“Native Lands are Under Attack, Fight Back!”: A Reflection on the Dec. 5 BLM Protests

“Public Lands = Stolen Land” banner and protesters block traffic on Dec. 5. Photo via Frack Off Greater Chaco Facebook page

by Justine Teba

Edited by N. Lira-Pérez

On Wednesday, December 5, members of The Red Nation, Pueblo Action Alliance, Dine and Pueblo community leaders, and the Coalition to Protect Greater Chaco, gathered at the New Mexico state office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Santa Fe. Rallying behind a 30-foot wide banner that read “Public Lands = Stolen Land,” we marched into a space where Natives are made to feel like we don’t belong—a space of white settler law and colonial theft. We marched to ensure that Native struggles and peoples are at the forefront of decisions about so-called “public” lands, because they are our lands. We marched to remind the settler colonial United States—and the white-run environmental non-profits—that public lands are stolen lands. There is no “we” when it comes to land in a settler society. All lands are ancestral Indigenous lands.

December 5 and 6 marked a pivotal step in a series of land lease auctions that opened up over 300,000 acres of land for new oil and gas development; 84,000 of those acres—nearly 30 percent—are in New Mexico, and 24,000 acres are directly located in or adjacent to Navajo communities on the eastern side of customary Dine territories.

The US government wants us to use benign euphemisms like “economic development” to cast these leases as something beneficial to the “public.” We aren’t falling for that. Why don’t we call the leases for what they are: colonial land grabs. Who benefits? The settler “public” and big oil companies. Who pays the price? Indigenous peoples. So goes the history of the United States.

These land grabs are just the most recent in a long history of land grabs tied to settler colonialism and extractive capitalism. Energynet.com encouraged corporate plunder of Indigenous land by starting bids for land parcels as low as $2.00 per acre. This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last, as the US government has continuously allowed these land grabs to happen without tribal consultation or community input. Consequently, the land, water, air, animals, and people, continue to be poisoned. This is settler colonialism and extractive capitalism at work.

The last forty years of Native political struggle has taught us that what happens to the land, happens to the people. The oil and gas industry’s weapon of choice is hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), which is happening everywhere across Turtle Island.  Fracking is and should be illegal. These capitalist industries are allowed to drill 10,000+ feet below the surface, through aquifers and earth, and then drill horizontally, where they create fractures in the earth by shooting a pressurized mixture of poisonous chemicals, sand, and water to release oil and gas. The process is violent at its core. For every gallon of oil produced, they create five gallons of wastewater. This poisonous wastewater has been given another benign euphemism: produced water. Fracking corporations reintroduce the contaminated water via disposal wells, and even use the wastewater for our food sources. Food in the Imperial Valley of central California, for example, is irrigated partly with fracked water. This means that a region that grows two-thirds of the vegetables consumed during winter months in the US is irrigated with poison frack water. To add insult to injury, oil and gas corporations are seeking more freshwater to contaminate and lobbying New Mexico state officials to make it easier to dump in the state’s watersheds. We need to ask ourselves: where is our water coming from? And why are Diné relatives living without running water while just a few miles from their homes, millions of gallons of running water are being used for fracking?

The oil and gas industry is also responsible for the entire issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Womxn. Fracking requires a massive operation and brings large numbers of men to perform the labor of this upkeep. These men come from all over the US and settle temporarily in man camps at the outskirts of reservations where huge swaths of land have been opened up for extraction. As a consequence, New Mexico, being a leader in oil and gas production, has the highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous womxn in the entire US.

The blunt reality is the BLM was going to lease “public” lands no matter what. In March 2018, 400 formal protest letters were received by the BLM. As a result, Interior Secretary Zinke (who just resigned) deferred the sale of 25 parcels, calling for tribal consultation and health and cultural assessments. On October 31st, a record-breaking and unprecedented 10,000 protest letters were hand-delivered to the BLM by the Coalition to Protect Greater Chaco. Despite this remarkable effort, Energynet.com claims that the BLM received only 1,000 protest letters regarding the December 2018 leases. What happened to the other 9,000? The BLM currently doesn’t have a policy or deadline for how they respond to protest letters; it’s something they technically don’t have to do. There have been meetings where they have eliminated public comment. This was also the first year in which leases transpired online so that corporate buyers could avoid any physical obstruction from protestors. This is on top of the fact that meetings for deciding oil and gas policies are basically held in secret, and, as opposition grows, the tactics of both corporate profit mongers and “public” officials become even more secretive.

We have played by their rules. We have submitted protest letters. We have met their arbitrary and narrow deadlines. We have filed lawsuits and injunctions. We have called for tribal consultations and health impact assessments. We have emphasized the cultural and religious significance of the land. None of this stops them.

The message is loud and clear: fracking will go forward with or without our consent.

As our comrade Majerle Lister reminds us,  “the history of the US conservation movement is a history of settler colonialism.” It is important to remember that these “public” lands are Indigenous ancestral lands, and just like all territory in the US, these lands are stolen from the Indigenous nations that are violently displaced from them. The conservation motivations of big green NGOs ignore this important historical and political fact. The rhetoric of “public” lands comes from this conservationist perspective, and only seeks to protect land for settler use and enjoyment. This is an inherently colonial view that must be cast out from our future efforts to stop fracking. This isn’t just an environmental issue, it is also a struggle for decolonization happening on a national and international scale. As we move forward with this struggle, there must be a full commitment to the liberation of Indigenous people from colonial and capitalist violence.

Public land is stolen land, and we will not back down until we get it back and have justice.

Despite nationwide government closures, the December 5 action was a space for Indigenous members of the community to express their concerns and experiences, something the BLM continues to blatantly disregard. Indigenous people gave testimonies of oppression and expressed deep grief and anger about the government destroying the land and the people. It became a space where we could scream our liberation into existence and share stories of resistance. It was a space where we could rise and come together. We learned about the myriad ways we are collectively and continuously affected by resource extraction and corporate greed.

Emotions were high on December 5. We took to the streets to demand that the oil and gas industry be shut down. Chant after chant, we felt the urgency for our people’s lives and futures. As we came face to face with a large police presence, we chanted “No justice! No peace! No racist police!” In colonial and capitalist societies like the US, police protect profit over people. They are part of the state machinery that enforces colonial land grabs and fattens the pockets of corporations and politicians. We did not even flinch when an officer attempted to stop us. We walked through him and proceeded to occupy the intersection at Highway 14 and Rancho Viejo Boulevard. We marched in solidarity. Once the entire intersection was shut down, we chanted, “Whose land?! Native land!” There were no arrests made and everyone was safe.

To us, an empty building is an empty promise. We cannot look to BLM, big greens, or the settler colonial government for external validation or acceptance. We did not go to the BLM to ask permission from the man who stole our land. We went to build power amongst our people.

We will not compromise on our future, on our relations; on our future relations. We must continue to create spaces for our relatives to build the struggle for Indigenous liberation. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?