Often when Native nations assert their treaty rights and sovereignty, they are confronted with a backlash from their neighbors, who are fearful of losing control of the natural resources. Yet, when both groups are faced with an outside threat to their common environment—such as mines, dams, or an oil pipeline–these communities have unexpectedly joined together to protect the resources. Some regions of the United States with the most intense conflicts were transformed into areas with the deepest cooperation between tribes and local farmers, ranchers, and fishers to defend sacred land and water.
Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands explores this evolution from conflict to cooperation through place-based case studies in the Pacific Northwest, Great Basin, Northern Plains, and Great Lakes regions during the 1970s through the 2010s. Examples are the Cowboy Indian Alliance opposing the Keystone XL pipeline in the deep-red states of South Dakota and Nebraska, and the tribally led alliances against coal and oil terminals in Washington and Oregon. These stories suggest that a deep love of place can begin to overcome even the bitterest divides.
The Native organizers in these alliances understood how to reach white farmers, ranchers, and fishers, and enlist them in a populist anti-corporate movement that cut across racial lines. In this way, they successfully connected identity politics and unity politics. They overcame the challenges of anti–Indian hate groups spreading a white nationalist message very similar to today’s alt-right. In fact, the areas where Native-white conflict over natural resources was the most intense were ironically the areas where the alliances to protect the same resources were the earliest and easiest to form.
Zoltán Grossman is a Professor of Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. He has been a longtime community organizer in Wisconsin and Washington.