On November 18, 2017 activists in Olympia, Washington erected a blockade to halt trains delivering chemicals to the oil fracking fields along the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the epicenter for last year’s struggles at Standing Rock. The encampment lasted for twelve days until a heavily armed police force dislodged it.
In order to prepare for this protest, activists listened to the voices of indigenous people, for they are the most threatened by the fossil fuel industry’s extraction of life-energy from the earth.
Many protesters define their indigenous identities not simply through tribal affiliation, but also as how their people have lived in harmony with nature throughout generations. This awareness is what fuels the Lakota cry Mni Wiconi, “Water is Life.” This slogan announces how water provides the irrigation for life; how air provides the inspiration of life; how the earth provides soil for growing life – and, most gravely, how we humans can choose whether the energy that fuels life will be sustainable or will poison water, air and earth.
“Our lands and waters are filled with toxic waste”
The environmental impact of the fossil fuel industry has been felt throughout Washington State, particularly in indigenous communities who have struggled against exploitation of the land since the European invasion. For example, the 1855 Point Elliot Treaty granted natives of March Point rights to hunt, fish, and harvest on the entire land, but this agreement was broken by an illegal government seizure that allowed industries to despoil nature.
The family of Michael Vendiola, an enrolled member of the Swinomish tribe, has suffered directly from this exploitation. The Swinomish are a “water people” who have traditionally sustained their communities by living off the natural resources provided by the land and the “magic” Skagit River. Vendiola’s father provided for his family and his community by gardening in his yard, trapping crabs in the bay, and digging for clams in the sand.
Vendiola explains just how this has changed: “Our lands and waters are filled with toxic waste.” Washington State authorities allowed Texaco and Shell to build oil refineries. These refineries have polluted the land and water so badly that the town has forbidden harvesting of shellfish.
“It is going to poison all of my people”
The fossil fuel industry’s destruction of the earth and water has intensified due to its recent innovation of fracking. Rather than pumping oil from liquid wells, fracking drills down to strata of oil-rich earth, and then cracks open the earth at that depth, creating fissures from which the oil can flow. A mixture of chemicals, proppants, are used to keep open these cracks.
As with previous resource extraction and natural exploitation, much fracking occurs on the lands of natives, who are again displaced from their traditional habitats and exposed to a variety of industrial contaminants. Benita Moore, the founder of Native Daily Network and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux, warns, “It is going to poison all of my people.” Less than a year after the US government uprooted protesters at Standing Rock, a rupture in the Keystone Access Pipeline leaked over 200,000 gallons of oil nearby in South Dakota, contaminating the land, the water, and the atmosphere.
“Our planet is on fire”
Indigenous protesters consider themselves the original stewards of the land, a responsibility that connects them to their ancestors and their descendants, as well as to other indigenous caretakers.
Kyle Taylor Lucas, an enrolled member of the Tulalip Tribes (USA) and the Nlaka’pamux First Nation (Canada), speaks eloquently on the importance of the Olympia Port Blockade. “This struggle is important because our planet is on fire. As an indigenous woman, I feel a duty to honor my elders and the legacy of my ancestors in caring for this mother earth – and, moreover; I feel a responsibility to my grandchildren and the next seven generations to stand up to the economic machinery propped up by the government, specifically the Port of Olympia, in perpetuating the warming of this planet and the poisoning of water, essential to life. We call ourselves Water Protectors and we were especially inspired by the courageous stand taken at Standing Rock during DAPL. We indigenous peoples came together with our allies here at Olympia Stand to resist the Port of Olympia’s forced complicity in propping up dirty hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota that these proppants support.”
“Heal the women, heal the world”
The despoliation of earth by fracking has also objectified and dehumanized indigenous women, the traditional protectors of the earth.
Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Okanogan and Sanpoil bands of the Colville Confederated Tribes and the founder of the Indigenous Women’s Warrior Society, explains that blocking the trains halts the patriarchal colonial violence perpetuated against indigenous women. “Indigenous women and children are trafficked through these mining places, these fracking places. This is a war on our native women, the backbone of our nation: indigenous women are murdered and children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.”
The spread of the fracking industry has led to economic booms in the Dakotas and elsewhere, providing transient employment to mostly men who are housed in oil company trailers. Around these “man camps” have formed sex trafficking rings to provide these exploited men with women to exploit. Native women and girls as young as ten are abducted from surrounding reservations by men who befriend and groom them for a brutal life of sex slavery.
Earth-Feather explains that this attack on women is also an attack on the earth. “We give birth to the next seven generations. If there are no more women, there will be no more indigenous people of the land. Then [the oil companies] will be able to do whatever they want with the land.” We must choose whether we will allow corporations to defile nature and to rape native women or whether we will instead create a world of nurturance and care.” She affirms, “Native women are the most oppressed members of our society. If we help them to heal, everyone can heal.”
“Those who fight against the industrial mega-machine”
The Olympia 2017 blockade of trains bringing proppants from the docks of the Puget Sound to the Dakota Access Pipeline celebrated the anniversary week of last year’s blockade, which lasted seven days until it was broken up by fierce street fighting with the police.
Published by members of this year’s encampment, The Olympia Communard declares, “We wish to send greetings and express solidarity with Indigenous resistance to capitalist expansion across Turtle Island … we wish to acknowledge and honor those whose land we currently fight on and those who fight against the industrial mega-machine alongside us.” In addition to supporting the native protectors of the earth, the occupation created new forms of association based upon mutual aid and mutual care.
“I don’t feel worthless here”
Alongside the Nisqually, Squaxin, and other descendants of the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty tribes, Olympia contains at least one other indigenous band: a shifting population of houseless inhabitants who roam the city streets, watching out for each other. Many of them are sustained by Rosie’s Place, a center that provides services for youth, as well as by anarcho-communist initiatives such as Food Not Bombs and The Emma Goldman Youth Outreach Project.
These houseless inhabitants held the encampment together with their consistent presence, sleeping under the tarps and warming themselves by the fire every night. Houseless persons cleaned the camp, did construction, stood watch, greeted newcomers, and performed the tasks necessary to keep the occupation going. Given this sense of purpose and belonging, one houseless resident remarked, “I don’t feel worthless here.” Mutual aid kept the camp supplied with tents, mattresses, socks, pizzas, tobacco and other necessities and luxuries.
Dubbing these houseless persons the “Romeo Crew,” one of their poets, Starchild, declared, “I’ve never seen something like this, something that could bring everyone together like that. When I came to Olympia this summer, everyone was closed up to each other. At the blockade, everyone shared freely. It really opened up my heart.”
“Against all of this globalist, neo-capitalist, neoliberal bullshit”
On November 29, a sizable police force massed to uproot the camp. A little after 4:30 a.m., police gathered on the highways and at the capitol. Undercover police waited downtown in cars, bike police patrolled the alleyways, two Cessnas and a helicopter hovered above, a tank mounted by a pepper ball gun stood ready to poison and pacify the population, and a phalanx of armored SUVs populated by SWAT Teams, bomb squads and police brandishing AR15s surrounded the tank. The camp had already been alerted by discerning scouts to the impending invasion, and all occupants were able to exit successfully, with no arrests or injuries.
Although they were dislodged from the train tracks, protesters vow to continue the struggle to protect the earth and to create new possibilities for living. One organizer asserts: “There will be continued action against all this globalist, neo-capitalist, neoliberal bullshit. We will continue to force the fossil fuel infrastructure out of Washington State. We will continue to build solidarity with our indigenous allies and with the houseless of Olympia. We will continue to build a new and better world for everyone.”
Mitchell Verter is the author of “Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magon Reader” (AK Press: 2006)