Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 2, 2011

Natives in Alaska and Louisiana devastated by nation's largest oil spills

Native communities in Alaska and Louisiana devastated by oil spills and climate change

Article and photo by Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Faith Gemmill/Photo Norrell
NEW TOWN, North Dakota -- Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana have both suffered from the nation's largest oil spills, which have devastated Native communities who depend on subsistence from the land and oceans to survive.

Faith Gemmill of REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) said oil spills and climate change should serve as a wakeup call in North America -- but this has not happened.

Gemmill is a Pit River/ Wintu and Neets'aii Gwich'in Athabascan from Arctic Village, Alaska.

Speaking at the 16th Annual Protecting Mother Earth Gathering of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Gemmill joined local Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara fighting massive oil and gas development here in North Dakota, and First Nations activists fighting dirty tar sands development in Alberta, Canada.

As the four day gathering here came to a close, Gemmill spoke of the similarities between the devastating oil spills in Alaska and Louisiana. She pointed out that climate change further wrecks Native villages on both coasts, where land is caving into the ocean.

"We all have the same story."
Houma Chief and Wixarika at Gathering
Houma Nation Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux (shown on right) was among the presenters at the Protecting Mother Earth Gathering in North Dakota, July 28-31, 2011. The Houma were hard hit by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Gemmill said when the oil spill devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast, she was a member of a delegation from Alaska that traveled to Louisiana. They shared with the Houma, their own struggle in Alaska to recover from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Gemmill said she described to the Houma the years of litigations and the years of impacts for Alaska Natives, years of heartbreak that Louisiana Natives would now have to face.

"Years later we haven't recovered. The species haven’t recovered. There were a lot of similarities," Gemmill told the Gathering that attracted Indigenous Peoples from as far away as Guatemala, Mexico and Canada.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the marine ecosystems on the North Slope. It killed birds, marine mammals and fish, devastating the ecosystem in the oil's path. The way of life of Native people was shattered and their food sources poisoned.

In Louisiana, where the Houma make their home on the Gulf Coast, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers. The explosion was followed by months of oil leaking into the ocean, months of devastation for Houma who fish and shrimp the waters.

Gemmill said subsistence economies and subsistence communities are profoundly affected by oil spills and the degradation to their environments.

"They are profoundly affected for generations. We are oil states and we are severely impacted by climate change." Now, climate change is forcing Native Americans to relocate on the coast of Alaska. "Communities are caving into the ocean because of climate change."

As Native people struggle to survive, Gemmill said the US government is no help, in either Alaska or Louisiana.

"We thought that the Valdez oil spill would be a wakeup call. We thought leaders would change oil policy, we thought the United States would start moving forward."

Although Gemmill hoped the Valdez oil spill would be a wakeup call for clean energy, she said for the United States, that is not a reality.

Now, REDOIL is pressing for a moratorium on new oil, gas and coal extraction.

“It is going to take people calling for it in mass numbers to make that happen.”

Gemmill said all over Indian country, and throughout the world, the land is devastated by oil and gas drilling.

“We all have the same story."

REDOIL Background
REDOIL was created in June of 2002 when a group of Alaska Natives came together in Cordova to share knowledge, experience and strategies for addressing the detrimental impacts of oil and gas development in Alaska.
The following principles had been agreed upon by the participants of that gathering who have formed a new network, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands or REDOIL.
The Principles of the REDOIL network, a program of the Indigenous Environmental Network:
We adhere to the inherent right to self-determination for all indigenous peoples.
We reject the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act as an illegitimate infringement on our right to sovereignty and self-determination.
We are committed to a moratorium on all new exploration for oil, gas and coal as a first step towards the full phase-out of fossil fuels with a just transition to sustainable jobs, energy and environment. We take this position based on our concern over the disproportionate social, cultural, spiritual, environmental, and climate impacts on indigenous peoples, particularly in Alaska.
We are committed to creating sustainable economic solutions for our communities.
We are committed to upholding and promoting the integrity of our traditional cultures and values.
We are committed to an intergenerational approach, which honors the wisdom and guidance of our elders and that values the role of our youth.
We are committed to standing in solidarity with the members of this network and their struggles for self-determination and a sustainable future for the seventh generation to come.
All decisions of and direction for the network will come from the indigenous members from impacted communities. Non-indigenous supporters will be included at the prerogative of the decision-making members.
New members will be added to the network by consensus of the group based on adherence to our principles.
We welcome individuals and legitimate, empowered representatives of communities and organizations that accept and adhere to the principles.
REDOIL is honored to share, reach out and network with Indigenous peoples who want to defend their inherent way of life.
We believe that the working group has the potential to bring these critical issues to a head and address them with honor, science, and spirituality and to help build an alliance where our collective voice will be louder than broken promises

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