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Decolonization or Extinction: Indigenous Red Deal Lays Out Plan to Save the Earth

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On Earth Day, we speak with two of the more than two dozen Indigenous authors of a new book that looks at the history of resistance against colonialism and capitalism and lays out a vision for the future to address the climate crisis. “The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth” details the centuries of Indigenous resistance that created the movement at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline and what movements centering justice for Indigenous people must look like. The book offers a “people’s program to prevent extinction,” says Melanie Yazzie, assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico and co-author of “The Red Deal.” “The plan is really clear. The stakes are really clear,” Yazzie says. “We draw centrally from Indigenous movements over the last couple of decades for decolonization.” We also speak with Uahikea Maile, an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto–St. George and one of the book’s co-authors.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Today is Earth Day. As President Joe Biden begins a two-day virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, a group of 101 Nobel laureates has published a letter urging them to, quote, “keep fossil fuels in the ground” and support a just transition to clean energy. This week, Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey reintroduced the Green New Deal resolution in the House with over 100 co-sponsors.

This comes as Indigenous leaders and land and water defenders have denounced the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision not to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline as it continues a second environmental review of the pipeline on Standing Rock Sioux land or adjacent land. This is a clip from a video message to President Biden produced by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the group Earthjustice in the Lakota language.

FUTURE: [translated] My name his Future. My mind remembers, but the heart feels it. It was the gathering of all directions. Standing Rock 2016. That’s where it all began. Thousands answered the call and came together to protect our river. [in English] President Biden, you can be on the right side of history. Shut down the Dakota Access pipeline.

AMY GOODMAN: More than two centuries of Indigenous resistance led up to the movement at Standing Rock that proclaimed “Water is life.” We spend the rest of the hour discussing this history and a vision for the future that’s laid out in a new book, published today, titled The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth.

We’re joined by two of the book’s two dozen Indigenous authors. In Albuquerque, Melanie Yazzie is co-founder of The Red Nation, a grassroots Indigenous liberation organization, chair of the board of directors for Red Media, an imprint of Common Notions. The Red Deal is Red Media’s first publication. Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She’s Diné, assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at University of New Mexico. We are also joined from Toronto by Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist from Maunawili, O’ahu. He’s also a member of The Red Nation, assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Thank you so much for joining us. Melanie Yazzie, let’s begin with you on this Earth Day. If you can talk about the red plan, The Red Deal?

MELANIE YAZZIE: Sure. So, The Red Deal is essentially a people’s program to prevent extinction. You know, we talk a lot in The Red Deal about, like, the plan is really clear. The stakes are really clear. It’s decolonization or extinction. And the reason why we use the language of decolonization is because we draw centrally from Indigenous movements over the last couple of decades for decolonization. You know, Indigenous people have been on the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice since 1492, but, more recently, as the call for climate justice has been reverberating across the globe to address kind of this 30 — well, we’re actually at a 29-year — right? — clock towards climate disaster. You know, Indigenous people, whether it’s at Standing Rock, the clip you just showed, Apache people fighting Resolution Copper, or Uahikea’s people fighting the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, Indigenous people have really been on the frontlines of the struggle to advance the climate justice movement. And so we draw really centrally from that, and that’s why we say “decolonization or extinction.”

And we can really trust Indigenous movements historically. So, Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population, but we protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, which, of course, is incredibly important when we’re thinking about climate change and curbing climate change. And also something The Red Deal does, because we do claim that you can trust Indigenous movements because we’ve been on the frontlines and we’ve been fighting this battle for so long, you know, is that we draw really centrally from Indigenous knowledge. And the way that we talk about Indigenous knowledge in relationship to climate justice is not the same way that we’re often sort of cast or stereotyped in the mainstream environmental movement, which is often sort of a spiritual or a cultural window dressing — right? — to the larger mainstream claims about climate justice and environmental justice. But, for us, what constitutes Indigenous knowledge are actually Indigenous traditions of governance and science and technology that are really premised on caretaking our relations, right?

So, Vine Deloria Jr. once said that the crisis that we’re facing as a species, as a globe, it’s not actually climate change. He said we’ve simply fallen out of right relation with the Earth. Right? We belong to a nation and a people who, instead of caretaking the Earth and seeing the Earth as a relative, we prey on the Earth, right? We have a predatory relation. And so, what we argue for in The Red Deal from an Indigenous perspective is that we — A, the reason why climate change is happening is because we have fallen out of right relation with the Earth, and, B, what we need to do to rectify the situation is to draw from Indigenous peoples’ experience on the frontlines of climate justice and really enter back into right relation with the Earth.

And we propose a couple of ways to do this. The first — and we draw really centrally from calls for abolition that are coming from the Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives movements, for the abolition of carceral institutions — right? — the institutions that cause the most harm: prisons, police, the U.S. military. You know, Amy, you just said in the previous segment there are calls to reduce funding for the Pentagon — right? — to pull out of Afghanistan. Why don’t we take the money that goes into harming people and put it instead and to reinvest it into that which gives people life and dignity: healthcare, education, COVID-19 vaccines, infrastructure, transportation — right? — housing, those types of things. And so The Red Deal really talks about this from an abolitionist perspective. So we see that elevating the dignity of working-class and poor people is really central to an Indigenous interpretation of climate justice from a decolonial perspective.

And I’ll just say one more thing. You know, something that we — and I’ll talk a little bit more about this, perhaps, in the next few minutes — but something that we talk a lot about in The Red Deal is that when we were looking at the Green New Deal, which was the impetus for The Red Deal, we found that it was not comprehensive, perhaps, or extensive enough. It’s quite a short document, at least the one that was introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And in early 2019, we decided to sit down and think through what would it mean to indigenize the Green New Deal. And that’s where The Red Deal was born.

And for us, part of what that means is that we had to take a much stronger stance than the Green New Deal does on global imperialism, or U.S. imperialism and global capitalism as the primary kind of philosophy of falling out of right relation with the Earth. And so, we really draw centrally from the Cochabamba Agreement and the People’s Gathering of 2011 in Bolivia, which had an explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist perspective on what Indigenous people are saying about climate justice. And so, these are some of the things that are really at the heart of The Red Deal. It’s an action-based program. Red Nation has always been a very action-based organization. And it’s really meant for everybody to kind of dig in. There are multiple entry points. And it really embraces a diversity of tactics.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Maile, if you could talk about your book releasing today, which is when Biden’s climate summit begins? What are your expectations of this summit? Biden is being lauded for — apparently, he’s expected to make unprecedented cuts, pledging to make unprecedented cuts, the U.S. cutting carbon emissions by over 50% by 2030. Your response to that? And what are your demands from the Biden administration? What needs to be done?

UAHIKEA MAILE: Thanks for that question. It’s great to be on the show.

You know, the Biden climate leaders summit isn’t actually about climate leadership. We see it as a summit about climate imperialism. After the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris treaty, the international community lost confidence in the U.S. as a leader in climate justice. After Obama signed onto the Paris treaty and Trump exited, the Biden administration has a political obligation, let’s say, not just to rejoin, but to attempt to assert leadership in the international community and secure its confidence. But even those within the alleged borders of the so-called United States are not confident.

The climate leaders summit is less about climate justice and the international community, and more so about Biden’s plan for reducing global warming, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and committing funds to renewables. But as we know and as the Climate Action Tracker suggests, the United States cannot assert itself and identify — be recognized even — as a leader in climate justice by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by the year 2030. They must be committed, according to the Climate Action Tracker, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60%.

And so, what we see in the gathering of Biden’s climate leaders summit is a facile performance of U.S. imperialism that’s dressed as American exceptionalism masquerading as environmental justice. Even Biden’s pointing fingers at China, in his own version of xenophobia, the truth is, since 1750, the preindustrial era, the U.S. has emitted 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared to China’s 200 billion tons. That’s double the amount of China’s emissions. Although Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, he has yet to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 3. We see, within the so-called borders of the U.S. nation-state, that Biden’s attempt to convene a climate leaders summit is merely a symbolic performance that attempts to shore up American exceptionalism and the U.S.’s leadership internationally.

And so, we also see other nation-states coming to the summit that are allegedly climate leaders, when in fact they’re, on the ground, not recognized by people in this way. For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an alleged climate leader in the world, that’s been invited by President Biden, hopes to actually keep oil and gas pipelines flowing. Differently than Biden not canceling the Dakota Access pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3, Justin Trudeau actually purchased the pipeline, the TransCanada Mountain pipeline, and, since the pandemic, has bailed out the oil and gas industry upwards of $20 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, what we see in this climate leaders summit is that, like Biden, Trudeau isn’t a climate leader. These are climate clowns that mime and perform the rhetoric and language of climate justice and environmental justice, when in fact, in —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

UAHIKEA MAILE: — material ways, are committed to extracting fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Maile and Professor Yazzie, we’re going to ask you to stay with us. And on this Earth Day, we’re going to do a special post-show conversation that we’ll post online at I want to thank you both for being with us. And congratulations on your book, published today, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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