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Letter from the Shores of the Salish Sea

OR: What I witnessed on my summer vacation — fire and drought in the Pacific NW

As we came in for a landing at the small airport in Bellingham, Washington, I could tell that something was wrong. The landscape appeared unfamiliar to me. The pastures and fields that surround the small city just south of the US-Canada border looked faded: not the soft green, or even yellow, of late summer, but something closer to brown or beige. The view of Mount Baker was even more disconcerting. The glacier atop the peak had shrunk noticeably, and the skirts of ice were closer to the summit than I had ever seen them before. This did not seem like the place I had long known.

Haze SunsetPhoto by Jason MarkAs the sun dropped to the horizon, the haze thickened, turned the sunset into something you’d expect in the desert Southwest: thick bands of burnt orange, and the sea like a puddle of pink

I’ll admit that the scene wasn’t exactly a surprise. I had read the reports about the Pacific Northwest’s hot, dry summer — the freakishly long stretch of 90-degree days without any rain. On Twitter, I had watched the posts from Seattle go from delighted to dire as the heat wave stretched into weeks. I knew that Washington’s governor had declared a drought emergency in several countries, and I had heard about the wildfires on the Olympic Peninsula. Fires even in the rainforest — it was a bad omen, everyone agreed.  

Still, there’s nothing like seeing something for yourself. A few hours after landing, I took a short walk in the woods and was shocked by what I found there. The forest, I could tell, was suffering. The sword ferns were prostrate, as if they’d been ironed flat by the heat. Many of the bracken and the lady ferns were dead or dying. The hemlock, fir, and cedar that form the region’s iconic plant palette showed no obvious signs of stress, but the big leaf maple clearly were in bad shape. Their leaves had turned yellow or brown, and many had already dropped to the forest floor. It looked as if autumn had arrived ahead of schedule.

Washington’s unofficial nickname is “The Evergreen State.” Looking around the weirdly arid northwest woods, I had to wonder if “forever” has a half-life, too.

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In Mexico’s Guerrero State, a Battle Is Underway between Indigenous Communities and Drug Cartels

An inside look at the conflict between Native Peoples and narcotraffickers in Mexico's most dangerous state

Mexico’s southwestern Guerrero state is home to the nation’s highest murder rate, and it’s where 43 student teachers went missing last fall. As is the case in many parts of Mexico, the violence is tied directly to the drug trade. In Guerrero, the dry, cool climate of the Sierra Madre del Sur – the mountain range the runs through the heart of the state – provides ideal conditions for poppy cultivation. At least 60 percent of all opium and heroin produced in the country comes from the remote region. The fallout from so much black-market activity is predictably deadly: More than a half-dozen cartels are currently engaged in vicious turf wars for control of valuable trade routes and production centers in Guerrero.

This article is part of our series examining the Indigenous movement of resistance and restoration.

Guerrero’s largest Indigenous group, the Nahuas, maintains a strained, love-hate relationship with the drug trade. Traditionally, the Nahuas have grown staples such as corn and avocados, but low market prices and poor transportation routes make illicit crops increasingly attractive. For many indigenous farmers, planting poppies and harvesting the sticky goma (gum) is the only means to escape desperate poverty. Meanwhile, other Native communities have banded together to fight narcotics production and trafficking at the source. They’ve armed themselves as best they can and have taken the law into their own hands in an attempt to establish a degree of security and human rights that the Mexican government either can’t – or won’t – provide for them.

I was recently invited to visit one such Indigenous-based security group: the United Front for Security for Security and Development of Guerrero (FUSDEG). The following photos provide a vivid look into the lives of Indigenous communities on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war.

photo of a man working poppiesAll photos by Jeremy Kryt. Click or tap this photo or any other to view larger.
A farmer extracts opium gum from his poppy plants, high in the Sierra Madre del Sur in Guerrero state. The goma, which is produced by the bulb at the center of the flower, can be harvested every three to four months. A single kilo of …more

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Conversation: Michael Preston, Winnemem Wintu

I first met Michael Preston, a war dancer, Indigenous rights activist, and son of Winnemem Wintu chief Caleen Sisk, in 2008. Back then he was a student at UC Berkeley, and was in the process of evolving into a fierce advocate for his people. The Winnemem Wintu, one of the several Wintu-speaking tribesphoto of a young man, lived for thousands of years in Northern California’s McCloud River watershed. Archeologists estimate the tribe once numbered close to 14,000. Today their population has been whittled down to about 125. The Winnemem lost most of their land during the Gold Rush and through construction of the Shasta Dam in 1945. The only land the tribe now owns is a 42-acre village near Redding, where about 33 tribal members live.

The Winnemem are currently embroiled in a protracted battle against the federal government’s proposal to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet – a retrofit that they say would submerge or damage many of their remaining sacred sites. Their efforts are hamstrung by the fact that the federal government doesn’t recognize the Winnemem as a tribe. This limits their legal standing to oppose the project and also deprives them of many other cultural and economic rights and privileges granted to tribes recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

I recently spoke again with Preston, now 31, about the Winnemem Wintu’s quest for federal recognition and the various challenges facing his tribe and their ancestral lands.

When did you make a decision to become a public advocate for your people?

I was born into it. I was born into some of these things that are going on – with Mount Shasta and them trying to develop ski resorts and my people fighting against that. I went to a lot of meetings growing up, and kind of naturally fell into it; I always thought I was going to help later on in life. I didn’t start getting into it really, though, until I moved to the Bay Area and started attending rallies and different protests and learning “the ways of the activists.” I had always fought for my people, but now I’m starting to become a leader. It’s time to make things happen.

When did you start connecting with …more

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The Human Rights Era of Federal Indian Law:  The Next Forty Years

The human rights of Indigenous peoples must be restored

Today we stand on the brink of a new era of US federal Indian law, the human rights era. For more than four decades, Indigenous advocates have been operating under a policy of Indian self-determination. When first announced in 1970, this policy represented a decisive break from destructive practices of the past, and ended years of government termination, assimilation, and paternalism of Indian tribes. However, the self-determination framework is now outdated. Although it is protective of Indigenous rights, it is also tainted by nefarious doctrines derived from the law of colonialism that have anti-Indigenous functions. Native America cannot reach the Promised Land under this approach.

Yellow Bird Apache Dancers Perform in Human Rights Council Chamber at UN Meeting on Rights of Indigenous PeoplesUS Mission Photo by Eric BridiersYellow Bird Apache Dancers perform in Human Rights Council Chamber at UN Meeting on Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2011. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples defines the obligations of nations toward their Indigenous peoples and provides guidelines for interpreting and implementing the standards.

Among federal Indian law’s many shortcomings, the most debilitating is the fact that it is currently bereft of the human rights principle. In this shortcoming, Indian law is unique. The human rights principle can be found throughout American history, and deeply informed the Bill of Rights, the abolitionist movement, the slavery debates, the Civil War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century.

Human rights precepts have also been used extensively by the courts throughout judicial history. Unfortunately, while federal courts are conversant with human rights, federal Indian law is not. Indian law is a strangely amoral body of law that stands in stark contrast to the profound commitment to remedial justice found elsewhere in American legal culture. When wrongs to Indians and their rights are concerned, the federal courts don the robes of the “courts of the conqueror,” to borrow Chief Justice John Marshall’s language in 1823 in Johnson v. M’Intosh, and they cannot resort to “principles of abstract justice” nor engage in debates about morality when defining Indian rights. This remained the Supreme Court’s stance for the rest of the 19th century, during which time the Court insisted that justice had no place in formulating the foundational doctrines of federal Indian law.

This …more

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There’s No Hierarchy in the Family of Living Things

An excerpt from Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins by Susan Casey

“Ah, these dolphins are sick. They’re really sick.” Makili examined the Kokonut Café photos I’d shot, scrolling through them on my camera. He looked up. “They saw you taking these?”

“Maybe they did,” I said. “But they were face-down by five o’clock. We got away clean.”

tourists at a dolphinariumPhoto by Armin Rodler Tourists get to hang out with dolphins at The Palm Jumeriah in Dubai. The Solomon Islands were notorious among conservationists as a source of live dolphins for sea aquariums in China and Dubai.

“Yeah,” Turner agreed. “That kava must be pretty strong.”

We sat on Turner’s boat in the early evening, drinking yet more Solbrews. It was my last night here, so Turner had invited Makili and me over for dinner. We lounged on the bow, accompanied by Turner’s Portuguese water dog, Sal.

I wasn’t the only one leaving. Turner planned to weigh anchor in a few days and Makili had a flight in the morning to Ghizo, an island in the Solomons’ western province. His fiancée awaited him there, and he had unfinished dolphin business in the area as well. He had referred to this before—and I knew there was something personal in the account— but now I asked him for the entire story. “Ah, nobody cares about it,” Makili said, shaking his head.

“Yes we do,” Turner said. “Do you need another beer?”

Makili chuckled. “One thing I want to tell you. Don’t ask a Solomon Islander if they want a beer. Just give one. They’ll drink.”

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Leaning back against a red buoy, Makili began his tale. Not long before I came to Honiara, he had learned that a village on Kolombangara Island, Ghizo’s next-door neighbor, had captured a pod of bottlenoses. “They have a cove,” he explained. “It’s much bigger than Gavutu. The dolphins swim in naturally, that’s what they do. Now the villagers have realized that dolphins are worth a lot of money. This dolphin trade business—they’ve heard about it. So when this pod came in they closed off the entrance. And they held them there for almost a month, captive. When I heard about that, I straight away went down there.”

Makili arrived at Kolombangara and found 14 dolphins, only half alive. Others had …more

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For Bison and Tribes Alike, a Homecoming

Native American nations are key to sustaining bison populations on the Great Plains

For almost 20 years, a heated battle has been taking place in the Northern Rocky Mountains as ranchers there fight against any attempts to allow bison to roam freely across the region’s plains and valleys. As federal and state wildlife agencies struggle to balance the cattle industry’s interests and the needs of the bison, the buffalo have found an important ally: Native American tribes, who view the bison’s success as key to their own cultural survival.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Gouldy/Flickr Millions of bison once thundered across the Great Plains. Then market hunting, sport hunting, and targeting by the US Army nearly caused the extinction of wild bison.

Since 1985, Yellowstone National Park and Montana’s Department of Livestock have killed an estimated 7,000 bison that have ranged beyond the borders of the park. But the routine lethal management of bison herds didn’t attract widespread attention until the winter of 1996-97, when an especially harsh winter forced the world’s only purebred band of free-ranging bison to lower elevations to forage. For those who made it to the boundary, it was a collision with butchery.

That year’s kill-count exceeded one thousand Yellowstone bison, a number so high it drew news media attention, a boycott of Yellowstone tourism, and the establishment of an on-site advocacy group, the Buffalo Field Campaign, dedicated to protecting the bison. The 1996-97 hunt also led to a vigorous annual slaughter fueled by Montana ranchers’ fear that brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cows to abort their fetuses, could spread to area cattle. According to the Buffalo Field Campaign, in the 2014-15 season, wildlife officials killed 739 bison. (About half of Yellowstone’s bison test positive for brucellosis, and 10 percent are infectious. Yet there are no documented cases of bison transferring disease to cattle in the state. Yellowstone’s elk also carry the disease, but do not receive the same treatment since they are prized by hunters.)

Bison are an iconic part of the American landscape and the national imagination. Millions once thundered across the Great Plains. Then market hunting, sport hunting, and targeting by the US Army nearly caused the extinction of wild bison. But 23 survivors found refuge deep within Yellowstone. Their wild descendants now number 4,900.

For Native Americans, the animals are not merely …more

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Social Justice and Climate Justice Movements Merge in New Orleans

Ten years later, many African Americans still feel left out of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts

Marguerite Doyle Johnston, a resident of New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward, did not take part in the multitude of events surrounding Hurricane Katrina’s 10th anniversary that celebrated the city’s resilience. “My neighborhood was left out of the recovery, so I don’t feel like celebrating,” she told DeSmog.

Johnston would have preferred that the money spent on celebrating New Orleans’ recovery be spent on restoring Club Desire, a landmark building in the Upper 9th Ward neighborhood that she has been trying to save and convert into a community center.

In its heyday, many of the city’s most famous artists performed in Club Desire, including Fats Domino and Little Freddie King. Despite Johnston’s efforts to rescue the building, it is slated for demolition later this fall. 

VIDEO: Marguerite Doyle Johnston inside Club Desire reflecting on Katrina 10:

According to Johnston, money spent on Katrina 10, the month-long celebration sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and other corporate sponsors, is just another example of how the allocation of funds in post-Katrina New Orleans never made it to African American folks like her.

Corporate sponsorship was ever present. Katrina 10 hosted panel discussions, lectures, musical performances, second line parades, and visits from three presidents (Obama, Clinton, Bush).

photo of a t-shirt©2015 Julie DermanskyT-shirt with a list of corporate sponsors at a Katrina 10 year Anniversary event.

In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), was inspired by what happened in New Orleans. The book “begins in a very specific time and place. The time was exactly ten years ago. The place was New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The road in question was flooded and littered with bodies,” she wrote on her website.

For the anniversary of Katrina, Klein released the chapter of The Shock Doctrine on New Orleans, post-Katrina, writing: 

“Rereading the chapter 10 years after the events transpired, I am struck most by this fact: the same military equipment and contractors used against New Orleans’ Black residents have since been used to militarize police across the United States, contributing to the epidemic of murders of unarmed Black men and women. That is one way in which the Disaster Capitalism Complex perpetuates itself and protects its lucrative market.” 

“We can sit and worry about climate change. …more

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