“You Fly to the Edge of the Tar Sands, and … No Life”: The Issue of Our Time

Tar sand mining in Alberta, Canada, 2014.Tar sand mining in Alberta, Canada, 2014. (Image: Rainforest Action Network / Flickr)

I learned about George Price when I got to Missoula on August 21, as I was beginning my Edge of Change roadtrip, and began asking around about the megaload protests. A few years back, I’d heard about a group of grandmothers and native people who had round-danced and sat down in front of the trucks carrying giant equipment up the highway toward the Alberta tar sands. I wanted to meet these people and hear their stories. Several people said I should talk to George Price, a University of Montana professor of African American and Native American Studies and one of the organizers of the protests. Price lives on the Flathead Reservation, and I was thrilled when he invited me and a couple of the grandmothers to visit his permaculture farm.

Sarah van Gelder: Let’s start with the present. What is the Indian Peoples Action and how did it form?

George Price: It’s a Montana-based organization working on multiple fronts: native rights, anti-discrimination, the unjustice in the justice system. Native people make up a little over 6 percent of the population of the state of the Montana, but over 30 percent of the incarcerated population.

Voting rights is another area, and last year we won a case so that there now has to be at least one on-reservation polling place.

But my involvement began a few years ago on the other major issue, which is the environment—and primarily climate change resistance and fossil fuel resistance. Coal is a big one in eastern Montana; it’s right in the face of the Crow and the Cheyenne people. A little ways away, you have the Assiniboine Nation of Fort Peck, also with coal activity nearby. And now fossil fuel activity around them has increased, spreading from the Bakkenarea in North Dakota, just over the border. The Fort Peck Reservation is dealing not only with an increase in oil and fracking around them, but also the laborers that show up and do a lot of carousing when they’re not working—assaulting native women, and bringing more alcohol and drugs into the area.

Montana has been kind of a corridor for tar sands equipment and products, going both from the West Coast up the Columbia River into the tar sands, and going from Alberta to refineries in eastern Montana and central Montana and to wherever they can sell it. All the way to the Gulf of Mexico. But also they’re trying to get to the ports in Washington state. I formally joined IPA after we’d worked together on some Idle No More protests, when the megaloads were coming through in 2013 and 2014. We went out into the street and stopped the trucks.

The two biggest protests were a little more than half native, and the elders were at the forefront. We had wide representation from all demographic groups and went through some interesting learning experiences, including how to deal with the police.

van Gelder: How did the different demographic groups get along together, in that first interaction?

Price: I think it was ideal. There was a lot of humility and willingness to cooperate. Good heartedness I felt all across the group. I’d say 90 percent of the people there were doing their first public protest action. That’s where I think a lot of the humility came from: people—especially young people—who had never done anything like this before. And those of us who had done other kinds of actions, like picketing against Monsanto or whatever back during the Vietnam War, had never stood in front of an amazingly gigantic vehicle in the middle of the street before.

At the first action, we learned that you don’t ask permission to block traffic. You just go out and do it. I was designated as what they call the police liaison, and my job was to be the first in the street to go up to the police. Not only did they have Missoula police, but they had their own private security guard company. They looked like soldiers. And so I said, “We would like to have permission to just do a Round Dance.” That was our planned tactic: to Round Dance in the middle of Reserve Street, the biggest street in Missoula, and at least delay while we could possibly say some words. The media that we called in advance and some bystanders could read the signs and just know that there was an issue here with these vehicles coming through Missoula in the middle of the night.

The first time they didn’t give us permission. So we slowly got off the road, and the drummers and singers with us, singing at that point, and then we just round-danced right up the edge of the road.

The second time, we just went out into the street and began singing and round-dancing immediately. And they allowed us about 20 minutes altogether, including a five-minute speech by Charles Walking Child.

There was an article in the Missoulian in April asking why we haven’t seen any of those megaloads since that last protest. They decided to break up the loads into smaller vehicles that could get under the freeway overpasses, and just move them with regular traffic. So they’ve been taking the disassembled equipment that way to Alberta, and then they created manufacturing plants that put them together into the large size.

van Gelder: That’s sort of a victory, right?

Price: Victory or no victory, however you look at it, it costs them to restructure their whole process.

van Gelder: So you all were there in the winter in the middle of the night, in the dark and the cold, standing out there on the street waiting for these gigantic pieces of equipment to come through. What was that like? It sounds a little daunting.

Price: I was shivering from cold and from nervousness! There was a lot of excitement and good feeling among the people. You look around at the crowd and into each other’s faces, and you see the positive side of humanity—brother and sister. It was like a reassurance. So we had that going for us, and some hot coffee and tea. We were ready for it. But I would be amiss to say we weren’t a little scared, too.

van Gelder: It seems like there are so many issues besetting the native communities all across the country. How does a group that is so embattled take on this big question for the whole of humanity?

Price: I think, especially for land-based tribes—tribes that still have remnant parcels of their homelands reserved out of what was stolen—there’s this ancestral tie that lets them know on some level that if the fossil fuel companies have their way, they’ll take their actual source of life.

The money world that we’re forced to participate in and work for is not really the source of life. It’s kind of a distraction they have to indulge in to some degree. There’s high unemployment on reservations, but [being] unemployed for money doesn’t mean people aren’t working; they’re still doing subsistence activities: hunting, fishing, growing crops, cutting firewood. People are still connected to that and to the deep spiritual meaning of relationship to the land as caretakers of the land. They are cognizant of our interconnectedness.

The other thing that’s happening at this time is the leadership of the women, and that has its roots in the destruction of male roles by the reservation system. Tribes did have gender-based activities. That was just a norm. You find exceptions, but you have coming-of-age ceremonies that lay roles out clearly. But within that, you have these elder women now who teach people that our issues, first and foremost, are keeping our land and our water, because everything else crashes in that crazy world out there. Their society, their money, their currency and technology will someday become worthless, and everybody will only have to answer to the Earth. Especially, the tar sands are such a traumatic example of Western technological capitalist society gone wrong.

Anybody, no matter how much of a brainwashed capitalist you are, can see this from the air. You fly right to edge of the tar sands and see the beautiful boreal forest and the lakes everywhere up in that northern section, and then just miles and miles of total devastation. No life. I mean anybody with any sense that nature might be a little valuable, any sense that trees are kinda nice, looks at that and gets a message—a really strong message.

van Gelder: Could you give me a little of your own background?

Price: I came from a very multiracial family: African, European, Native American. As I’ve done more research in my field of early American intercultural relations, I found that my family wasn’t that strange. We knew a lot of people like us among our immediate circle of friends and relatives. This is American history. The people on the East Coast—in New England in our family’s case—were the first to contact the folks from across the Atlantic Ocean and they have the longest history of interaction with them, including with the Africans who came with them.

I just finished a book—it’s at University of Massachusetts press—that covers a lot of this. There were abolitionists in the family and five generations of activists, going back to Indian land rights activism in colonial Massachusetts.

By the time I was about 14 or so I began to identify more with my native heritage, and then as an African. I knew I wasn’t a white man! My goals were not to integrate myself and conform to industrial white society. By that time, I was more of a hipster. By 1965 I was ready to do alternative living. I left Los Angeles in 1970, right after I dropped out of college the first time, and went up to Washington [state] and joined a commune.

van Gelder: How did you know that you didn’t want to integrate into white industrial society?

Price: Unlike a lot of marginalized, oppressed people of color, my family was kind of well-off. My grandparents were middle-class Americans with good jobs. Grandfather was a career postal clerk and president of the colored chapter of the postal workers union. My dad tried to build on that and become wealthier than his previous generation. Then I came along, and said, “What’s the point?”

I think it’s really the last five or six years where I woke up to what’s really happening with the climate; this has got to be the number one issue for everybody. Ultimately, we have to create the alternative economies, the alternative ways of survival—not like survivalists as portrayed by the media, but the people who can, grow your own food, make your own clothes, have your own energy sources and maybe rethink how much you need to travel. At least temporarily, we need to put some of this excessive consumption, excessive production on hold, and get the Earth to some kind of climate stability. Then we would have time to reevaluate all of this highfalutin technology and say, what do we miss now that we’ve been two or three decades away from it? What do we really need?

I think people will be surprised, just like I was—a city kid, my first time living away from the city, living in the woods. I was scared a little at first. Then I said, “Wow this is great! We’re growing our own food, we’re learning what kind of berries grow in the forest, we’ve got clean water coming through streams like I’ve never seen before.”

There’s a lot of dreaming here, but I think it can be facilitated through first creating the alternatives that allow people to boycott mass-produced, unsustainably produced goods. We’re beginning with the local food movement. That’s been the closest to this vision, and then recycled product buying like Home Resources in Missoula, where you can get all the scrap stuff you need to build things with.

This is a hard sell, I know, for most people. Even a lot of progressive people have been so conditioned by our life experiences and advertising. It’s just the last direction most anybody in the society would go in: To go smaller? Anti-growth? Non-growth? Reduced consumption? Downward mobility? I’m taking the pitch to campuses a little more, and starting to give a few talks.

van Gelder: How do the students respond?

Price: Well, you’ve got all kinds. You got people in shock. You got people resisting. One thing about college students is they haven’t totally committed to the American dream yet. There’s still a little hope for them until they go to grad school. Slowly but surely you’re having many other voices starting to reinforce that what has become obvious to some of us is now becoming a possibility, to others.

van Gelder: Since I’ve been tracking the climate movement, there was a time when it was kind of a white-led movement. Increasingly now, I’m hearing people say, “No, you can’t actually do it that way. You need to be talking about racial justice.” How do you frame the most successful way to move forward on the climate?

Price: I’m glad you brought that up, because what I said previously about equality almost sounded like I’d abandoned racial justice. And I haven’t, you know. I was on the board of the Flathead Reservation human rights organization for years, and I’ve been teaching race and racism. But I go a little further than a lot of the racial justice advocates to say, let’s question the whole paradigm.

I understand, especially people who’ve grown up with poverty. The combination of poverty and corporate advertising is a deadly mix that gets people to buy into the system. So as much as I can sympathize with all of the people whose priority has been [going from] a have-not to ahave, I want them to see that goal isn’t sustainable, because it’s the goal of becoming an equal member of an unsustainable society. We want you to join the movement to create a new world.

van Gelder: What do you see next for you—your garden, your farm, what else do you see as tangible ways that you’re involved?

Price: Our steps now are learning how to live with the Earth and not against the Earth—to know what gifts are still available, and how to give back to the Earth and keep this cycle of life going. As much as I’ve been involved in alternative gardening and living, going back to the late 1960s, there’s still a heck of a lot I don’t know. So when I say I have a blog, Learning Earth Ways, that means I’m learning Earth ways, too. So learning and teaching. That’s my action, mostly. Maybe that’s enough. That’s about all I can handle, including writing and lecturing. And hoping that other people will find their own gifts.