine, 30 miles southwest of Wanblee. He goes on rooting through his desk-bringing up a few random pages of a lawsuit here, the appendix of a study there-- while keeping up a continuous monologue about nefarious vaccination experiments, unlicensed pesticide sprayings, B-1 bomber flyovers, and other crimes against the Oglala Lakota nation.

The mining project whose fluttering documents fill Koenen's arms this breezy summer morning is only one in a ceaseless procession of dubious development proposals and get-richquick schemes inflicted on the tribe year in and year out. Millions of dollars are at stake here; some of' the country's biggest companies--as well as agencies of the federal government--are itching to do business on the reservations. But for the moment, at least, the Pine Ridge mining project is stalled. Mobil Oil, Union Carbide, or whichever other companies stand to profit from the strip-mine (the identities of the actual bidders are secret) are paralyzed on Pine Ridge, thanks largely to this massively disorganized office with one phone line, one photocopier, and one very overworked coffeemaker. Koenen, a Chippewa, and Emily Iron Cloud, his Lakota wife, run the Native Resource Coalition in their spare time out of this trailer next to their own mobile home. This is Native American environmentalism.

The nation's 287 Indian reservations, from Florida to Arizona to Alaska, are among the most exploited and environmentally degraded lands anywhere in rural America. With the blessing of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), corporations and federal agencies have wheedled, enticed, pressured, and bribed their way in--to strip-mine coal, as on the Crow and Navajo reservations; to drill for oil, as on the Blackfeet Reservation; to site garbage dumps and medical-waste incinerators, as on the Salt River and Gila River reservations. The list is depressingly long.

But the bad guys don't always win, and lately it seems as though they're winning less and less. While activists like Koenen might strike the newcomer as distracted, disorganized, and laughably underfunded, they can still be stunningly effective. Their files may be incomplete, and they may not be able to quote the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act chapter and verse, but their traditions and culture give them a power their environmentalist colleagues in Washington or San Francisco might envy.

The sources of this strength are the earth and sky; Native Americans tend to consider themselves inseparable from the natural elements of their land. ("Your environmental movement is just white people beginning to put down roots on this continent," Curley Bear Wagner, cultural officer for the Blackfeet people in Montana once told me. …

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