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The Red Deal: Extended Interview with Red Nation Members About an Indigenous Plan to Save Our Earth

Web ExclusiveApril 22, 2021
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On Earth Day, we host an extended conversation with two of the two dozen Indigenous scholars behind the new book, “The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth,” described as “not simply a response to the Green New Deal nor a 'bargain' with the elite and powerful. It is a deal with the humble people of the earth; an affirmation that colonialism and capitalism must be overturned for human and other-than-human life to live with dignity. It is a pact with movements for liberation, life, and land for a new world of peace and justice that must come from below and to the left.” In Albuquerque, Melanie Yazzie is a co-founder of The Red Nation, a grassroots Indigenous liberation organization, and chair of the board of directors for Red Media, an imprint of Common Notions. Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico. We are also joined from Toronto by Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist from Maunawili, O’ahu. He is also a member of The Red Nation and an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto.

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

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

Today is Earth Day, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with two Indigenous scholars, who’ve published a new book today, along with two dozen others, titled The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth.

In Albuquerque, Melanie Yazzie is a co-founder of The Red Nation, a grassroots Indigenous liberation group, chair of the board of directors for Red Media, an imprint of Common Notions. The Red Deal is Red Media’s first publication. Professor Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation. She’s Diné. She’s an assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico. Then we head north, to Toronto. Uahikea Maile is with us, a Kanaka Maoli scholar, activist from Maunawili, O’ahu. He’s also a member of The Red Nation, an assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto.

Thank you so much, both, for staying with us. President Biden is holding a two-day global Earth summit with some 40 world leaders. China is going to be a part of this conversation. You both, along with other scholars and activists, have proposed The Red Deal. Now, Senator Markey and Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have proposed the Green New Deal. They have many co-sponsors. They’ve reintroduced it. Professor Yazzie, if you could start by responding to the Green New Deal, what you think works in it, and what The Red Deal adds, as you talk about Indigenous action to save our Earth?

MELANIE YAZZIE: Sure. Thanks again for having us on the show.

So, we — you know, The Red Nation sat down in early 2019 to read the Green New Deal and to try to think about what is the role of Indigenous people in the larger kind of vision for climate justice and addressing climate change, that is given to us or proposed in the Green New Deal. So, Indigenous people are mentioned twice in the Green New Deal as it currently stands. We’re mentioned in relationship to environmental racism — right? — the disproportionate impact of things like resource extraction, pollution, climate disaster, those types of things. And we’re also mentioned in relationship to treaties.

And so, something that we talk a lot about in The Red Deal, that builds off of the Green New Deal, but perhaps expands it and creates a more comprehensive program that is not yet proposed or fleshed out in the Green New Deal, is around treaties, right? We talk a lot about how treaties are between human beings. They’re between nations, between Indigenous nations and the United States. We know the history of treaty making in the United States is a history of broken promises — right? — the U.S. acting absolutely like a predator nation, never upholding treaties, right? A huge part of the land — the current Land Back movement, is kind of captivating Indigenous decolonization movements at the moment, is about honoring and upholding and enforcing treaties, giving treaty lands back — right? — talking about the Black Hills or other kinds of places in North America. And so, we talk a lot about how we need to enforce treaties as a sort of a baseline for kind of meeting Indigenous people in terms of our struggle for climate justice and what we have to say about it.

And so, the Green New Deal does introduce that, or at least it centers it, I would say, in the way it talks about Indigenous people. I would say, however, that when — oftentimes the language around treaties, especially in the United States, people often talk about honoring treaties. And, you know, like, The Red Deal, we say we don’t want to honor treaties; we want to enforce treaties, because if you’re going to enforce treaties, you have to enforce Indigenous laws that are based on being in right relation with the Earth. And that needs to be a premise, right? That needs to be a premise for how we approach addressing climate change as a species.

And so we’re also talking about applying Indigenous governance, traditions and customary governance, as well as sort of like what undergirds those treaties from an Indigenous perspective, at a much larger scale than what I think is often thought of or that the Green New Deal proposes, right? In order to curb the actual threat that climate change presents to us — it’s presenting it to us on a level of a species — right? — on a planetary level. So we believe that we can actually apply these Indigenous principles to a global scale, that we can truly build mass movements, because we believe that mass movements and mass mobilization are what’s going to be required, you know, to make sure that we’re around in 29 years, by the time the clock ends in 2050.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Maile, in the introduction, you write, both of you write — you pose the question: In this era of catastrophic climate change, why is it easier for some to imagine the end of fossil fuel rather than the end of settler colonialism? You also — the book outlines a plan for collective climate action that can redress some of the problems that you outline. Could you explain what the principles are on which this collective climate action plan is based?

UAHIKEA MAILE: Yeah, certainly. And thanks again for having us on this expanded conversation.

So, The Red Deal focuses on four main principles, which are clear, comprehensive, like Dr. Yazzie explained, and also pragmatic. This is a radically pragmatic program about Indigenous action to save our Earth, which is not exclusive, but is inclusive.

So, the first principle of The Red Deal is that what creates crisis cannot solve it. So, for instance, the greenwashing of the U.S. military, which is one of the largest polluters in the world — I believe that the U.S. military emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than 100 countries globally. So, introducing green technologies and the utilization of non-fossil-fuel sources and fuel products for the U.S. military is not going to change the ways in which U.S. imperialism transits all over the world in destructive and cataclysmic ways. And so, the idea that the U.S. military being a massive polluter of not just the atmosphere, but obviously the entire Earth, cannot be saved by simply greenwashing it, right? What creates the crisis cannot solve it.

But this is also true for police protecting property and capital, not people. Even convictions of cop killers can’t protect us, as we just recently saw during the trial of Derek Chauvin, who brutally murdered George Floyd. There was a bevy of other police killings. Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, these are two Black people in the United States that were murdered by police during a trial for a cop killer that murdered George Floyd about a year ago. What creates the crisis cannot solve it. Prisons disproportionately contain and exploit Black, Indigenous, racialized and poor people. Border Patrol and ICE don’t keep us safe, but caged and controlled. And so, we propose, as a baseline, fundamental principle in The Red Deal that what creates not just climate crisis, but violence, cannot resolve it.

The second principle is that change must happen from below and the left. You know, capitalism is destroying this planet. Some scholars like to throw around the term the Anthropocene to mark the period of time in which human anthropogenic activity has overwhelmed the Earth and led to the current climate crisis that we’re in. But other scholars refer to this as the Capitalocene, because this is essentially a period of time, since the preindustrial era, in which the capitalist mode of production, which is also relative to the ways in which consumption occurs, has overwhelmed this planet. And so it is not just all human beings that are destroying this planet. It is a very small amount of human beings that are destroying this planet. And we, in The Red Deal, identify them as the capitalists, the bosses, the fossil fuel polluters, the military, the imperialists. So, in order for change to happen, we see that it must occur from below and to the left, and thus we must destroy capitalism as a system of production, consumption, but also as an ideology. This means building people power, not power for corporations, like a cap-and-trade system would enable, or a carbon tax and pricing system, which just bolsters the financialization of the climate justice movement. But we see that this means building power for people, not corporations, or nonprofits.

The third principle is that politicians can’t do what mass movements can. And my colleague and comrade Dr. Yazzie has already spoken to this. But in the book, we discuss how reform is a compromise. The Green New Deal is a compromise. We must no longer succumb to compromising on a dying planet. Nonreformist reform, which is what The Red Deal advocates for strongly, makes no compromises. So, in the case of the Green New Deal, which its two primary mentions of Indigenous peoples comes from, on one hand, marking Indigenous peoples as passive objects of climate change and global warming that simply experience the disproportionate effects of climate change and global warming, like rising sea levels that are drastically affecting Pacific Island nations, in Micronesia, in Hawaii, where I’m from. This is not the case. Peoples, Indigenous peoples all over the world are protecting their land, their resources, their more-than-human relatives.

In Hawaii, in 2019, there was a mass mobilization of Kanaka Maoli people to stop a technoscientific project called the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the 14th telescope observatory built on our sacred mountain Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island. Even as a technoscientific project that purports to progress mankind and humans by searching for origins of our being in the universe and planets outside of our solar system, that project to hunt for Earth analogs and to find alien life outside of our solar system, to lay conquest outside of our solar system, depends upon the conquest and colonization of our Earth, of Hawaii, of Mauna Kea. And in 2019, a recent iteration of the opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope mobilized in mass, and we stopped this construction project, which is estimated at $2.4 billion, a multinational corporate project, of which U.S. universities, the Canadian federal government, multiple governments have invested in.

And you know what? Across the way, on a different mountain, Mauna Loa, there is an observatory called the Mauna Loa Observatory, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency uses to measure how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. So, recently, the Democracy Now! website posted a quick little article about how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached an unprecedented level of 420 parts per million. That reading by NOAA was only possible because of the Mauna Loa Observatory’s occupation of our sacred mountain, Mauna Loa, across the way from another sacred mountain. And so, we see that structural change must happen, not just simply compromise.

And the last is our principle from theory to action. Liberation isn’t just a theory. It’s a right. And it’s a right for people to act. And people have already acted on the ground And The Red Deal was born from that struggle, and it will continue to support that struggle on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Professor Yazzie about the Standing Rock Sioux tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who just recently died of brain cancer at the age of 64. Now, she co-founded the Sacred Stone Camp on her own property along the Cannonball River in North Dakota in April of 2016 to resist the Dakota Access pipeline. She said anyone who came to set up a teepee or a tent, she would give food to. She figured a couple dozen people would come. Soon thousands came from around the world. Democracy Now! travel to Standing Rock Labor Day weekend of 2016 at the height of the protests, and we stood with LaDonna Brave Bull Allard at the Sacred Stone Camp, just hours before the Dakota Access pipeline company unleashed dogs and pepper spray on Native water defenders seeking to protect a sacred tribal burial ground. This is what she said.

LADONNA BRAVE BULL ALLARD: We say mni wiconi, water of life. Every time we drink water, we say mni wiconi, water of life. We cannot live without water. So I don’t understand why America doesn’t understand how important water is. So we have no choice. We have to stand. No matter what happens, we have to stand to save the water.

AMY GOODMAN: That was LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. She was really our introduction to the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline. Professor Yazzie, if you can talk about what you understand about why President Biden said he was reversing a number of President Trump’s decisions, who greenlighted Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline, one of his first acts in office; immediately, when President Biden came into office, he nixed the Keystone XL pipeline but hasn’t done the same on DAPL, and what you think needs to happen there? And if you can also talk about what’s happening with Oak Flat in Arizona?

MELANIE YAZZIE: Sure. So, thank you for playing those beautiful words from LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. It broke my heart. I think it broke the heart of pretty much everyone across Indian Country when we found out a couple of weeks ago that she had passed on in her journey into the next world.

You know, something I’ve learned from the Indigenous women who have really led the grassroots movements that we draw from in The Red Deal, the grassroots Indigenous movements — right? — is that the scale — again, I’m going to talk about scale, right? It’s not — climate — the Earth tells us, and Indigenous women who are caretakers, the primary caretakers of the Earth, customarily, in Indigenous nations, remind us that this isn’t something that’s just about us as individuals. It’s not even necessarily something that’s just about us as Indigenous people, but that the threat that we’re facing is a species-level threat, right? It’s an extinction-level event or an extinction-level possibility. And so, Indigenous women always remind us — right? — our primary responsibility as human beings in the here and the now is to caretake future — to caretake the Earth now to ensure future generations of life for — to ensure life for the future generations of all people and all life on this planet. So it’s very much a life-based movement, which is why “water is life” — right? — “life” being the operative word, became such a rallying point and has continued to be a rallying point for Indigenous grassroots movements around climate change. And LaDonna was really central to that. So my heart goes out to her family.

In terms of Biden, you know, canceling KXL but not DAPL, I mean, you know, Biden’s — his energy plan, I remember I was reading it back right before he was elected, and then his choice for Deb Haaland — right? — as the secretary of interior. He talked a lot about preserving 30% of public lands by 2030 — right? — reducing carbon emissions — this is why he’s having his climate summit — banning fracking, for example, on public lands, which I’m assuming Haaland is going to be carrying out as the DOI secretary. I think the fact that he didn’t cancel DAPL has to do with the fact that the transition from so-called dirty energy — right? — so, coal, the things that we talk about in Indigenous movements and view as resource extraction, we categorize as resource extraction — oil, uranium, gas, natural gas, coal — so that the transition from dirty energy to clean energy is one in which he still actually has to cater to the multinational corporations — right? — the billionaires who have actually caused a huge part of the climate disaster in the first place, because those corporations, whether it’s ExxonMobil — right? — or Energy Transfer Partners, have already invested billions of dollars, because they see the transition to green energy and green capitalism as the newest source of profit. And so they’re already abandoning kind of the dirty energy production line and heavily investing in the clean energy revolution that I think we’re going to be seeing over the next four years. And so Biden actually still has to work with those companies.

You know, Obama — Biden was Obama’s VP. Obama heavily subsidized the oil and gas industry, you know, at the beginning of his term as president, because he had to dig the United States out of the economic recession of 2008 and 2009. We’re not necessarily in an economic recession right now. But the pandemic — right? — has done crazy things, has really had an impact on the U.S. economy. And so, I think you’re going to have to see Biden pick and choose who he’s working with in terms of energy corporations, because whether it’s dirty or clean energy, it’s still energy capitalism — right? — is the name of the game in the United States. And the people and the nations that face the brunt of the destruction of energy development are almost always Indigenous communities, often Black communities. And so, I think that’s part of the reason to explain that.

So, the Oak Flat struggle just continues. I remember — you know, The Red Nation came into existence in late 2014, right about six months before kind of the first flare-up in the Save Oak Flat movement started in the summer of 2015, if people remember. So the struggle to save Oak Flat has actually been really central, I think, to the way Indigenous people have been mobilizing on the ground and framing our struggles over the last decade, as has Standing Rock, as has Unist’ot’en Camp against Coastal GasLink pipeline up in so-called Canada, right? And so, The Red Nation has really grown up alongside these types of movements and these uprisings like Oak Flat.

You know, the recent decision about the environmental impact statement regarding Oak Flat has been encouraging, but nevertheless, you know, the copper — copper, right? — the resource that is being tried — that Resolution Copper is trying to mine from that sacred land, for the San Carlos Apache, you know, that’s copper. And copper is considered a clean energy source. And so this is what I’m talking about when it comes to Biden’s clean energy, the transition from dirty to clean energy. Copper is considered a clean energy source. Yet Indigenous people are telling you very clearly that they do not consent to you mining, you know, copper from their sacred lands. So, are you going to mine copper to subsidize and to, you know, invest in the green energy boom that you’re proposing to address climate change and kind of to reduce carbon emissions? Are you just going to, yet again, you know, violate Indigenous people and go and mine that copper anyway for this energy economy? And I think, you know, this is what Indigenous people force us to ask ourselves when we’re talking about addressing climate change, when we’re talking about reducing carbon emissions and global warming and addressing climate change. Are you going to keep violating our consent? Because we keep telling you “no,” and you keep doing it, right? And so, these are some of the larger questions I think we need to consider when we’re thinking about clean energy. And the Oak Flat struggle will continue, I think, to be a really important element of the Indigenous kind of contribution and leadership in the climate justice movement to come.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Maile, we’d like to end by going back to your book, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. Could you talk about how this is a global fight, as well, the alliances between Indigenous populations and climate justice activists, from Native populations around the world, and their commitment to both climate justice in the form also of decolonization?

UAHIKEA MAILE: Yes, certainly. So, as we’ve talked already, and my colleague Dr. Yazzie explained earlier, you know, Indigenous people have been fighting environmental injustice since 1492. This is a centuries-long struggle for us as Indigenous peoples. But in 2018, when climate scientists agreed that emissions and warming would reach dangerous levels in 2030, giving us sort of 12 years left to do something, for us, the path forward was clear. It’s decolonization or extinction. And land back is the soundest environmental policy.

Indigenous peoples, despite making up 5% of the global population, protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. So climate policy should follow the leadership of those most affected, most experienced by and with climate change, not politicians in the command seat of governments causing it. And so what that means for coalitions and alliances between climate scientists, environmental activists and Indigenous peoples is that Indigenous movements stand against extractive colonial projects, not just extractive projects, but identifying their colonial, settler colonial and imperialist structure as extractive projects, while at the same time encouraging action for caretaking relations to protect the Earth and all inhabitants of it, human and more than human.

This means what we say in The Red Deal, which is that The Red Deal is a program for Indigenous action to save our Earth. And so, this is an intervention into the kind of liberal environmentalist analysis and also activism that is currently taking place on the ground, which doesn’t just exclude Indigenous peoples and nations, but, as my colleague Dr. Yazzie said, actually can contribute to settler colonialism and imperialism, not just in the Global North, but in the Global South, as well, in Oceania and beyond. And so, The Red Deal posits that the Global North — in particular, the U.S. and Canada — isn’t a leader in climate justice, but actually a leader in climate imperialism.

And so The Red Deal makes clear that climate policy must be anti-imperialist. And this means ending sanctions against countries and peoples in the Global South, ending the externalization of climate debt from the North to the rest of the world, right? If the Global North has been the largest hemispheric polluter of the atmosphere and of the planet, then why is it that its debt gets externalized onto countries and peoples that have not committed the same kinds of cataclysmic emissions? This is what climate debt refers to. And we find this a very important coalition to align with countries and peoples from the Global South that are experiencing very similar things that Indigenous peoples are experiencing on a larger transnational scale.

And so, this is why the Red New Deal is not only unapologetically Indigenous, but it’s unapologetically anti-imperialist, because this is what it means to resist extinction and to work towards decolonization. Decolonization is not a passive project. It is not just decolonizing the mind. It’s decolonizing the Earth. It’s land back for Indigenous peoples. It’s transforming nation-states so that its governance system does not reflect imperialist, neoliberal policies, but reflects the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples, where they are, for who they are. And so, this is what it means to decolonize. And this is what The Red Deal purports to actively provide a program that is not just revolutionary, but also pragmatic.

AMY GOODMAN: And although we said “finally” once, one last “finally” for Professor Yazzie. As we sit here now, the first Native American woman heads the Department of the Interior. She is a sister Indigenous leader, like you, from New Mexico. You’re at the University of New Mexico. The significance of Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet member, as well, and what your expectations are, Professor Yazzie?

MELANIE YAZZIE: Yeah, in The Red Nation — you know, Deb Haaland, when she was in Congress, she represented my district, and I voted for her, because her district is in Albuquerque. And, you know, I think everyone, especially Native women, in The Red Nation are — and we have a lot of Pueblo women — right? — because she’s from Laguna Pueblo – in The Red Nation were incredibly thrilled — right? — when she became a congresswoman and then was chosen as the secretary. You know, and we call her “Ko’o Deb,” which is “Auntie Deb.” In The Red Nation, that’s how we address her and talk about her, in a very endearing way. And so, we got her back. You know, we know what she’s facing.

I wrote an op-ed for Gizmodo, Earther, I think it’s called, about a couple of months ago, and I talked about the significance of Deb Haaland’s appointment as the secretary of interior. And I think, for me, you know, I think about it from the perspective of somebody who’s in the movement, right? So I’m an Indigenous woman, but I’m also somebody who’s really invested in building movements rather than appealing — right? — to ruling-class politicians in these kinds of positions of power. And so, Deb Haaland — right? — just was — 2019 was the year of the Native woman. I think it was on Time magazine or something like that. And so, Deb Haaland’s rise to power in this position is really because of Indigenous women’s leadership in grassroots movements, right? It wasn’t like some sort of happenstance that she was chosen. I mean, I think Indigenous people have been on the move. But what I’m trying to say is — and this also has to do with AOC proposing the Green New Deal, and she talked about how her successful bid for Congress herself started on the ground in Standing Rock — right? — and was kind of informed by those values. And so, what we’re arguing in The Red Deal, and what I think Deb Haaland’s appointment reflects, is the strength and the influence of movements themselves, not necessarily voting — right? — not necessarily policy reform, but the movements themselves that have advanced the voices and the strength and the leadership of Indigenous women. And so I think she’s sort of a contemporary result of that.

That said, you know, she’s at the head of a department of the United States government that is tasked with two things that have been contradictory, I would say, over the past 10 to 15 years, that have actually created the context for a lot of the uprisings we’ve seen to protect sacred sites against resource extraction, against oil pipelines, right? The Department of the Interior is tasked with mediating the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous nations. That’s one of its tasks. One of its other tasks is managing federal or public land, right? And so, what has happened — right? — under Obama and under Trump — Trump actually continued and expanded Obama’s energy policy, particularly around fracking — is that the Department of the Interior has mediated and negotiated all the leases for fracking. And so, what that has meant is that a lot of that public land that has been leased out for resource extraction and energy development has actually encroached upon tribal sovereignty and the ability of Native people in communities like Eastern Navajo in northwestern New Mexico, and even, in some case, Deb Haaland’s community, Laguna Pueblo, you know, from being able to just live on the land. The land is so heavily polluted and destroyed, not to mention man camps and the increasing numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and people — right? — that attend resource extraction. And so, the policy that has been really consistent around leasing out public lands for energy development has also created intense, repetitive violations of tribal sovereignty. So the DOI is not able to actually fulfill both of its primary functions. And so Deb Haaland inherits this — right? — as she enters the Department of the Interior.

And I think it’s important for her to — it’s going to be difficult, right? — but for her to understand that the Indigenous movement right now is being kind of reformulated and regalvanized around land back. And what Native people mean by “land back,” we literally mean we want land back. And a lot you’re going to see out of these movements, and we already have, that the primary target right now to begin kind of a larger mass — comprehensive mass land return project is going to be targeted at public lands. David Treuer, an important Anishinaabeg writer, came out with an article in The Atlantic — I think it was just last week or the week before — about how we should return national parks to the stewardship of Indigenous nations, right? That’s going to be the first of many appeals and many movements you’re going to see from Indigenous people at the grassroots level, that land return needs to start with public lands, because, of course, we know that public land in the United States is stolen land, because that land was born of dispossession, as is private property. But Deb Haaland has jurisdiction and kind of dominion over public lands. And so, how is she going to respond to this Land Back movement, that I — you know, I predict will only continue to grow? So, she’s in a difficult position trying — she inherits those contradictions. But she also is in this position partly because of these types of movements. So, we’ll just have to see what happens, you know, in the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both so much for joining us, Melanie Yazzie and Uahikea Maile, new book, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth. They contributed to this book along with about two dozen other Indigenous scholars and activists. Professor Melanie Yazzie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, assistant professor of Native American studies and American studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist from Maunawili, O’ahu, and assistant professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto. Again, they are co-authors of the new book, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, on this Earth Day.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Better yet, wear two. Thanks so much for joining us.

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