This past Wednesday, Oct. 12, 5C community members gathered at Rose Hills Theatre in solidarity with indigenous groups and their social struggle as a part of a weeklong event called the Indigenous Week of Resistance.
Indigenous students walked down to their seats, dressed in traditional clothing.
James Fenelon—professor and director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino—spoke chiefly about the conflict at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as how environmental damage, the effects of capitalism, and mainstream ignorance can magnify and intensify the damage enacted against indigenous groups today.
“Our very existence is resistance,” Fenelon said. “In order to rebuke these realities and change its course, we must form alliances with allies in the mainstream society, extending all over the world.”
Before addressing his own experiences and observations to explain the history behind Standing Rock, Fenelon commenced his presentation by blowing an eagle whistle. The sharp, piercing tone was followed by him singing a simple, repetitive melody.
Fenelon started off by locating Standing Rock, a reservation in North and South Dakota populated by the Sioux nation and Lakota people. Fenelon recounted the Black Hills War, when the U.S. government wanted to buy native Lakota land but faced opposition.
What followed was a series of battles between the Lakota and the U.S. military where American Indian land was effectively stolen and destroyed. The Lakota people were soon forced to surrender their land. In continued conflicts afterward, the U.S. government continued to steal land on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Fenelon’s history of Standing Rock provided a glimpse into the historical struggle that indigenous people have overcome in the face of American expansionism.
Then, Fenelon moved on to address last year’s peaceful protests by young activists against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of a pipeline, which threatened the Missouri River—the Lakota’s primary water source. This movement drew indigenous people and activists from all around North America in support of the Lakota people.
This year, when the Dakota Access Pipeline conflict began, despite their peaceful efforts to preserve their land, the Lakota people were met with violent adversity. Fenelon said that when unarmed protesters moved near the pipeline bulldozers, the guards would attack them with pepper spray and aggressive guard dogs. A number of protestors were unreasonably arrested, and false information regarding the nature of the protests was leaked to the media.
However, Wednesday morning at 7:30 PST, “news broke out that five activists had successfully shut down the five pipelines in the United States,” Fenelon said. He ended by quoting the notion that those leading the effort to preserve the natural environment are those who descend from ‘primitive societies’ or non-Western ones, including indigenous people.
Fenelon concluded his presentation by blowing the eagle whistle once more, reminding the audience of the indigenous movement’s dedication to preserving the environment without violent conflict. His segment ended here.
The second speaker was Alfredo Lopez, vice president of Orgización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH), a group combating similar issues of exploitation facing the Garifuna people local to the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
“We’re facing similar threats and we don’t know what the end will be,” he said. “But no matter the result, we’ll be happy with the work we’ve been able to do.”
Lopez spoke to the position of the Garifuna people, explaining: “Our people are a mixture of those who were designed for slave trade on slave ships but rebelled and the indigenous people of the Caribbean,” Lopez said. “We’ve been able to maintain our language, culture, and spirituality because of all these years that we have been in constant resistance.”
Despite this resilient history, now the Garifuna are faced with another conflict: the Honduran government plans to develop large tourism projects where the Garifuna people reside, displacing them from their homes.
Lopez saw the drug trade as another major facet for the Garifuna land struggle, “We are also losing our land because of it,” he said. He noted the ways illegal drug traffickers transport goods through the region and then purchase indigenous land with the money earned from their deals.
“Once they start this, they’re no longer drug traders but they become business men … through corruption,” Lopez said.
Lopez also highlighted the inaction of local politicians who cover up these acts of corruption.
“I want to push for this drug war to be reviewed because there is no way of resolving it,” Lopez explained. “The same people criticizing it are completely entrenched and involved in it.”
The effects of the drug war are not limited to the loss of indigenous territory, but also displace the folks that live there. Lopez pointed out that these families are forced to leave their homes to seek refuge elsewhere.“Some don’t even make it alive because they lose their limbs on the trek to make it here or they get hit by a train,” he said.
“This is the reality that we see. There are no hospitals, no quality education, no jobs, and no hope,” Lopez continued. “The worst of it all is that death squads are formed, which are used to kill those of us protesting on the streets.”
At one point, Lopez shared a picture of two women walking peacefully through a field. A few minutes later, he informed the audience that one of these women was killed because she’d been protesting.
In the face of adversity, Lopez and his team are dedicated to maintaining unity in the midst of this constant struggle. Lopez encouraged audience members to take action, spreading awareness about these injustices and educating themselves on indigenous resistance.
“Some of the projects we do are around legal defense,” he concluded. “We also have programs for food sovereignty and a community radio project … we now have six whereas we started off with just one.”