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May 9, 2013

The Dawn of My Environmentalism: Would the climate crisis have ever happened without a global history of colonization and slavery?

David Dean, May 9, 2013

By David Dean

In the summertime I direct a youth program on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana called Unity Hoops that integrates the game of basketball with a social justice-centered education. We work to build healing relationships with and among Crow Native youth, to instill within them a greater sense of control of destiny, and to empower them to create a more just and sustainable future for their people.

I began this project in the summer of 2011. In the weeks immediately prior to our arrival on the reservation massive rains hit the area and floods grew larger than they had in generations. Hundreds of homes were damaged and destroyed. Up to six feet of water was on the ground. Roads were shut down for weeks and the water supply was contaminated for months. Each day after camp we drove many students to a Red Cross shelter where they were living with their families.

The following year was the second hottest summer in the areas history. Drought was at an all time high and wildfires scorched the state. One night we saw them rising up the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield, where General Custer took his last stand 137 years ago. Our staff stayed at a Reservation youth center in the valley below. The winds were blowing toward us and we feared that the fires would soon come with them. After anxiously spraying the property down with water, we went to bed, hoping that we wouldn’t have to evacuate. Thankfully we didn’t.


The floods of 2011 and the fires of 2012 were not just experienced by the Crow, but by citizens of the state of Montana as a whole, as well as neighboring states such as Wyoming and South Dakota. The Crow community however is incredibly underserved. They lack adequate resources to effectively cope with such intense disasters.

Our students live in a community where roughly 80% of adults are unemployed, substance abuse is rampant, and life expectancy is about 25 years less than that of the average United States citizen. I often see our students posting to facebook prayers of remembrance and mourning about good friends or relatives who have died or committed suicide as children or teenagers. Rates of suicide, domestic violence, and fatal disease are through the roof in Indian country. Most live in small, tattered trailers that are decades old. There are no banks on the reservation. Few have lines of credit, investments, or bank accounts. Infrastructure is sparse at best. The Crow Reservation is a prime example of a poor under-resourced community that gets hit far harder by the effects of climate change than more affluent ones.


After speaking with Bill McKibben during his recent visit to Dickinson and reading things he’s written about the ways various climate crises have wreaked havoc in poor communities, I began to reflect on the connections between his message and my own life experience.

I thought of the traumatic history of the reservation and began to get emotional. The Crow have been marginalized and dominated throughout history by corporations and a militarized government intent on the maximization of profit. The relentless pursuit of economic growth that has oppressed them, and colonized peoples everywhere, has also created the climate crisis that we are in.

And so now we are here.

A situation in which the greatest victims of this climate crisis, both now and soon to come, are those who did nothing to cause it.  But not only this… Their domination was its prerequisite.

This concept really got me. I thought of manifest destiny, the doctrine still glorified in grade school classrooms today that proclaims the expansion of the United States throughout this continent as inevitable and intended for by God.  I ruminated on what this did to people and to the environment.

Cue verse 2 of Lupe Fiasco’s “Unforgivable Youth.” The entire track should be listened to for full effect.

Ways and means from the trade of human beings
A slave labor force provides wealth to the machine

And helps the new regime establish and expand

Using manifest destiny to siphon off the land

From native caretakers who can barely understand

How can land be owned by another man?
”One can not steal what was given as a gift

Is the sky owned by birds and the rivers owned by fish?”

But the lesson went unheeded, for the sake of what’s not needed

You kill but do not eat it

The excessive and elitists don’t repair it when they leave it

The forests’s were cleared, the factories were built

And all mistakes will be repeated by your future generations doomed to pay for your mistreatments

Foolishness and flaws, greed and needs and disagreement

And then you rush to have the most, from the day you left your boats

You’ll starve but never die in a world of hungry ghosts”

Again, give Lupe’s full song a listen. It’s worth it. If you didn’t pick it up, it’s about the ways in which the United States of America, in all its glory, was built upon genocide and slavery. It had an unforgivable youth.

How does it relate to this topic?

The industrial revolution – the force that initiated this incredible release of carbon into our atmosphere – couldn’t have happened to any comparable extremity without the genocide of indigenous peoples (to grab hold of land) and African slave-labor (to develop it). Is it possible that we would not be in this climate crisis if we did not have a global history of colonization and slavery? I believe so.

Right now I don’t have a nice conclusion about “how we can all come together to create a just and sustainable world” to wrap this up with. I’m not there yet. I’m still fuming. But I feel glad – even relieved in a sense. Relieved that I’m emerging from vast confusion about the world around me with stronger values and beliefs. I’m glad that I’m seeing connections, broadening my view of sustainability, and allowing the real importance of environmentalism to dawn on me. Bill McKibben, his presence and his work, helped with that.  Thanks.

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