Editor’s Note: The podcast “For The Wild” discusses critical ideas of our time and parlays them into action for the defense and regeneration of natural communities. Key topics include the rediscovery of wild nature, ecological renewal and resistance, and healing from the trauma of individualistic society. The following transcript has been shortened and edited for clarity. To listen to the full episode, visit https://forthewild.world/listen/rachel-heaton-roxanne-white-on-funding-fossil-fuels-and-femicide-13.
Ayana Young (AY): Hello and welcome to “For The Wild” podcast. I’m Ayana Young. Today, we are speaking with Rachel Heaton, who is an organizer and co-founder of Mazaska Talks, and Roxanne White, who works with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives No Borders. I want to just start off by taking some time to thank both of you this morning. I feel incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to be in conversation with two such incredibly powerful leaders in the indigenous rights and environmental movements.
Over the past few years, you have joined forces with coalitions from 350.org, Seattle Rainforest Action Network, Honor the Earth, Indigenous Environmental Network, Greenpeace USA, and other indigenous leaders, activists, and allies in a campaign to force JP Morgan Chase to stop funding climate disaster and the build out of devastating new fossil fuel projects.
I think many of us don’t know that oil, gas, and coal companies are wholly dependent on major bank loans to construct multibillion-dollar projects and pipelines like the Dakota Access or Keystone XL, which would cost TransCanada 8 billion dollars.
Rachel, perhaps you can ground our listeners in the historical arc of this campaign from the perspective of Mazaska Talks and how you came to be involved in this movement. How is Mazaska Talks leveraging economic power through divestment beyond Chase Bank to stop the flow of tar sands pipelines?
Rachel Heaton (RH): Gosh, there’s a really long answer and a really short answer. The work honestly didn’t start with the intention of us going after these banks. It started with just a number of Native people, finally having the ability to use social media as a way to bring issues to light to the general public, versus to just their own community. That started with Standing Rock.
It started with going over [to Standing Rock] and wanting personally to be involved in something with our native people. There’s so much lateral oppression that goes on in our communities that I think, for myself, I was just screaming, wanting to be part of something that didn’t have to do with my blood quantum or what tribe I was enrolled in. I went over because I just wanted to help.
Once we came back to Seattle, I connected with Matt Remley. He had actually found out that Wells Fargo was one of the largest funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I think a lot of us were trying to find ways to help and be a part of what was going on over there, even when we couldn’t be there. After having a conversation with Matt and Hugh McMillan, we were able to start targeting. We found out that the city of Seattle was actually banking with Wells Fargo. With the information that Matt had, it gave us the opportunity to join those issues together. From that point, we found out that there were sixty-three banks that were funding fossil fuel projects all over the world at the time.
I think it gave us some leverage—not that divestment is anything new—but it gave us the opportunity to use that tool for everyday people. We could make decisions and say, take your money out of this bank, or don’t support this bank because they fund fossil fuel projects and all of the horrible atrocities that come with such projects: the desecration of sacred lands, the violation of indigenous rights, but also the number of things that these banks have done to marginalized groups.
Of course, fast forwarding to February 2017, not long before the camps had completely closed down, we were able to get the city of Seattle to divest their 3 billion dollars from Wells Fargo. From there, we developed a tool, which was Mazaska Talks, that would then give other cities, universities—basically anybody a toolkit to divest their own communities from these Wall Street banks that are investing in these projects. But from an indigenous perspective, we were still able to lead it in that way. That’s what Mazaska Talks was really started with.
There are no traditional words for money. We didn’t have money. Mazaska Talks is Lakota for shiny metal, which would have been silver or gold. Mazaska Talks means money talks. Since that point, I think over 40 billion dollars has been removed from these banks because we’ve put power into everyday people’s hands.
AY: Well, thank you for that, Rachel. I think this was a perfect introduction that really helped ground this conversation. Roxanne, your organization and presence has also brought such a critical voice to the heart of this resistance, reminding us that the desecration of our Earth is intimately connected to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
The statistics on this issue are just so horrifying. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly half of all Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner. One in three will be raped in their lifetime, and on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than that of the national average.
I’m wondering, how the rising crisis of MMIWG is connected to the construction of pipelines and other fossil fuel projects and how your organization, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives No Borders, is addressing and raising awareness around these important intersections.
Roxanne White (RW): Historically, the first man camps in North America were at the first point of contact when Columbus landed on our territories, on our homeland. They brought the first man camps. They brought the first brothels here. The genocide and the rape of our Mother Earth, of our sacred waters, our women, our children, our men—these things are all connected.
Indigenous people of this continent have been devastated by this first point of contact, and we are still seeing it. A lot of people don’t really understand, well, what do you mean genocide? People have this idea that Native American people have big casinos, big money.
That’s just the government’s story that they want to spin. The reality is that our ancestors fought for our land by signing treaties, trying to save and protect what little they could for the rest of us, for the future generations, the love of Mother Earth, the love of their great-grandchildren and their great-great-grandchildren. The government is steadily finding ways to break those treaties and to continue to commit not just genocide on us and our women, but also on our Mother Earth, which affects our entire community.
These man camps, they’re very dangerous. A lot of people envision man camps as being thousand-count, trailer-type modules, and we’ve seen those. We learned that those are set up for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. But there’s so many different styles of man camps. Where there’s waters, like the Alaskan waterways, there’s man camps, with the ships, with the cargo, the export. In agricultural areas where tribes have a lot of agriculture, they bring in another form of man camp.
We’re being targeted and exploited in this manner by men—men that are not connected to us, don’t respect us, don’t know our families, and don’t value us as a people. A lot of these men have nothing else. Maybe they’ve burned bridges in their life and they have nothing to lose, so why don’t they just go and make all this money? A lot of them have drug issues themselves or a criminal history. They go in for our community. They get these big checks and bring forth a lot of drugs, sexual violence, trafficking. It’s horrific when you really think about it. Targeting Native American communities when we are already experiencing the battles of oppression and systemic racism and genocide.
I was born into this life of being an indigenous woman. I experienced a lot of abuse as a child. By the age of twenty-two, I had gone through foster homes and abuse, even as a woman in my first relationship with my children’s father, a situation that I barely survived. At the age of twenty-two, I was trafficked at a man camp.
We, as indigenous people, have been dealing with the government using and raping our lands and poisoning our waters for a very long time. It’s a direct link. We as indigenous women—and our people and our families—have been affected by all of this in a really negative way.
AY: Roxanne, thank you so much for that. Thank you for sharing some of the more intimate, personal details with us. It’s extremely important for those of us listening to really sit with the intensity and complexity of this situation.
I’d actually like to read a quote from your most recent action in April, in which local activists protested and disrupted forty-four Chase Bank branches in Seattle with similar direct actions in twenty-two other cities across the country.
Rachel, you said, “We’re here because we want a better future for our little ones. We’re here for a better future for ourselves. We’re not here to cause a problem. We’re here to raise awareness. We’re here to be non-violent. We’re also here to let you know we are still here.”
What your words bring up for me is that these are matters of reproductive justice. Sovereign Bodies Institute has estimated that there are more than five thousand indigenous children who have had their mothers stolen by violence. The right to regenerate and raise children weaves throughout all of this work, mirroring the fragile web of life that is breaking down as many species face an uphill battle to reproduce.
I’m wondering how this ethic of reproductive justice and regeneration enters into your work and informs how you carry the torch for the next generation. Why must mothers, women, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit people be centered and honored in this movement?
RH: For me, linking our children into this work is so important, because for one, it starts with the history of the systems that have been set up. When we look at the matriarchs being removed out of our communities, when we look at the patriarchy system and the way that it’s set up, we’ve been removed from our children and from our families and put into this system that doesn’t allow us to grow and to heal and to be nurtured.
I think being a mom again, to a baby and not just my older children—it’s also changed my perspective in the sense that, forty years from now, it’s going to be such a different world for him if we get involved. It doesn’t mean just talk about it. We actually have to show them what they’re fighting for, because as we see, we can tell people a million times, “Do this, do this, do this.” It doesn’t always mean that people are going to take action. If you bring someone up in it and you expose them to it and you nurture them in that way—I want it to be just an automatic torch that gets passed on.
Bigger than that, our people are still here, and we have to sustain that. More than ever, I think having our children visible and in this work is so important. Because if we don’t, they’re literally going to get left behind because we’re so hidden behind our screens and our electronics.
For me, it’s become personal, because I’m not going to be able to fight for our people forever. Roxanne isn’t going to be able to. But we have to know that we’ve done the work, to show our kids that are here right now and the ones that are coming. We have to keep doing this and we have to keep being visible, putting ourselves out there, and being uncomfortable, because we’ve been invisible for so long.
I’m not telling everybody to bring their children onto the front lines and fight, but that’s where it sits for me and where it sits in my heart. I’m not fighting just for my kids, I’m fighting for all of our children. When Roxanne’s spreading the message that she is, she’s doing this work for all of those future generations, so that we can start undoing these traumas.
AY: I’d like to return to the issue of man camps that you mentioned, Roxanne. These temporary housing encampments are constructed often on indigenous territories and accommodate the influx of thousands of non-indigenous male workers following an oil boom.
I’m wondering, how do these camps and the toxic culture that surrounds them directly and indirectly impact local indigenous communities, businesses, women, children, the two-spirit people, and even indigenous men? How might we shed light on the shadow of these predatory extractive economies, the fact that social and cultural effects of industrial camps are not included in environmental assessment reports or even considered in the planning for economic development?
RW: That question is super complex. As far as these man camps and what dangers they impose on our communities? First of all, some of them are not right on the reservations from what I understand, but there are a lot that are very close, within miles.
These pipelines and man camps bring in a lot of money to a very impoverished, marginalized community, where there is already a battle of major meth, drug, and alcohol issues, a lot of historical trauma.
These men are bringing in all this money, cashing out large amounts of checks, finding drugs. They are basically the buyers, right? They want the women. How does that affect our men? Well, it affects the children of those women. It affects the husbands, the grandfathers, the grandpas, the dads, the sons. I mean, we’re all connected. If one of our girls is trafficked and ends up missing, that affects our entire community.
It hurts us all across Indian country. Every one of these girls and every one of these men that go missing, it devastates us, because we don’t have the resources to find them. At this point, we’re doing our best on a grassroots level. Prevention is part of it and getting rid of and being able to stop these man camps from coming into our communities. We don’t want them around our tribes, around our reservations, around our people, on our land. We should have every right to not have them there.
AY: I’d like to jump off the previous question and discuss the issue of legal jurisdiction and law enforcement that comes up around the crisis of MMIWG. Just to give our listeners a little background on this topic, tribal officers have the authority to investigate and prosecute criminal and civil cases only if the suspected perpetrator is an enrolled member of a Native American tribe. Otherwise, the case belongs to the state, with one exception—in the case of domestic violence.
This legal precedent was set in the 1978 Supreme Court case, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which stripped tribes of the right to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on indigenous territory. However, U.S. attorneys rarely pursue these cases. The Atlantic reported that in 2011, the U.S. Justice Department did not prosecute 65 percent of rape cases reported on reservations.
In the case of the Bakken boom, the tribe has little to no legal control over the thousands of non-native oil workers that doubled the reservation’s population. It seems that there are so many loopholes here—a jurisdictional void that systemically allows these cases to fall through the cracks and go underreported, unprosecuted, and unrepresented in the media.
Roxanne, I would really love for you to speak to this complex issue of jurisdiction and what barriers families face in seeking information and justice for their loved ones and family members.
RW: Well, it’s heartbreaking. The center of my work is assisting and advocating and supporting families of missing indigenous people across the board. I would not turn down anybody, whether it’s a child, a two-spirit or transgender person, male, female. I believe that this epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People touches all of us. What I can tell you is that we’re still faced with those issues.
Today, I’m working with families that want the FBI to get involved, and the agency isn’t involved. Families are still being told, “Well, we don’t know what to do with that, because that happened on the reservation.” People on the reservation are saying, “We don’t have the resources. The FBI needs to get involved.” It’s still like that. We’re still dealing with these types of hurdles right now.
I truly believe that eventually, things are going to get better. For now—and it may be for another few years—even if we sign an agreement, even if these bills all pass and become laws, we know that grassroots people and social justice advocates and frontline people will still have to hold these governments and these policies accountable.
The part that I really don’t get is why we need any laws for all law enforcement to treat indigenous women as human beings. Indigenous people, indigenous children? Why do we have to do that? That’s the United States. That’s the government that we’re under right now, who doesn’t see native people as human beings, who doesn’t see indigenous women as sacred, as valuable, our children as precious sacred gifts.
We’re just trying to do our best. I call out the FBI, the state attorneys, prosecutors, coroners, media, mainstream media. It’s still very hard to get any media to cover families. Just Google “missing CNN,” you can go down the list and you will see white person after white person that they are posting up for missing people.
They have only recently covered the story of Alyssa McLemore and then mentioned my cousin Rosenda Strong. How did that happen? I was able to make this happen because I’ve worked hard to make contacts with the mainstream media. Through my connections with a lot of media, I was able to ask everybody to help me get in contact with CNN for a little four-year-old girl out of Aneth, Utah, who was missing for twenty-one days.
Indigenous women first go missing with their families, at their family table, at ceremony, in the homes of their families, but then they go missing in the community, in mainstream media, and virtually everywhere else. We’ve been invisible for far too long. We’ve been silent for far too long. That’s the work that we’re doing today—to humanize and continuously push for the missing and murdered indigenous people here in Canada and Alaska.
RH: When we talk about these issues that we have with jurisdiction, this is just another one of those obstacles that we continue to run into as native people. We add it to the long list of tactics that have been used to commit the attempted genocide against our people. I mean, it’s another form of boarding school, adoption, “kill the Indian, save the man,” forced sterilization, getting command of our resources and our lands.
It’s just another one of those tactics that are used against our people to add to that attempted genocide that’s still happening. It’s just now we’re doing this work and connecting with media and people around the world; people are finally hearing about these stories that are not new in our communities in any way, shape, or form.
RW: Exactly. I really believe that we’re at a point right now where we’re unifying all these injustices on one level. I have changed the title of the work that I do. I had a banner that said, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” I gifted that to the Yakama Nation Tribal Council. My amazing friend from 350.org helped me create a new banner for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. The reason why is because I’ve had my mother, my aunties, and other elder grandmas from my reservation over in Yakama tell me, “Hey, Roxanne, don’t forget the men.”
When the grandmas and older women, my elders, the ones that I respect and listen to, when they are telling me to not forget the men, that really connected and resonated with me.
This is something that you can look at and you can say, “What about our DACA people? What about the people on the borders? What about the genocide and the separation of families that is occurring there?” We as indigenous people with our territories, we actually have a privilege that they don’t have. Normally we don’t have a lot of privilege, right? It seems like there’s a lot more privileged people than us, but we have a privilege as native people to these territories, to advocate for our border people, for our relatives that are also indigenous. Genocide is being committed at those camps right now. It’s hurtful to watch and to hear about all the things that are happening to these families and to these children.
Can you imagine? This is exactly what indigenous people went through. For the men of these families to watch their children to be taken from them and the mother to be broken, the father to be broken. The whole world is watching, and nobody’s doing anything.
Yet America would step in for other refugees in other countries when it’s convenient for them. They would step in and help refugees, bring them over to the United States. Yet Trump has such a problem with our borders along the coast of Mexico. Why? Because they’re indigenous people and he’s just a hateful man.
AY: Roxanne and Rachel, I hear you. I think about how not only are these issues not brought up in the mainstream media and are hidden in so many ways, but they’re also erased. The history of colonization is erased from our textbooks, our narratives, in the news. It’s horrific—this genocide and this destruction of indigenous people. It hasn’t ended, and people need to know that, because if people don’t know that, then they’re living in this fantasy world that isn’t real.
Going back to the jurisdiction issues, it seems there is no quick fix here. There’s one part of me that’s wondering what legal amendments or changes could be made in tribal, state, or federal law enforcement and prosecution procedures.
Then my second thought is that I know one way that the indigenous rights and land sovereignty movement has been articulated is through the framework of free prior and informed consent, or FPIC. This phrase comes from the 2007 U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It states that indigenous people must grant their free, prior, and informed consent before an action is taken that impacts their land and rights.
Now in practice, however, FPIC has not been honored, and true consent has been violated by the state and corporate entities over and over again. I’m wondering, how has the integrity of FPIC been hollowed out, and, in many cases, replaced by tribal consultation, or really meaningless gestures that claim to fulfill their obligation of FPIC?
RH: We did an entire tour in Europe on this specific issue. FPIC sounds great and when people hear it, they have a good feeling of like, “Wow, they’re talking to the people before they actually make decisions.” It’s another one of those things where I could have a friend who knows a friend that told another friend something. Then that one friend will come back and say, “Oh, yeah. Well, I talked to that original source.” Really, it’s a telephone chain where it’s five people down the road and then they come back and say, “Oh, yeah. Well, we had a conversation.”
We see a lot of that happening, even with a lot of the large environmental organizations that we’ve had the opportunity to have discussions with. We’ll ask, “Okay, well are you developing relationships with communities?” They’ll say, “Oh, yeah. Well, we talked to this one person who knew that organization and they said it was okay.” That’s a lot of what our government is doing; they’ll go and talk to one of their people that knows somebody else and uses that as free, prior, and informed consent.
Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline were prime examples of that and showed us that those conversations don’t happen, that those agreements are not happening beforehand. These oil companies, for example, have for so long been allowed to commit these atrocities, but also get these projects funded. They’ve been able to buy their way through and ignore what indigenous people want and ignore the fact that these sacred lands mean something to us, but nothing to them.
I have to admit it was frustrating when the Notre Dame Church over in France had burned down. It’s sad that building burned; it holds the history for the French people. Well, the same is true for our lands. To see people mourn and come together for a building, but not willing to come together for indigenous people who are violated on a regular basis. As much as I know, that framework in the U.N. has good intentions, the sad part is that it’s just not actually being carried out.
I’ve sat down in bank board meetings firsthand. At the end of the day, they don’t want to hear our history, they don’t want to hear about genocide, they don’t want to hear about violence and desecration. They want to hear that this is great for their economy, which means it’s great for their pockets and the 1 percent. Free, prior, and informed consent is not happening all over the world with indigenous people.
At the end of the day, the teachings of indigenous people are really what’s going to bring back the saving of our Mother Earth. Environmental groups are realizing that, and even scientists are realizing that we have to go back to these teachings. I think the conversation of free, prior, and informed consent has to keep happening even if the intentions of it are not being met. My hope is that one day they are.
AY: I’m thinking if we get these banks to divest from fossil fuel projects, what do you want them to invest in? On the one hand, we need to mobilize individuals and companies and cities and academic institutions to be politically active and draw a cultural boundary around dirty money.
Then, of course, I think, “Well, is there such thing as clean money?” if all companies eventually lead back to resource extraction and the desecration of the Earth. I’d really love to hear from you, what would you like to see banks invest in?
RH: I think the obvious are always education, green energy, affordable housing, putting decisions back in the everyday people’s lives.
Instead of banks making these decisions to go invest billions of dollars into pipelines, why can’t we as communities make the decision to direct that money to places like Flint, places where there’s uranium leaking into their drinking water in Arizona and they can’t access clean water?
It’s like I said, indigenous people are in this fight and leading this fight because we are the first ones affected by climate change. This fight is for everybody, but it’s also to stop them from making us invisible. Why can’t we be CEOs for Chase banks? The reality is that those banks don’t want to make good, wise, morally sound decisions. I think that that’s what they’re afraid of.
They want the same people within the old system of patriarchy to come in and tell people how to live and what to be and what to do, instead of actually really wanting to put money towards compassion, caring, the healing of people, affordable housing, homelessness, and fighting bigotry.
Ultimately, I think whatever decisions are made, they should be working towards the good of the greater man and working towards healing and what’s going to bring good to our communities. It’s not investing in fossil fuel projects, it is not ignoring places like Flint, it is not ignoring human trafficking, it is not ignoring any of these issues. It’s actually getting involved in them and truly making decisions that are going to heal people and not looking out for 1 percent.
AY: I really appreciate that because I think for many of us, we need to be guided by a vision forward. Yes, of course people need to hear about divestment, but we also need, I think, to hear about what are the things we need to invest in on an individual level, on a county level, on a global level. I really appreciate both of you for speaking to that.
Now I want to move on to another question. I see that there’s this other common thread between Mazaska Talks and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives No Borders. It’s the important work of decolonizing data and shedding light and awareness on these crises that are often erased from the mainstream media.
When it comes to MMIWG, the National Crime Information Center reports that in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska native women and girls. The U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases. Roxanne, how does this complete negligence in reporting and data collection perpetuate the crisis itself, creating a gross misrepresentation of the scale of MMIWG and obscuring critical information?
RW: When you look at that, the 116 cases that were logged, there’s a definite percentage that’s not been reported. It’s really hard—and I can vouch for this and I know Rachel can, too—but calling the police has never been a good thing. Whether it’s tribal, whether it’s a sheriff, whether it’s Seattle City, whether you’re on reservation, off reservation, just the police in general have been very non-empathetic, very rude, very disrespectful in so many ways.
Look at Renee Davis. They were supposed to do a welfare check and they shot her, a seven-month pregnant woman and a mother of three. Why do we want to call the cops? Remind us, because they haven’t been an entity that has served us, or protected us, or treated us like human beings. That’s one part of it.
The other part of it is that when filing these cases, often times families were being met with the response, “Oh, are you sure she’s not drinking or with a boyfriend?” Families have been told things like, “Oh, well. Come back if you don’t hear from her. Are you sure you want to make a case?”
The really inhumane part of it is that our missing and our murdered have been dehumanized even after being murdered, being called homeless, drunk, prostitutes, many derogatory terms that law enforcement and mainstream media use. Do you see? There are layers and layers to this.
Anita Lucchesi, who is a Native American woman and a cartographer, has been very instrumental in decolonizing data. She’s been working on a database and collected names from here to Canada for I think about three years, or a little bit longer. She has a pretty good number going and she’s doing some amazing work. I rely on her data more than I would anybody else’s.
We, as indigenous people, we know the issues. A lot of people want to speak ahead of the families. They want to speak ahead of survivors and they want to speak ahead of the grassroots people, but it is us. It is survivors and it is grassroots people who have been on the frontlines, who have been holding each other’s hands to make sure that these families are receiving justice.
Can I say some names real quick?
RW: I want to say my cousin Rosenda has been missing since October 2nd of 2018. Alyssa McLemore has been missing since 2006 from Kent, Washington. Leona Kinsey has been missing since 1999 from Oregon. Matthew J. Bronco has been missing from Fort Hall since April 20th of 2019. Esther Smith has been missing since 2009 out of Everett, Washington. Like I said earlier, there’s more than that. I could say so many names. I have lists upon lists of families. Those are some of the people that I’m working with right now.
It’s heartbreaking. I wanted to say those names, because it’s important to use these moments like this to put these names out. You can hashtag these names and find flyers for these people or you can go to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and Families on Facebook and get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
AY: Thank you, Roxanne. That felt really important to name them in this conversation.