A story of genocide, colonization, greed and deforestation

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Logging of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (Photo by Wikipedia.)

By Winona LaDuke

In late August, the New York Times covered a story about two Indigenous Piripkura Men who had saved some land in the Amazon. That’s to say, that despite all the deforestation, cattlemen, murders and genocide, two Indigenous men managed to hold on to 1000 square miles.

The headline reads, “l000 Square Miles, Preserved for a Tribe of 2”. That story is on the front page of the New York Times. The article states how it was almost impossible to find these men, they had hidden themselves so far away in the forest, and now they had some land.

The question posed by the New York Times seemed to be, how did these two Native people get all this land?

Maybe we should ask where all the Natives went, and why there were only two. This is a deeper story. It’s a story of genocide, colonization, greed, and deforestation. I remember a time when Indigenous people of the Amazon were hunted like deer, hung by their hamstrings. That was the l970s. Not that long ago.

There are l.7 million Native people who survived a five-hundred-year invasion, most of them living in the Amazon. They’ve even survived the aggressive policies of ex-Brazilian President Bolsonaro.

The New York Times article talks about how the last woman from that tribe left, dashing hopes of the Piripkura ever flourishing again. Well, what if these people grow a new nation, from their land and those who remain? Let the people live, I say.

In late September, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Indigenous land rights in a case where agribusiness tried to take Native land to expand cattle ranching, coffee, and more. A national law in Brazil had been moved in the Congress which would have stripped Native people of land if their cultural traits had changed. In this day and age, that’s a tough bar, and who is the cultural trait judge?

The law would have also deprived Native people of their land if they were not on their traditional lands in 1988, the year Brazil’s constitution was enacted.

Native people are in the way of roads, mining, dams, and GMO crops, that’s the way it is everywhere. The law would have opened the floodgates of contacting “isolated groups” – Native people who have hidden deep in the Amazon and are trying to avoid the death that Brazil and the loggers have doled out for a hundred years. That sounds so… American.
In the majority opinion, Supreme Court Judge Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha said, “We are caring for the ethnic dignity of a people who have been decimated and oppressed during five centuries of history.” Brazilian society had “an unpayable debt” to the country’s native peoples, Rocha said.

We live in one world, the birds who come to the lakes of the northland, Akiing, are the same as those in the rainforest. The Amazon Rainforest is considered the lungs of Mother Earth, and the people who live there need to stay there, not be replaced by some cows for MacDonalds, and some briquettes for your Green Egg barbeque. People have a right to live. That’s the basic story.

These stories are not so far away, as the markets which drive the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon are coddled and fed by North American consumers. The Brazilian model is the Paul Bunyan model of how you make a future – lots of clear cutting, dams and mining. We can do better, it’s time.

This August, Ecuadorians voted to protect the heart of Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest in a referendum. It is the first time a national referendum will halt new and existing fossil fuel operations. Things can get done when greed and corporations are taken out.

That’s not the first action in Ecuador. With the recognition of the Rights of Mother Earth as a part of Ecuador’s constitution in 2008, the courts have reviewed over 55 cases on the Rights of Nature, and in December 2021, overturned mining permits in a separate area of Ecuador, the Cloud Forest, to protect the biodiversity and to protect nature. That’s the model for the future, for all of us, protecting the Sacred.

The story of Brazil is the story of northern Minnesota, and indeed the intergenerational struggle of Native peoples to keep land, water, ecosystems and a way of life.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota
This October 12, (“Columbus Day”), the Giiwedinong Museum opened in downtown Park Rapids, the heart of the 1855 Treaty Territory. We opened in the former Carnegie Library, which was later turned into the Enbridge Office, the offices of greed and empire.
About 300 people came from across the region, all looking to understand better the culture, history, legal, and political issues surrounding treaties with the Anishinaabe, in this case, treaties between the Anishinaabe and other Indigenous Nations and the treaties made with the United States. And they came for the frybread, the food, the puppets, and the dancing.

It turns out that the treaties made between Indigenous nations are more just and sustainable than the treaties made with the US goverment. That should not be a surprise, but it should make any governance student think.

The museum, created mostly with volunteers, shows a deep commitment by Anishinaabe people, and to the stories of courageous people who protect Mother Earth, including the Water Protectors.

“It’s a new concept, an important concept,” says museum board member Travis Zimmerman, a descendent of the Grand Portage Ojiwbe. Zimmerman is also the site manager for the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post, which is run by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Giiwedinong is different, he said. “A museum run by an American Indian organization, having American Indian curators, and really having that Native voice come out, is something that you don’t really see much of, anywhere really, much less in Minnesota,” Zimmerman told a reporter.

Sarah LittleRedFeather Kalmanson, a White Earth descendant, co-curated the museum. “We had tens of thousands of people at Standing Rock. I was there. And I want to honor that. There were a lot of atrocities that happened,” she said.

Curating the museum has been healing, she says. “It was pretty brutal, what we all went through, and I just feel really energized and I’m so happy to share and carry this on,” Kalmanson says. “I’m really excited to have folks come in and see how beautiful we are.”
The stories of Brazil today follow the narrative of history in northern Minnesota. This is a history of settler colonialism, mining corporations, loggers, Paul Bunyan and of how things change for good and for bad. Maybe if we learn from our past, we can make a better future.

Every day is Indigenous People’s Day for some of us, and really it should be for all of us, after all, we are all on Indigenous land.

The Brazilian Court decision created a worldwide celebration. We rejoiced that in some legal and political space, even the smallest, most beat up Native people could have some part of their lives and land protected. We will continue to celebrate and work for justice.
Come visit us at the museum- Thursday to Sunday or email us for special times.

For information on the new museusm, see: https://giiwedinong.org.