Paul VanDevelder
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Children of Crazy Horse

(Note: This is the kind of ‘story behind the story’ that writers love! The pedigree of this piece is long and twisted: commissioned by Harper’s, February 1998. Spring 1999, killed by Harper's. Summer of 1999: Rejected by Atlantic, Esquire, and Outdoor Explorer. Summer of 2000: Published in Native America's Journal as "A Native Sense of the Earth’. Winter 2002: Awarded 1st Place Feature by the Native American Journalists Association.)

by Paul VanDevelder

Teepees In the Mist

It's a brilliant September evening at the dawn of a new century. Bill Yellowtail and I are perched on a red sandstone bluff overlooking a cluster of teepee rings in Lodgegrass Valley. This majestic chunk of high, wide and lonesome is known today as southeastern Montana. The tallus rings, clearly visible on the sandstone bench thirty feet below us, were left there by a small band of Crow Indians a hundred years before Merriwether Lewis was born. A century and a half ago the mythologized lure of this landscape was already spun through with enough romantic dust to draw a parade of Natty Bumppos and Bumppettes down an empty trail, heroic spirits following parallel tracks toward a horizon that merged with a sky so vast its inscrutable silence drove legions of our hardiest dreamers to madness. Year after year they came, kicking loose stones toward a home they had never seen, or toward a moment of truth when the will or the hunger finally gave way to howling.

The great migration of the 19th century is the most American of our stories. As in all tales truly American, the protagonist is the country itself, a truth shaped by wind and rock and bone long before any of us knew the business of its shaping. According to Yellowtail, Crow Indian and cattleman, Dartmouth graduate and legislator, fisherman and chief federal Big Dog protector of the West, the elements of that story are not shaping up toward a happily-ever-after ending.

“It’s quiet, isn’t it,” he asks rhetorically.


The bluff where we are standing overlooks the Yellowtail family ranch, a cattle operation situated in a deep valley that has been Crow wintering ground for the past seven centuries. When Yellowtail’s mom and dad eloped up this valley on horseback, some fifty-five years ago, they thrived on wild game and cutthroat trout. The newlywed teenagers built a 16 by 24 foot log cabin that still stands under a cope of aspens on the banks of Lodgegrass Creek. In time they started ranching and managed to hang on with wit and grit, just stubborn enough to piece together a 7,000 acre ranch that is still 26 miles from the nearest telephone. Bill was the first of their four children, all born and raised here.

“It isn’t the best place, but it’s ours,” he says with understated pride. “That bluff across the way was a buffalo jump, five hundred years before we had horses. We know this place.”
When Yellowtail surveys the world from this bluff he sees teepee rings built by the fiercest warriors ever to spill blood on the North American plains. He sees the finest ranchland in America, a community of ghosts and a way of life unhinged by what he unflinchingly calls ‘a system gone wrong.’ When the cattle market cratered in the mid-1980s, land values soon followed and made easy pickin’s for market scavengers circling the western range with pockets full of petro dollars, vultures in Cadillacs, while tens of thousands of families packed it in. “You never forget the defeat in people’s eyes,” says Yellowtail. “People you knew your whole life were too ashamed to say good-bye.”

As a legislator in the Montana statehouse, Yellowtail did his best to put a human face on rural capitalism. His efforts earned him a moniker in the press: “King of Lost Causes.” Despite those bitter disappointments, the hard ball Yellowtail played with the mining industry caught the eye of the Environmental Protection Agency’s fireball director, Carol Browner, in 1994. When Yellowtail took the helm of the EPA’s Region 8 in Denver, in January 1994, the mandate from Browner was clear. ‘Environmental justice’ topped the list.

‘Environmental justice’ was an explosive new idea in 1994. It turned on the notion that the guy who works at the mill and the guy who owns the mill must evenly share the burden of society’s garbage. If ‘EJ’ was new to American politics, it was a completely alien to Indian Country, those 95 million acres of treaty protected lands in the American outback. The deregulated mining orgy of the Reagan/Bush years had left huge swaths of that land eligible for environmental disaster relief. Private companies had strewn millions of tons of radioactive tailings across thousands of acres Hopi and Navajo lands. Hundreds of uncapped uranium test holes were venting radon into Indian homes and schools in New Mexico, Arizona and the Dakotas. The cyanide leech method of processing gold ore had turned hundreds of mountain streams across the west into death zones. The extraction industry left so many poison piles in its wake that the Reagan and Bush administrations, rather than demand a clean up, implored Congress to dismantle the EPA altogether and turn chunks of Indian Country into ‘national sacrifice zones.’

“The things that were done to Indian Country during the Reagan years were so vile, so unspeakable,” says Yellowtail, “that no amount of outrage or money will ever put it right. It was a national disgrace.”

Much of that disgrace can be traced straight back to the Cerrell Report, a secret study commissioned by the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s (and leaked to Greenpeace) that promoted ‘environmental racism’ as a solution to the nation’s critical waste management problems. The authors concluded that since it was politically unthinkable to ask white society to manage its own garbage, Indian Country was the only realistic option.
The rush was on. Billion dollar companies and federal agencies targeted the poorest tribes in the nation with schemes to dispose of everything from PCBs to spent nuclear fuel rods. In its zeal to get cozy with tribal councils, the waste industry inadvertently discovered a new religion, a religion called sovereignty. The Fortune 500 converts to this religion discovered they could dump society’s most vile waste in Indian Country without having to appease the ever vigilant federal watchdogs. One pass of the sovereignty wand took away their regulatory migraines and gave them a license to print money, a ‘neo-colonial fantasy’ come true in their own backyard.

But there was one little catch to this panacea: No one anticipated the intense resistance these schemes would encounter among traditional Indian elders and their college educated grandchildren, the spiritual decendants of Crazy Horse.

The first rumblings of that resistance were heard in the mountains of New Mexico. A young Navajo biologist , Lori Goodman, founded an organization in 1989 called Dineh Care. Goodman was determined to prevent the government and the Navajo tribal council from building a nuclear waste incinerator on the reservation near Dilkon. The public relations battle with the flamboyant tribal chairman, Peter McDonald, ‘got western.’ Charges and counter charges of extortion and bribery lit up the press and fragmented the tribe. When the proposal was finally put to a vote in 1990, Goodman’s army of grassroots volunteers celebrated their victory for days.

The victory at Dilkon signaled a profound shift in Indian Country, a shift that is just now being examined by the media and being felt by state governments. For Goodman, Yellowtail and other young visionaries in Indian Country, Dilkon was the Lexington and Concord in a crucial revolution over resource mangagment and cultural survial. A short decade later, with proceeds pouring in from gambling, with more than 370 active treaties on the books, and with more than 2,000 Indian lawyers trained in the white man’s law to protect the provisions of those treaties, Indian tribes that were expected to vanish in the 19th century suddenly had the legal fire power to prosecute this war well into the 21st century.

Dances With Garbage
It’s a warm March day in the late 1990s, less than an hours drive north of downtown San Diego. I’m lying behind a mound of red dirt in a sandy arroyo, wedged between two large Indians and a small arsenal of weapons. Long braids of hair lie coiled in the red dirt as nostrils flair from the exertion of our climb. Beyond the concertina wire the San Jacinto mountains take bites out of a purple sky. The Mountain Cahuilla band of American Indians has survived countless centuries in this high desert niche on a diet of wild tubers and pin oak acorns. But I am a stranger here, an alien in my own country.

A two hour hike through the back country has brought us to X, a spot on our map marked with a small red cross. From this bare shoulder of ground we have a sweeping view of a sprawling toxic waste dump, but we are also plainly visible to the guards in the observation towers. There is no where to hide. Nothing perks up a Sunday afternoon like knowing you just walked into somebody’s crosshairs.

A little bird has told Tom Goldtooth, the massive Indian to my left, that the guards will be attending a meeting in the nearby town of Anza. We have our fingers crossed. This is the break Goldtooth has been waiting for. If he wants to collect soil samples, if he wants the fingerprints off the smoking gun, the little bird told him, this is it. It’s now or never.
As the national director for the Indigenous Environmental Network based in Bemedji, Minnesota, Goldtooth has travelled two thousand miles to see this hillside with his own eyes. From his perspective, this outlaw waste dump is just one of dozens, from Maine to California, that are as much an environmental nightmare as a spiritual black hole, inner tribal war zones that end up pitting industrial poisons against cultural survival. “We want to make a movie about this,” he quipped the night before. “We want to call it ‘Dances With Garbage’.”

The conflicts that inevitably arise over the money that comes with white man’s garbage have shredded the social fabric of dozens of tribes. The tiny band of Mountain Cahuilla has become a case study in community dysfunction. Neighbors that have lived side by side for centuries are suddenly ignoring each other at the store. Shades are drawn over windows in the middle of the day. Kids are turning up at the school nurse’s office with exotic complaints, ranging from chronic diarrhea to the sudden onset of nervous disorders. The homes of six dump opponents have been burned right down to the rebar and cinder block, under mysterious circumstances, and the desert nights pulse with the terror of drive-by shootings. A karmic wire has been strung so tightly across this beautiful high desert valley that if you brushed against it at dawn it would still be humming in your teeth fillings a hundred years from now.

Goldtooth crouches on his elbows and whispers something inaudible to Antonio, our Cahuilla guide, then sweeps the hillside with a pair of binoculars. ‘Dr. Dirt,’ a Ph.d soil scientist, kneels beside me and studies the glossy, four by six photos taken of the dump by a Nighthawk reconissance plane the day before. I notice his hands trembling. A pair of chickadees flits cheerfully among the palo verde bushes. Antonio snaps a shiny brass projectile into the chamber of his .308 semi-automatic rifle. Dr. Dirt’s eyes jump with adrenilin. Antonio calmly thumbs off the safety, then schooches forward on his elbows to steal a peek over the rim.

All is quiet. Massive earthmovers, conveyors and soil hoppers sit eerily silent. Spokes of light glance off the razor wire encircling an eighty acre repository of unknown biological hazards, all owned and operated by the Candelaria Environmental Company. As far as state and federal officialdom is concerned, this dump doesn’t exist. Yet for the absentee high rollers in the toxic waste business, this landfill gushes money in a shell game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. Nothing in this game, except the till, adds up in the Anza Valley.

For openers, lawyers shrug with glazed bewilderment when asked why none of the five federally mandated ‘cease and desist’ orders has ever been enforced at Cahuilla. Then, California highway officials either cannot, or refuse to, explain why trucks arrive at Cahuilla without license plates, or permits, to transport hazardous waste on state and federal highways. And while Goldtooth repeatedly files complaints with the Pentagon accusing the Navy of dumping its secrets on Cahuilla land, the brass at nearby Camp Pendelton repeatedly deny the charge. Yet day in and day out a steady stream of deep blue soft-bottomed trucks, identical to those parked in precise rows at the Camp Pendelton motor pool, rumble into the Anza Valley to dump their loads.

By the time a sunset has splashed its neon palette behind the San Jacinto mountains, Goldtooth and ‘Dr. Dirt’ have collected fifteen soil samples without incident.

The numbered samples fill two backpacks inside a tangle of drawstrings and velcro. Laughter animates our shadows as the anxiety of the day dissipates on sage scented zephyrs. After tracking this story for six years, from Nigeria to Window Rock to Alice Springs, I have learned that the sublime, more often than not, is a dangerous illusion. Goldtooth and I seem to tacitly share this knowledge, yet we are also willing this evening to risk its glow. This once. The high is an ephemeral buzz, a temporary release from X. Yet months later and a thousand miles away, X was much on my mind when I put the following questions to a Mr. Tim Beckwith, director of the Office of Information Management for the California EPA in Sacramento: Dear Mr. Beckwith...

A) Does your department have jurisdiction to enforce the court order enjoining further dumping at Cahuilla? If not, who does?

B) I have documents stating that the third-party responsible for testing 'hazardous waste soils' at Cahuilla is an Oceanside company known as Petro-Purge. I have other documents attesting to the fact that Petro-Purge is owned by one Ms. Rita Lavelle. Is that correct?’
I vaguely recollected Rita Lavelle as Ronald Reagan’s Superfund appointee who went to prison for shredding documents and lying to Congress about funds missing from EPA coffers. Could this be the same Rita Lavelle?

By late spring of 2000, lab results show that the hillside above the Anza valley is shot through with petroleum aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), members of the EPA’s poster family of carcinogenic compounds. Those PHAs were found in soil samples taken from the arroyo that replenishes the valley’s water supply. I mailed a second copy of my letter to Mr. Beckwith, then a third. Silence. Lawyers working with Goldtooth, busy assembling evidence against the Candelaria Environmental Company, tell me that working this case is like waking up in an episode of the X Files. “Spooky,” says Palo Alto attorney, Andy Leibnitz, “very very spooky.” As soon as the case became public knowledge, the non-Indian defendants “started falling off the Earth.” Poof. Left no forwarding address. Whereabouts unknown.

Finally, Goldtooth calls one day to confirm that our Rita Lavelle is, in fact, President Reagan’sfemme fatale of Superfund fame. Still at it. Additionally, as if to compound the irony with an element of surprise, a Freedom of Information Act request, filed six times with the Pentagon, has finally confirmed that the U.S. Navy has a dumping contract with the Candelaria Environmental Company.

As the piles of documents deepen the mysteries become less decipherable. Traceable facts get lost in a ghost dance between darkness and shadow. Yet one thought asserts itself over and over, like an exposed nerve in a bad tooth. God has given us torments greater than hurricanes and plagues. She has given us each other.

As Long as the Rivers Shall Flow
On another spring day a thousand miles east of the Anza Valley, Verna Teller, a striking and eloquent woman, is telling me about the day the world ended for the Isleta Pueblo of New Mexico. It is a story about time, which, for the Isleta, is a story about water. The Rio Grande River, springing from the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, has run through Isleta cosmology since time immemorial. Teller’s family, the Corn clan, has lived in the pueblo on its banks for 2,000 years.

“For us,” says Teller, “all of the future generations, all of the unborn spirits, depend on how we honor the spirit forces that bring us the water.”

Six miles upstream from Isleta the modern city of Albuquerque rises out of the desert. Albuquerque was founded by Spaniards in 1706, a recent event in Pueblo stories. When the city mushroomed out of its infrastructure during an explosion of growth in the 1980s, the quality of life in the ancient pueblo downstream suddenly went south. By 1987, bizarre phenomena had become common place. The corn and bean crops grew up stunted. Five grandmothers, all from the same neighborhood, all about the same age, died of stomach cancer in a period of months. “We were sick and dying,” remembers Teller, “but nobody could tell us why.”

At 36, she had just been elected as the first female governor in the history of the tribe. The eyes of four thousand Isleta looked to her to solve this mystery. Her first week in office she drove down to the river and stared into the water. “I thought, these cancers, these deaths, they must be coming from the river. Our river is sick. Never in my life had I felt so afraid.”

At Teller’s request, the state Department of Environmental Quality began to investigate what, if anything, was being dumped into the river upstream. Hydrologists confirmed Teller’s worst nightmare. A slaughter house and a poultry plant were dumping ground up animal carcasses directly into the river and Isleta irrigation ditches. DEQ scientists then discovered petroleum waste products running into the Rio Grande from a wrecking yard. If that wasn’t enough, the city of Albuquerque was pumping raw sewage directly into the river, eight miles upstream. Soil tests at Isleta showed sky high levels of nitrates and benzine, a lethal petroleum based solvent. Then, in February, during the tribe’s annual “Winter Dance” in which the ground is blessed by tribal elders for spring planting, Albuquerque’s main sewer line ruptured. Millions of gallons of raw effluent flowed into the river. City officials called to warn the tribe, but said there was nothing they could do. It was too late. By the time Teller and her lieutenant governors reached its banks, the Rio Grande river was putrid waves of green foam.

“It fell to me to deliver the news to the elders,” remembers Teller. “They couldn’t even speak. They hung their heads in silence. It was like the end of the world.”

After conferring with the tribal council and the federal EPA, Teller and the Isleta braced for war. They elected to became the first tribe in the nation to file for ‘Treatment As State’

Kootenai-Salish waterfalls
authority under amendments to the 1986 federal Clean Water Act. New provisions had opened the way for tribes to establish water quality standards on treaty protected water resources. When the Isleta completed the scientific requirements and the EPA approved their petition in 1993, state and city officials across the West were stunned. Albuquerque’s engineers estimated the Isleta standards would cost the city $300 million in capital improvements, and another $15 million in annual operations costs. In a panic, the city turned to the state for help, both legal and financial. Strangely, the state quietly turned its back. Years would pass before city officials discovered that Judith Espinoza, an officer with the state Department of Environmental Quality, had helped to write the Isleta water standards. The city was on its own. “The impact of the Isleta case just can’t be overestimated,” says Leigh Price, an EPA attorney and architect for the Isleta’s defense.
Both legally and environmentally, the Isleta petition for Treatment as State signaled the beginning of a new kind of war over treaty protected resources. In the spring of 1995, a district court upheld the legality of that war and approved the Isleta petition for Treatment As State. Chagrined city officials gathered their wits and immediately appealed. Yet if nothing else, if the tribe lost on appeal, they had already demonstrated that sovereignty, law, and science, could be combined to enforce environmental standards on non-Indian governments far beyond reservation boundaries. In other words, if Dilkon had been Lexington and Concord, this was Gettysburg.

News of the Isleta victory swept like wild fire through Indian country legal offices. Meanwhile, desperate city fathers in Albuquerque were still getting the cold shoulder from the state. Adding injury to insult, the state’s then attorney general, Tom Udall, astonished everyone when he personally filed an amicus curaie in support of the tribe, a brief that characterized Albuquerque’s claims as a groundless ‘parade of horrors.’

The Isleta standards had linked water quality to the tribe’s First amendment rights, a gambit that was either visionary or foolhardy. The city was pining its hopes on a verdict that would find the latter. “As far as we were concerned, the city was also violating our religious freedom,” explains Teller. This linking of treaty rights to the American Bill of Rights had never before been argued in a court of law.

“The only thing we could do was build our case on the Establishment Clause (separating church and state) and hope for the best,’ says Bruce Garber, the Santa Fe attorney who represented the city in court. “They had a very strong argument. So did we.”

The Isleta argument prevailed. The once confident city officials were running out of hubris and appeals. At the EPA’s office in Denver, Bill Yellowtail reported to work as the region’s new administrator. A file folder was waiting for him on his desk blotter. Inside the folder was a petition for Treatment As State from Montana’s Salish and Kootenai tribe’s. As the administrative wheels began to turn in Denver, the city of Albuquerque geared up for its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If the Isleta were asking for the moon,” says Yellowtail, “the Salish and Kootenai were asking for the stars. We couldn’t wait. We had to make a decision and let the chips fall.”

Beyond the rolling fields of alfalfa and winter wheat, beyond the timbered bench land and the miles of three-strand barbed wire fence, the magnificent Mission Mountain range in western Montana shoots silently toward snow line. There, the granite monoliths rise abruptly to merge with indigo space, eight thousand feet above the valley floor. On the 21st century side of this picture, computer screens glow in every corner of the Salish and Kootenai Confederated tribe’s legal office. Attorney John Carter is one-sixth of the tribe’s team of legal talent. It is an intellectual arsenal that prompts cold shudders of dread from prospective opponents.

“We’re often called the most litigious tribe in the nation,” says Carter. “If you look at our caseload we’re on the defense 95 percent of the time. When the world wants what you own, you have to stay on your toes.”

In the mid-90s, Salish and Kootenai attorneys watched from a distance as the Isleta Pueblo challenged the boundaries of federalism. Like the Pueblo, the Salish and Kootenai submitted their petition for ‘Treatment As State’ to the EPA regional office. Unlike the Pueblo, who are the sole owners of their reservation, unalloted land on the Salish and Kootenai’s reservation was opened up to white settlers a hundred years ago. Today, whites comprise approximately 75% of the population on a ‘checkerboard reservation.’ Numerous streams and rivers spill out of the towering bulwark of the Mission mountains into the 190 square mile Flathead Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi. Half of that lake is owned by the tribe. In other words, it was one thing for the Pueblo to request the authority to establish water quality standards on the Rio Grande. To ask for jurisdiction over white businesses, white communities, and the largest body of freshwater west of Chicago, now that was a pony with altogether different markings.

As Bill Yellowtail was getting oriented in his new job, Montana’s Republican Governor Marc Racicot, and the Montana state legislature, were busy casting off the regulatory chains imposed on the mining industry by two decades of environmental activism. New water quality standards were written by attorneys working for the Canadian company, Pegasus Gold, then passed into law by the Republican legislature in a matter of days. The new standards permitted, among other things, elevated levels of cyanide and arsenic in the state’s famed blue ribbon trout streams, levels that would accomodate the environmentally devastating ‘cyanide leech’ method of processing raw ore.

Just as the governor announced that the ‘Mid-life Crisis State’ was open for business, on February 27th, 1995, Bill Yellowtail announced the EPA’s approval of the Salish and Kootenai petition for Treatment As State. The EPA also recognized the tribes’ complete jurisdiction over all water quality on the reservation, regardless of whose land it ran over, through, beside, or under. Governor Racicot immediatey filed suit in federal court.
With the Isleta defense successfully holding the high ground a thousand miles to the south, the Salish and Kootenai attorneys designed their strategy around the Clean Water Act and the regulatory authority of the EPA. On March 28, 1996, the phone rang in John Carter’s office late in the afternoon. Tribal attorney, Marion Yoder, was calling from Helena. Federal district court Judge Charles Lovell had dismissed the state’s case against the tribe and the EPA in a stunning summary judgement. Governor Racicot tried to molify outraged white ranchers by immediately appealing the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle.

“If it isn’t racism for the state to maintain that the Indians are incapable of being fair and just,” asks EPA attorney Leigh Price, “then what should we call it?”

John Carter and Dan Decker argued the case before the 9th Circuit. Clearly, these judges understood what was at stake. This was not just about water or environmental standards. The tribes had mounted a compelling challenge to state authority. Months passed in agonizing silence. Indian lawyers from coast to coast held their breath. Carter and Decker speculated that the court was struggling to construct a decision favorable to the tribe without giving U.S. Supreme Court justices Scalia and Rehnquist any reason to reverse. Finally, in the first week of March, 1998, Judge Mary Schroeder released an opinion ruling that Judge Lovell had correctly entered a summary judgement in favor of the tribes. Tribal jurisdiction was clearly within the scope of EPA authority in the Clean Water Act. The Salish and Kootenai had met a crucial test, but the victory party was short lived. Governor Racicot immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We knew where this case was headed from the beginning,” says Carter. “There’s so much at stake, for both sides. A lot of people felt we were the wrong tribe to take it up the ladder. We didn’t see that we had much choice.”

Knowing that the Montana case would establish precedent, the last best hope of the states was that the Salish and Kootenai were the wrong tribe to take on the checkerboard test. Historically, the Supreme Court has been the last line of defense for the tribes, a solid barrier against incursions by state governments on tribal sovereignty. But a string of recent setbacks from Rehnquist and company, such as the Smith v. Oregon case involving the sacramental use of peyote, had rocked Indian Country like nothing in memory. “In other words,” cautions Mandan attorney Raymond Cross, a veteran of Supreme Court battles, “you want to think long and hard before you take an important sovereignty case to the high court.”

Verna Teller had thought long and hard. She had made her decision, as difficult as it was, and found the courage to stand by her decision through the storm. “This river collects all of our deeds as it passes through our lives,” says Teller, “then delivers those deeds back to our descendants on some unknown morning in the future.”

In December of 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal’s landmark opinion on the Isleta challenge, the challange that linked Isleta treaty rights to their First Amendment right to pure water to conduct their secret religious ceremonies. Consciously or unconsciously, the high court honored the river’s spirit forces. The Isleta had won.

Children of the Universe
In his essay “Silence as Commons,” lingusist Ivan Illich investigated the root conflicts between indigenous peoples and colonizing nation/states. Illich concluded that all cultures once shared the need for a conscious alignment with forces in the natural world. Then, many centuries ago, the European societies underwent a fundamental shift away from “environment in common” toward a Cartesian view that perceived the ‘environment as resource.” Today, ‘globalization’ completes the arc of the latter idea, hurling societies willy-nilly into an arena in which huge financial entities replace governments (and the 7th Cavalry) in resource colonization. In this new arrangement, governments of and by the people become clerks for the multinationals in global trade agreements.

This ethos has been extruded from ‘open market capitalism,’ a silly fiction that might be better called ‘corporate socialism,’ an ethos erected on the wobbly notion that our common future depends on ‘planet as resource’ rather than ‘planet as environment.’ The first large scale collision of these dramatically opposed views filtered through tear gas in the streets of Seattle as the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial disintegrated on a Friday night of wild confusion and disarray. English journalist Andrew Gumbel reflected that the sheer intensitiy of passion displayed in the streets, from student activists to little old ladies in tennis shoes, solidified Seattle ‘99 into a “a wall of protest against the prevailing direction of corporate global capitalism.”

“The great battle of the 21st century will be to save this planet,” says Bill Yellowtail, “just as it was foretold in the prophesies of our ancestors. It will be won, or lost, by indigenous people. This,” he says with the sweep of his hand, “is where we will meet.”

We are standing on his favorite bluff above Lodgegrass Valley. The sweep of his hand describes not so much a physical battlefield as a metaphorical Waterloo, a stage where the first Americans, armed with treaties, cash, and legal firepower, are calling in their debts and demanding ‘retrospective justice’ for incursions on their sovereignty and their natural resources. By winter of 2000, opinions coming out of the federal judiciary signal a significant sea change in Indian law, a deepening awareness of the enormous consequences of the emerging battles.

In the previous months, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Judge Lovell’s summary judgement against the state of Montana. Once again, the Salish and Kootenai had prevailed. In the interim, 16 more tribes have won TAS authorization from the EPA, while another 120 have initiated the scientific and legal processes leading to authorization. Tribes are in position to control the quality of virtually water every drop of water that falls west of the 100th meridian.

In May, 1999, in a decision that signaled the end of a 20 year stalemate over the opening of a copper mine at Crandon Lake, Wisconsin, a federal court in Milwaukee threw out Governor Tommy Thompson’s case against the Mole Lake Chippewa water quality standards on summary judgement.

That same month, the Forest County Potawatomi became the fifth tribe in the nation to be awarded a Class I Air Certificate from the EPA, a designation that protects the tribe’s air as a pristine resource. The Potawatomi handed the state of Wisconsin its hat in federal dispute resolution. “The [mining] industry can’t burp without getting our permission,” said tribal scientist, Christine Hanson. The tribe also won a seat on the international commission with Canada to monitor mercury and heavy metals poisoning in the Great Lakes.

In the spring of 1999, writing for the majority in a stunning 5-4 split that upheld the ‘usufructary’ treaty rights of the Mille Lacs Chippewa against the state of Minnesota, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner reminded dissenting justices Scalia and Rehnquist that the court has a historical obligation to interpret treaties a) in favor of the tribes and b) in the spirit in which the Indians would have understood them when they were signed.

Two weeks later, the high court upheld the treaty rights of 17 tribes in Washington state’s Puget Sound to harvest shellfish on private land. It was an enormous victory, one that stunned state officials and private property owners into a kind of bewildered silence.
“We slaughtered millions of these people, who were supposed to be protected by the ‘supreme law of the land,’ says constitutional law scholar, Ron Manuto, “and then we stole the whole continent and declared the frontier conquored. You don’t pay those kinds of debts with capital. You pay with karma.”

Whatever currency is used, the debts are coming due. Descendants of the great Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph, met in late January with officials from the White House Council for Environmental Quality. The tribe informed the government that it is ready to pit its 1855 treaty against the four federal dams on the lower Snake River. To save regional salmon runs from extinction, an alliance of Columbia River tribes, marine scientists, environmental groups, and Roman Catholic bishops, has formed around a demand that the federal government breech its four dams on the lower Snake River to give native species a fighting chance.

As far as the tribal leaders are concerned the salmon must be saved at any cost. They believe they have the legal power and public support to make that happen. A recent survey conducted by the region’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, found that eighty-two percent of those responding were in favor of breeching the dams to save salmon. And while $3.5 billion has been spent in the past 15 years in a futile attempt to arrive at a workable recovery plan, virtually nothing has been done. The number of chinook salmon returning each year has fallen from 500,000 to fewer than 50,000. Despite these alarming statistics, Washington State Senator Slade Gorton has vowed to ranchers and barge operators that the Snake River dams will come out over his dead body, an idea that has wide spread support in Indian country.

To put these converging events in perspective, imagine that treaties, like the ones with the Nez Perce, are enormous I.O.U.s, federally guaranteeed script that has been accruing compounded interest for more than two hundred years. U.S. Circuit Judge Noel P. Fox anticipated the resource battles of the 21st century when he wrote, in 1979: "...the mere passage of time has not eroded, and cannot erode the rights guaranteed by solemn treaties that both sides pledged on their honor to uphold.... The Indians [treaty] rights are preserved and protected under the supreme law of the land, do not depend on State law, and are distinct from the rights and privileges held by non-Indians and may not be qualified by an action of the state..."

For non-Indians in Wisconsin, Montana, California and Nevada, Idaho, Minnesota, Washington State, and along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, this may be a bitter pill, but it is a pill shaped from the foundational law that established the American republic. If non-Indian governments have done a poor job educating the citizenry about the special status of government-to government relationships between whites and tribal governments, the tribes can hardly be held liable for failing to discharge a burden that was never theirs to begin with.

Back in the valley of ten thousand bones, when Bill Yellowtail looks around and surveys his world he looses sleep thinking about the big picture, worrying about his people. Despite remarkable gains in education, despite the dramatic courtroom victories, life in Indian Country in the new millenium is anything but a panacea. Unemployment spirals through the stratosphere in Lodgegrass while the federal checks continue to pour in, ransom payments made by a guilt ridden nation frantically trying to buy its conscience out of hock. In Pryor, Wyola, Crow Agency, Lodgegrass, the whirlpool of dependency on free money and booze, on drugs and escape, spins toward oblivion, toward a small black hole which sucks Crow youth down and spits them out into a night so dark that wet brain, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, cirrotic livers, and the all too famous jalopy crashes, marked by a blizzard of little white crosses on reservation by-ways, read like a cure for breathing. On the flip side, Yellowtail sees his non-Indian friends running thriving reservation businesses while tribal members fail to seize economic opportunities.

"Self-sufficiency is at the core of what gives people dignity, white, black, red, yellow," he says, stating a personal ethic that reaches deep into the Yellowtail ancestry. "Our ceremonial culture is wonderful. But what do we do the rest of the time? Who are we? Where are we going? We must come up with new answers to these questions. No more lost causes."

Bill Yellowtail at home

It is Sunday evening, late, and inside the Yellowtail cabin on Lodgegrass Creek the weighty matters of the world are thoroughly at bay. Friends and family gather knee to knee around the half moon kitchen table for an evening of the most treasured of all rural activities, community fellowship. No radio, television, or VCR. The silent off-spring lie curled under star quilts in the living room as the adults absorb each other’s lives. Gallons of coffee flow from a blue speckled pot big enough to irrigate an acre of corn. Every horizontal surface is piled high with cherry pie, carrot cake, fresh bread and homemade strawberry ice cream. At peak moments all seven adult voices soar simultaneously. Politics. Indian basketball stars, the claim by local Hutterites that a Hostess Twinkie diet fed to their Holsteins is doubling milk production. Peals of laughter greet this latest. Finally, the kids press for ghost stories, hoping to squeeze one more thrill out of Uncle Bill.
Outside, the Milky Way glows like a celestial ribbon. The moon light etches a landscape of silver shadows. A shriek of disbelief drifts into the night. A coyote's keening yap echoes down the valley. Far overhead a jet passes, tearing at the unimaginable silence with a turbine whisper. From thirty-five thousand feet in the night sky, zipping between bi-coastal lives near the speed of sound, the transcontinental passengers gaze out their windows and see a single light burning in an ocean of darkness. And they wonder, who lives there? Who are those people? What are they like? Those boats against the current.

That light illuminates the spot where enduring American ethics are hammered out on the anvil of self-sufficiency, cooperation, human decency, spiritual wholeness, and the Sacred Trust. It marks the spot where people who know who they are stir each others beans and gather around half moon kitchen tables to make laughter and to share grief, to make families that hang together to make communities that hang together.
Still there after the storms.

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About Coyote Warrior
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 © 2004-2009 Paul VanDevelder