Last year we had the opportunity to speak with Matt Remle, a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe and Seattle resident. Matt supports the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock from Seattle. Alongside a core group of Native community members, their coalition is leading the way in Seattle with the #defundDAPL campaign, a tactic aimed to defund the pipeline project. Their hard work has led to the passing of a resolution through the Seattle City Council to divest $3 billion dollars from Wells Fargo, setting a precedent for cities all over the country in support of indigenous sovereignty. Read Matt’s perspective on climate and environmental justice as we return to what he describes as “our original responsibilities”.
Question: Can you introduce yourself?
We always introduce ourselves in our traditional language first because we’re telling you who we are, where we’re from and who our families are. There’s a lot of reasons why we do that. My English name is Matt Remle and my Lakota name is Wakíƞyaƞ Waánataƞ. That is a family name that was passed on to me along with the responsibility of retaining and sharing information about who we are and where we come from, current issues, etc. My parents are Chuck Remle and Donna Harrison.
Q: Can you share a little bit about the work you have done in Environmental or Climate Justice?
When I moved to Seattle, I was working for a small people-of-color led group called Community Coalition for Environmental Justice which was dedicated to addressing environmental issues specifically in South Seattle. The non-profit fell apart in the early 2000s, but we addressed a lot of issues. Here in Seattle, hazardous, toxic waste facilities are concentrated in a ring around South Seattle — Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, into South Park and the Georgetown area. We documented the health impacts in these predominantly low-income and communities of color and found higher rates of cancer, asthma, low life expectancy — all those things correspond to having exposure to hazardous and toxic waste.
We worked with Rep. Velma Veloria to pass an environmental justice bill in the early 2000s that made it mandatory for hazardous waste facilities to alert the surrounding communities if there’s an accident or explosion and share what toxins and chemicals are being released, which they didn’t have to do in the past.
A lot of corporations have tried, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to get established on reservations because they are then exempt from regulations. Say a nuclear waste facility sets up on the reservation, they can spew as many toxins as they want without the threat of being punished or fined. If they were to move off reservations, they would be subject to those rules.
Another example is the Shell and Tesoro refineries in Anacortes. When the Swinomish signed the treaty, the land those two refineries are on was a part of their reservation. Then President Grant took that land to establish a settlement area and later, the refineries. That land is defined as the Swinomish people’s and is unceded.¹
Hanford, which was built during the World War 2 to produce the bombs, is on Yakama Nation land. The Federal government came along and said we’re just moving them off the land and building the Hanford nuclear power plant here, so that’s also unceded land. So a lot of these major factories are either directly on tribal land or taken from them.
The Apache in Arizona has been fighting the federal government in one of its Defence Reauthorization bills, which was going to give their mountains to an Australian copper mining company. It’s unceded tribal land and where they do their ceremonies, and the defense reauthorization bill gives it to a foreign corporation.
So, we say the colonization against tribes hasn’t ended because it continues to this date. These land grabs that’s happening to the Apaches has been happening for the last several hundred years.
Q: Now we’re past the tipping point. In what way do you think we need to respond with that same urgency?
Honestly, it starts with the individual. Not in the sense of personal choice that people need to change their personal behavior, shopping and consumption which is true to some extent, but I mean more broadly. We’re in the midst of a spiritual war. The indigenous populations understand their traditional roles and responsibilities since the time of creation. That’s why we fight because we understand that we have responsibilities not just to ourselves and our families, but to creation.
I teach a lot about returning to roles and responsibility. Everything around us is fulfilling its responsibility and everything is interconnected to make life happen. ‘Original instruction’ means that since the start of creation we have certain responsibilities. People are pretty naive to think that we don’t have some role to play within the continuation of life. Different indigenous communities throughout the world understand their specific role. As Lakota, we have very specific ceremonies we conduct at a certain time, at certain locations and that is our fulfillment of responsibility in the same way that the bee goes and pollinates. So that what I mean that it starts with the individual.
We have to understand the role of indigenous people through the lens of teachings and prophecies. A lot of our tribes have talked about these times we’re in for long — stories which have been passed down for centuries. We know that we’re living in a time where we must choose either the path of material greed that destroys us or the spiritual path that returns us to original roles and responsibilities. It’s our choice.
In that sense, no matter what issues we choose to fight, we either change ourselves and return to those responsibilities or not. It’s that simple. I’ve met very few tribes that don’t have similar stories that talk about these times of imbalance, greed, and people being removed from their connection with Mother Earth. We’re at the time now where something has to change — we’ve almost killed ourselves more than anything. Earth is always going to survive. If you remove us from this place, it’s going to flourish without us. If we understand what our role is then we can flourish too.
When we’re fighting mining projects, it’s because they are directly assaulting the spaces we conduct our ceremonies in. For us, Lakota, the center of our universe is the Black Hills in Wyoming and South Dakota. There are sacred sites located throughout the Black Hills that we conduct ceremonies that are in conjunction with certain star constellations. When a certain constellation appears, we go to a particular area to perform a certain ceremony because the energy is different. All native peoples that I know around the world share similar beliefs and understanding.
The story of how the Lakota signed our treaties goes as such. When the settlers were trying to get to the gold in Montana, they were cutting straight through the heart of our Black Hills and disrupting our traditional economy, the buffalo. So, we declared war against the United States and we defeated them in two wars, in 1868 and 1877. Our treaty was a peace treaty they entered with us to stop waging war on them. In our Fort Laramie Treaty, it says that no non-Native² can even settle within our territory. Of course, they broke that when they found gold in the Black Hills. Our fighting them was not for the gold, but with an understanding that they are disrupting these conducting of ceremonies that take place throughout the Black Hills. There are certain spots of the world that are more significant that we are placed here to protect.
When we say the center of the universe, we think of it like the heart. If you look at the satellite imagery of the Black Hills, you’ll see it’s in the shape of a heart. Years ago, NASA did a satellite-image time lapse over the black hills that showed what we say — it pulsates. In wintertime, it hibernates, and in the springtime when the thunder beings return and lightning strikes that ground, it starts beating again and things come back to life. We understand that we are tied to those cycles. When the first lightning strikes, we start conducting certain ceremonies. We don’t call ourselves activists for any particular cause, we fight to remain living as Lakota, or as Apache, whatever the tribe.
Q: This transformation has to be personal, but what about the political system? Do we engage in policy? What are the tools in our hands?
I think you can go do any issues as long as you have your grounding. If you know who you are, where you come from, what your responsibilities are, it doesn’t matter what you work on because it’s all tied back to your grounding. In my opinion, there are all kinds of issues to work on and I don’t think any one is more important.
You can change laws and change the political system but ultimately we understand that we are still living under occupation. So, no matter how we reform the federal government, it’s coming at us with an economic and political system that is not indigenous to these lands. Even though they stole the idea of democracy from the Iroquois, they don’t even practice democracy correctly. Look at how the Iroquois, the oldest democracy in the world, practice it. Maybe if they relearned it from them, there can be reform.
The Great Law of Peace, from which the idea of democracy was taken, is a pretty massive document and it gets very specific. The so-called founding fathers studied the Iroquois and tried to implement it, but they left a lot out. An example, with the Iroquois, the women select the speakers to represent the interest of their tribe and if any time the women feel they aren’t being represented, they remove the representative. Ultimately, women are the ones who have the say on how things were run. That clearly doesn’t happen in the US democracy.
Q: Can you share more about indigenous people’s connection with Mother Earth, and also how it relates to women?
In our original story, everything starts with Inyan, which is everything and anything that was before creation. It was not male or female, it was formless and massive. Inyan started creation by draining its blood and then we start to seeing the formation of the earth.
Inyan created a disc around itself. Half of that disk is makah and the other is mni – makah is land and mni is water. That’s why we say water is the first medicine. Those were the first two things Inyan created with its blood. Then it created the moon, the plants, animals. The last of all was woman and man, and Inyan created woman first. Our word for woman is Winyan. All of creation came together and it was said, here are your roles and responsibilities — what I meant by original instructions. We will give you life, but you have your responsibility in return. Man was the last of all creation and was given certain instructions.
Knowing your language is vital — when we say mother earth, it is literally that. We call earth Ina Maka. Maka is earth, it’s literally our mother. When Maka was created, Inyan gave it instructions, you’re to give and nourish life, and that’s what she does for us. Regardless of what we do, she’s going to continue to nourish life. And Winyan (woman) was given those exact same instructions. So women really are so connected to earth.
As peoples, we have certain responsibilities that we have to fulfill. And it gets more specific for tribes and clans. Hunkpapa means those who camp at the edge. I have a very specific role — to be on the frontlines. To be a Lakota means to be a friend or ally — not just of other people, but all creation.
We also understand that we’re supposed to have a cyclical relationship — shared responsibility; giving and taking. When you have that there’s balance. We can’t go slaughter entire buffalo herd out of greed, that would be just a “take” relationship, we have to give something back at the same time. You’re supposed to take as much as you actually need, and then give back at the same time.
With the human relationships, if the man is abusive to the woman it is unhealthy and unnatural. We cannot stop other violence until we stop the violence to Mother Earth. Our mindset is that we can go dig up and take out of the earth, and there are no consequences, that She is just for our consumption. That is the exact same thought process in men who abuse women. Sadly that’s how a lot of men treat women because they don’t have that original connection. If you understand that connection, you could never abuse your mother or women. Violence against women and violence against earth is all connected.
Q: What gives you hope and keeps you grounded?
My friend Chase Iron Eyes said it best. We were talking about how peoples from around the world have come to North America despite all the genocide and colonization and thinking about why that continues to happen. Maybe the reason that people from around the world are being sent here is so they can relearn, and get reconnected. There are pockets of native people in the belly of the beast who reject that way of American life and consumerism.
Going back to the treaty, we went to war with the US and defeated them. They broke that treaty in the late 1880s when they discovered gold. And knowing they couldn’t defeat our men on the battlefield they tried a different tactic — they went after our economy, our buffalo. There used to the more than a hundred million buffalo. So they thought we can’t defeat them on the battlefield, so we’re going to starve them. And they almost completely killed the population of a hundred million buffalo in their campaign to starve to us to death. That wasn’t all when the men would go out to hunt, the US army would go and slaughter women and children.
While that was happening, people in DC declared themselves owners of the Black Hills to dig for gold. The US was in depression and the way to get out of the depression was to dig the gold. So they violated the treaty. Immediately, we filed a case which at one point was the longest running court case in the US. Sioux nation vs the United States. In 1980, the Supreme court agreed with us — they were acknowledged that the US had illegally taken the land, but they were only going to give us a monetary compensation, not the rights to the land back.
How our treaty goes is that ¾ of the population has to agree to any changes to the treaty. If we accept that money, we’re agreeing to change the aspect of the treaty that says we have the rights to the Black Hills. We said, no way we don’t want your money, we want our land back because it’s sacred to us. It’s important to also know the absolute poorest places in the US are the Lakota reservations in North and South Dakota. It’s dire poverty, a lot of areas don’t have running water or electricity.
So, this money was put into a trust account in 1980 and has been earning interest. Last year, it topped over a billion dollars. At any time, if the ¾ the population says we want to take that money we could take it – it’s a lot of money for the poorest people in this country, but we continue to say no, we want to continue to live as Lakota. If you offer that money to almost any other population, they would take it. But that’s not what’s important to us. If we lose our connection to the Black Hills we lose our responsibility as Lakota.
My hope lies in other people and communities that are sensing that something is up, that we can’t continue down this path. There must be some alternative. What I’ve seen lately is non-native populations are turning to native people looking for that different way of living. Not in an academic way, but for guidance and reconnection, for that alternative way to live. That’s happening around the world. It’s amazing when I meet people from Europe and Asia that know a lot about us and our history, more so than people living here do. And they’re looking for something different. So, maybe there’s hope.
¹- March Point is the ancestral territory of the Swinomish peoples. March Point was taken from the Swinomish in 1873 by President Ulysses Grant, in an Executive Order, that diminished the size of the Indian reservation. This action opened up the land to be occupied by settler colonists and later occupied by oil corporations.” – Shelly Vendiola, Swinomish
² – Meaning no US citizen – at that time, Natives were not US citizens, only Whites and Blacks were US citizens.