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Interview with Tom Goldtooth
of the Indigenous Environmental Network

"We Cannot Continue To Live Like This"

San Rafael, California

Tom Goldtooth during the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Tom Goldtooth during the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke. (Click here to see a larger version.)

Tom Goldtooth lives in Bemidji, Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. “I’m enrolled in the Navajo nation. The Navajo is also known as the Diné. My other side of relations is the Dakota Bdewakantonwan Oyate, in Minnesota. I’m the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an Indigenous-based organization that’s working on building sustainable communities, and addressing environmental, economic, energy and climate justice issues with Indigenous peoples both in North America and throughout the world. We work with Indigenous communities from Alaska to Africa, and from the Pacific to Latin America. However, working with Indigenous communities in the States and Canada is our priority. I am also a great-grandfather and in recent years have been given leadership responsibilities in our ceremonies. This is a little background into who I am.”

The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on October 16, 2011 at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. The Bioneers Conference website says: “Viable solutions already exist for most of our environmental and social crises. The solutions in nature consistently surpass our concept of what is possible.” Tom Goldtooth and the Indigenous Environmental Network are longtime contributors to the Bioneers Conference, which has been meeting annually since 1990. Read more at:


In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about the origin of the Indigenous Environmental Network?

Tom Goldtooth: Back in the late 1980s into the 1990s, there was an escalation of private waste industry coming into Indian Country, otherwise known as Indigenous territories. The waste industry were getting a lot of criticism by the public out East and there was a new term that came out of neighborhoods that did not want toxic waste dumped in their back yard, and that was called NIMBY -- Not In My Back Yard.

We soon saw all these toxic waste corporations coming out to talk to our tribal leaders telling them that they would like to develop business ventures with our tribes. These corporations promised financial incentives if tribes opened their lands to the dumping of toxic waste. Back in the 1990s I called this economic blackmail due to some of these tribes being some of the poorest tribes with very limited options for sustainable economic development. Toxic waste disposal is big business and tribes were being falsely led to believe they could benefit from these waste proposals.

Due to the escalation of all these toxic waste dumping initiatives coming into Indian Country, there was a call to action by Indigenous grassroots and some tribal leaders in 1990 and again in 1991 to organize a national Indigenous grassroots voice to resist toxic waste dumping on Indigenous lands. In 1990, a gathering was held in Dilkon, Arizona on the Navajo Nation and again in 1991, at the sacred Bear Butte in South Dakota. The youth, families and elders that gathered at these outdoor conferences formed IEN. In 1992, at a gathering at Celilo Village along the Columbia River that cuts between the state of Washington and Oregon, IEN was further confirmed as a national voice.

(However,) to make matters worse, in the 1990s, United States government hired a nuclear waste negotiator to reach out to States, counties and Tribes to see if any of them would agree to storing high-level radioactive waste in their jurisdictions. Every State and county refused, except Tribes. Again, the potential economic benefits were very tempting to Tribes as the nuclear negotiator was promising millions of dollars to Tribes. The U.S. and nuclear industry had been looking for a place to store nuclear waste that would stay active for hundreds of thousands of years. The nuclear waste negotiator had a campaign outreaching to Tribes promoting the proposal to be “Our Brother’s Keeper”, by coming together uniting Whiteman’s technology of waste storage of radioactive waste and the deep spiritual philosophy of Indigenous Peoples -- of One With Mother Earth. As Indigenous and concerned people, we had a battle on our hands.

Because of these initiatives, including concerns of mineral extraction and toxic incinerators in Indian Country, there was a backlash from our tribal members, our grassroots people, to resist and fight these projects. Many of the grassroots in our Indigenous communities were traditional type of people, the ones still trying to maintain their cultural and ceremonial ways.

We call them traditionalists, versus the progressives. Progressives generally are the ones that are acculturated, assimilated and putting more value to the benefits of white society and colonization; with its economic system of unlimited growth and extraction and depletion of natural resources. This is called capitalism.

You must understand, however, that colonization of the Americas was a plan to commit genocide on the original Indigenous peoples of the U.S. After the Indian-U.S. wars that ended in the late half of the 1880’s, governmental policies were established to destroy Indigenous culture and identity and limit self-determination through paternalistic laws. As a result, the social and psychological fabric of our communities changed throughout the past 400 years, along with one of the symptoms of colonization -- that being internalized oppression. We were taught to hate ourselves, to deny anything Indigenous and embrace the Whiteman’s ways. White is right. This historical phenomenon played out in many ways, especially in modern times when U.S. federalism introduced large scale corporate-type agricultural projects in Indian Country that weren’t sustainable. As you know, these agricultural projects depend on the use of pesticides and fertilizers and burn the land. In these colonial transitions, we lost our traditional native seeds and the practice of our traditional farming methods.

What gets buried in these federal-led initiatives is our old ways of farming, our old practices.

Environmental and Economic Justice

So, there was the need to converge as Indigenous activists around environmental and economic justice, along with our Indigenous traditional farmers who were also trying to organize and get some support and leverage to lift up their old farming practices. We started to network with Indigenous peoples. We network with like-minded people that are wanting to embrace our old Indigenous lifeways and lift up those tried and proven cultural and spiritual teachings our ancestors left us. The right to practice our traditional cultures is important for our survival. Through my work with IEN, I have gained strength working with Indigenous communities and families that have resiliency embracing traditional cultural and spiritual ways as the foundation for building sustainable communities. Revitalization of language is part of this.

This is more of a natural process as compared to accommodating everything of an industrialized modern world, being accommodationist, as well as being acculturated and assimilated. However, this doesn’t mean there are some tools and technologies of the modern world that aren’t good.

(In summary), our network formed in the early 1990s, taking on industry wanting to use our Indian territories, our Indigenous territories, as a dumping ground, and we said, “No.” It was a wake-up call to our elected Indigenous leadership, too, to follow the direction of their Indigenous peoples. This led to taking on mining companies as well.

Mineral extraction, deforestation, protection of our biodiversity, energy development, climate change, toxic contamination. Our network started to take on a lot of these issues and bring in our Native communities, our Indigenous communities, to important meetings where we wanted to change policies on how chemicals are introduced into the environment by using different indicators that had not been considered, such as subsistence cultures for an example. We have high consumption rates in certain areas of the United States where those are not taken into consideration. We worked on a number of different levels, from policy development, legislation answers, direct actions, and organizing, giving information to our Native communities where that information had not been available before.

Food as part of our spirituality

In Motion Magazine: You mentioned capitalism, under which, by my understanding, food becomes a commodity rather than something that nourishes you. Can you talk of food creation and what the process is where perhaps it does not become a commodity?

Tom Goldtooth: Well, food to my people, both our Diné, and our Dakota people, food has spirit and is a gift of Mother Earth and the Creator. It is viewed as part of our spiritual worldview.. It is viewed as part of something deeper than being something that is part of a market for export. We have to look from the eyes of Indigenous people to try to understand the Indigenous viewpoint around food. It involves reciprocity. It involves understanding the natural laws of Mother Earth. And part of the natural laws of Mother Earth is understanding the Indigenous science, the perspective of our relationship to the sacredness of Mother Earth.

Food, whether it is a crop like a corn, melon or squash, they have seeds to them. We understand that a seed is very precious. Seed has spirit to it that is part of the principles of creation and carries a natural genetic memory that allows it to understand its relationship to Mother Earth. I fully support the revitalization of our Indigenous seeds, this has been happening the past couple decades. Protection of these seeds and the culture around these seeds is important. Woven into our oral traditions are stories that tell of a time when there had been ecological changes, and how sometimes these seeds were lost, or destroyed, or maybe planting of seeds didn’t take sprout because of drought conditions, lack of water, or other ecological factors. This is called traditional Indigenous knowledge. Now, in the realm of climate mitigation and adaptation and benefit sharing regimes of agricultural industries and conservation of biodiversity, there are initiatives to commercialize and buy our traditional knowledge. Many seeds are genetically manipulated with patent rights issues on seeds. Who owns these seeds? Seeds and agriculture have become privatized.

As Indigenous Peoples, food is understood through oral traditions, language and through ceremonies. The relationship that we have with meat, for an example (among) the Dakota people, the relationship we have with the buffalo. The cosmology of understanding our relationship with buffalo is not understood by the dominant society. The buffalo is our brother. The buffalo took us in as a younger brother when we were pitiful as human beings, when we didn’t have much to survive on. We have stories and songs about this relationship. In the deepest of my heart and mind, I believe that the buffalo took us in and said, “You are my younger brother.”

We have these stories which define our relationship with the food systems that we have, whether it’s deer, moose, elk, even the smaller animals, muskrats, porcupine and beaver, including the food crops that we grow. We have stories of which birds to eat and what not to eat. In some tribal cultures, some families are tied to foods through clan relationships, such as Pumpkin Clans. Each Indigenous Peoples has their relationship to food on a very profound spiritual level and cultural way.

A non-subject

In Motion Magazine: Debra Harry yesterday mentioned the John Mohawk idea of a non-subject, which is very similar to Gandhi refusing to cooperate with the British empire. You, yourself, were arrested recently in a nonviolent protest in D.C. against the Keystone XL Pipeline. In accordance with this view, perhaps it can be said that the Indigenous nations function as autonomous units. What do you think of this?

Tom Goldtooth: In the U.S. I often have said I live in the belly of the beast. We live in a colonial government system and corporate world that has historically exercised its power at the expense of our Indigenous Peoples. This imposition of colonialism, has allowed us to realize this process of how laws have been implemented that interpret the exercising of power, having access to land and legal structures that view land and almost everything as a property right. Indigenous have been used also -- as labor. We see that there are conflicts here that have been long-lasting and that we are looking at new paradigms, of the need to move beyond economic globalization and the models of the WTO, and challenging dominant society’s mentality of power and its regimes of ownership of nature.

I believe people in the U.S. and the world are starting to wake up. They are seeing our current economic system isn’t working. Humanity is starting to look at the need for new economic paradigms. The form of capitalism, as we know it, is coming to an end. Again, the dangers of capitalism are based upon the depletion of natural resources and its unfulfilling appetite for unlimited growth and constantly taking from Mother Earth without giving back. I think that we are starting to realize as humanity, as people of the world, along with Indigenous people, that we cannot continue to live like this.

Our relationship to food is not sustainable right now and that is why in our IEN program back home we are developing food sovereignty and food security initiatives. IEN has a program in Bemidji that has mapped out the food shed. We know who the local growers, traditional Indigenous practitioners of wild ricing, fishing, berry picking and sugar bushing are. We started out slow, however we are moving with decentralizing the food system, taking it out of corporate hands, taking it out of the corporate grocery stores, and giving people the power to develop our own food systems. There is also a social justice framework here by intentionally starting to break down racism, to work as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

We formed a food council where we have Native and non-Native figuring out how we are going to live and survive in the future with deep analysis and action plans on growing local foods, and developing our own storage and transportation systems that aren’t corporate led. We are doing this locally. We are looking at cultural and language preservation with our wild rice gatherers, the people who fish, and the people who hunt, so that we can preserve food and survive as whole communities. Working with youth is very important.

Leave It In The Ground

In Motion Magazine: One of the big connections between industrialized food and industrialized energy is that hydrocarbons are essential for both. In relation to that, you have a campaign for which the slogan is “Leave It In The Ground.” On the other hand, there’s the idea of multiple Indigenous technologies that relate to energy. Can you explain why you say, “Leave It In The Ground” and perhaps give some examples of the alternatives?

Tom Goldtooth: One of our woman from Alaska has been really concerned about the melting of the permafrost, the extreme melting of the sea ice, along with the expansion of oil drilling in the ecologically sensitive coastal oceans of Alaska. There have been people that have died up in Alaska who are very knowledgeable of the ecosystem, who grew up in the Arctic type of environment but, because of the effects of global warming and climate change, are experiencing the unpredictability of weather and the unpredictability of the ice. It has become a life and death situation. To them, climate change is real.

As we work with our Indigenous communities about understanding the causes of global warming and climate change, we find that it is human caused. It doesn’t fit those historical cycles that we know have existed all the time. It is something that is out of the ordinary. The signs are outside of the understanding as we know it of the natural systems of Mother Earth. And, we know that one of the main contributions to the high concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions is the mining and combustion of fossil fuels.

When we have had ceremony on this, climate change is real and all people of the world have to wake up and take action to stop the burning of fossil fuels. I use the analogy that the bath tub of hydrocarbons is overflowing in the atmosphere and Mother Earth cannot absorb any more carbon. The bucket is overflowing. A scientist told me about 15 years ago that it would take four planets full of trees to offset the amount of greenhouse gases that we are putting into the environment. We are currently dealing with greenhouse gases that have already been put into the environment, into the atmosphere, for the past 100 years. That’s not the current emissions that we are pumping into the atmosphere, into the trees, into the oceans.

That’s why we are embracing a policy of demanding a moratorium against any new fossil fuel development on and near Indigenous territories. Keep the remains of the dinosaurs in the ground.

Ethics and accountability

Our dream is that this world would just put a moratorium on any new fossil fuel development. We need to cap the emissions immediately. However, the policy makers have constantly been caving in to the power of the petrochemical, energy, agricultural, and the utility lobbyists. A lot of our modern industrialized world depends on petroleum. Clothing, plastics, you name it. However, we need to shift away from this dirty energy, as soon as possible, to clean alternative energy, without nuclear power. And we need to stop our high addiction to the consumption of energy.

We need to find a way soon. Modern man prides itself on using their brain and developing technologies to go to the planets. Why can’t they use that brain to develop safe technologies. We need to develop green technologies, real green technologies. We need to develop ethical and safe protocols around green engineering and green chemistry. I believe that if we are going to embrace a new green economy, it has to be within a new economic paradigm and not become green capitalism. It needs to have strong ethics, good governance and accountability mechanisms built-in that remain accountable to society, to humanity. It can’t be corporate controlled, otherwise it will end up being part of the problem.

As the world has peaked its conventional oil resources and now tapping unconventional sources of fossil fuels such as the tar sands, shale oil and fracturing, the industrialized world is also looking into the future. I fear the world is moving to eventually replace the extraction of petroleum with the exploitation of biomass. Biological feedstocks such as food and fiber crops, plant/tree oils, algae, grasses, and forested debris will be transformed into high-value products. A bio-based economy will be controlled by powerful governments and corporations. The commodification of nature, food systems, forests, agricultural lands and even the soils will become privatized and in the process destroy ecosystems and displace local communities.

We need to give Mother Earth a rest. In many areas of the U.S. we’ve burnt out the soils from unsustainable agricultural practices using toxic chemicals. Large corporate agriculture is always trying to put chemicals and fertilizers into the ground to maintain a yield and it is not sustainable. You, basically, have dead soil with chemicals in it as enhancements. We need to give Mother Earth a rest in some of these areas.

Food sovereignty

But how do we feed our people? That is a serious question that we are asking ourselves as Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and Alaska. How do we feed our people? Our populations have grown. We are concentrated in these little clusters called reservations. We are highly dependent upon the U.S. federal system for survival. Many of our animals that sustained us, wild game that sustained us for millennia, are no longer around, except for remote areas like Alaska. For example, the Gwitchin still live on subsistence ways. They hunt, they gather, they fish.

But many of our tribes don’t. In some areas, like the Great Lakes, with the Mohawk, the whole ecosystem and the food system has been contaminated by PCBs and other toxic chemicals that have bio-accumulated and bio-magnified in the food system. The whole riverbed sediment is full of PCB contamination. A lot of the fish no longer survive and the turtles. That’s the reality for our Indigenous peoples.

And then, a lot of the land has been contaminated. We are trying to look at ways of rebuilding our food system that are more sustainable. Small is better. We are working with different groups like the Traditional Native American Farmers Association. (As I mentioned), in our program back in Bemidji, Minnesota, we have initiated the food sovereignty program. And one of the things that I have here is our wild rice that the Anishnabi people say is spirit food -- mahnomen. It is not wild, it is tamed by Mother Nature and Mother Nature provides it for Native people to consume it, to respect it, to love it. It nourishes our body. It also is an alternative to all that processed food. It allows our people to be healthy and confront high blood pressure and diabetes. This is medicine to fight diabetes.

Food security, food sovereignty, is a very important concept to our people. To re-frame the way we look at food.

The large agriculture industry, the food systems that we have in this country, are very dependent on petroleum. The amount of gasoline and diesel fuel that it takes in America in these large farms, the amount of trucks and farm equipment to grow all these so-called crops, is a major contributor to climate change. The transportation of food system is not sustainable. That is why we are looking at smaller and smaller farms. Smaller tractors, even horse-drawn, or cows. That is what we are looking at.

Starting to share seeds

In Motion Magazine: You are implementing these things?

Tom Goldtooth: We are implementing them now, at least in our area. It takes the utilization of some of the technologies that the white man has brought, but rather than a large combine or a large diesel tractor, we are looking at smaller tractors that we can utilize. And, there’s a combination of foods that are naturally grown by Mother Earth, where we harvest them, like wild rice, or the berries that grow naturally. We have to make sure that those areas where berries grow are protected. The whole encroachment of development, housing, logging, farms coming in, ranches, has devastated a lot of our berries in the forested areas.

Also, we have other foods. For example, little swamp, bog potatoes that grow in the water. We know what foods have sustained us but some of these large farms with cattle have polluted some of these ponds with urine and cow poop. Some times those large ranches and farms have more rights than we have.

(Additionally), we have had to make adjustments to the food that we eat in the Southwest. Drought conditions are very serious right now in the Southwest, the Navajo reservation, the pueblos. It has been harder to grow corns and other crops that we have. That is why we are starting to develop relationships with other Indigenous people in other regions where maybe the climate is more conducive, the seeds are more conducive to the climate change that we are experiencing. We are starting to share seeds with each other.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 16, 2012

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