Be mindful of the next seven generations
Pearl Means, a writer, producer and indigenous rights activist in the United States, struck a raw nerve with the audience at the University of Stellenbosch on 21 September 2017, when she recalled the terrifying experiences that Native Americans had to endure. She shared how, despite relatively small numbers, they were putting up a valiant defense against US corporations and government putting an oil pipeline through Indian land and sacred sites.
Means delivered the keynote address at the 2017 annual Institute for the Healing of Memories lecture, jointly sponsored by the Institute and the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University. She observed, “The Native American is like the miner's canary" sending out a distress signal in a world, where failure to take action against injustice could imperil the future of the next seven generations.
“We are here today because of a painful past, one that the invader made certain no one would know about, and we are almost gone. There is one percent of us left in America, the most powerful nation in the world. This country knows nothing about us, therefore, is able to commit the atrocities, the genocide that continues today through their policies," Means stated.
She celebrated the power of activism to stop corporate greed and government policies that lead to war, plunder and the undermining of the environment.
Indigenous activists in America recently stopped the completion of the 1 886 km Dakota oil pipeline that would transport nearly half a million barrels of oil a day from the border of Canada, through five states to the holding and distribution centre in Illinois. The mass campaign at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota successfully resisted attempts by energy companies to drill and install the pipeline under Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River that the indigenous peoples proclaim as a sensitive heritage area. The contention of the indigenous peoples, she noted, was that the water sources of the indigenous clans could become poisonous.
“We are under attack, with our lifeline, our water and the desecration of our sacred ancestral burial sites," Means claimed, explaining that the current violations were part of a pattern of historic abuse, reaching back to colonial times.
Means called for urgent action to secure future generations a sustainable legacy: “If we do nothing we will be charged with the next seven generations. We are all part of the human family and we need to preserve life. We made a stand with four women and one man, set up a camp a year and a half ago and said no more. What we didn't realise is that we would have the solidarity and support of over 10 000 people from all over the world – 500 members of the clergy came and stood with us and in a ceremony burnt the Doctrine of Discovery to show their solidarity. Over 400 indigenous nations came and stood with us: from the Maoris of New Zealand to the Amazonian indigenous of Ecuador. They filled our hearts with pride, with love."
“We have over 500 years' experience with the invader. We have no choice. We followed the mandate of our Creator. We know our time here is that of a drop in the bucket in comparison to the lifetime of a rock," Means added.
The indigenous leader noted that the current violations of indigenous rights and sovereignty stemmed from pronouncements by the Catholic Church more than five centuries ago:
“In 1493 the Vatican under Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull (edict of the Pope in the Vatican) that essentially said that all non-Christian-owned land was available for the taking for the Crown and for the Church. It gave them the moral and legal authority for the slaughter, for the raping, the pillaging of our homelands and our peoples".
Patric Tariq Mellet, a South African liberation activist, author and social historian, was the respondent to the keynote address and reflected on contemporary events in South Africa.
“In the old days before modern technology, a caged canary was taken down the mines because its demise provided a warning to miners of dangerous levels of poisonous atmosphere. It was a signal to miners to take action or die… to leave immediately for fresh air at the surface. As a metaphor, the plight of the canary can be likened in our societies to the assault on the most vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed in our society. The call to wake up and to resistance action shouts out from the overcome canary. This is a warning that a toxic wave – a period of threat – is about to sweep over others in our society," Mellet stated.
He noted that the metaphoric 'miner's canary' became a case of the testing of the resolve of the Native Americans at Standing Rock – “shouts out that race supremacism is on the rise – people of colour beware, other identities beware, all who are demonised beware."
“Our miner's canary as a warning of the corruption of our struggle gains, and of neo-colonialism in modern day South Africa stands out most starkly as the Marikana massacre. This was our Standing Rock… and so much more," Mellet added.
Photo: Patric Tariq Mellet, Pearl Means, Prof Nico Koopman (Vice-Rector: Social Impact, Transformation & Personnel) and Father Michael Lapsley (Director: Institute for the Healing of Memories)