Interview with Paul DeMain, Part 1
Air date: May 29, 2017
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THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m here today with Paul DeMain, which is his “English” name, but his Ojibwe name is Skabewis, and he is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and of Ojibwe descent. Paul, or Skabewis, is managing editor and CEO of News from Indian Country and a producer for IndianCountryTV.com. It is an honor to have you with us today, Paul, and welcome!
PAUL DEMAIN: Thank you so much for having me today.
TM: It is really an honor to be talking with you, and I want to thank you for your time with us. And you’re involved with so many things, it’s going to be hard to be able to narrow it down to some of the things we’d really love to talk with you about. But why don’t you start out and tell us—I was so interested to hear that your publication, as well as the IndianCountryTV.com, is not really owned by the Indian reservation but is actually an independent. And that, I’m assuming, was intentional on your part. How did that come to be, and why were you wanting it to be independent?
PDM: Well, very much intentional. At one point I did work for the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Government before I got asked by the governor of Wisconsin in 1982 to go work in the governor’s office of the state of Wisconsin, being the first Native American ever to be in the governor’s office in that capacity as a state tribal liaison—the administration of Anthony S. Earl. And I went down there, and after serving four years I did come back and made a conscious decision that I would like to try to establish an independent news source that was free of tribal government and the constraints that are put on journalists in that capacity to really cover issues as they see, rather than being more of a public relations individual and mouthpiece for the tribe, which many publications are. They do a great job in covering things, but when it comes down to the politics of investigative reporting, sometimes they are constrained. Sometimes they’re fired for violating that protocol of “the tribe can do nothing but good and the elected politicians are all saints.” So the independence was important. And in part, that’s what’s led me into some of these issues of food sovereignty and agricultural freedom as well.
TM: Well, I’m sorry that I didn’t get a chance to really dive deeper into News from Indian Country and also the TV, but I did try and scan a little bit, and I see that Ojibwe reservation and nation was at Standing Rock. And I wonder—I know a lot of our listeners really followed everything so closely—if you might give us a comment or two about what kind of experience that was for you.
PDM: Well, first of all, I think just about every tribe in the United States had either individual tribal representatives or actual governmental representatives that visited Standing Rock during what now is about a year worth of activism at an intense level. I mean, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux have been at opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline previous to their establishing, in April of last year, this camp that actually grew into about four or five different camps. There was Sacred Stone and Oceti and Rosebud and several smaller camps that were established there as that encampment grew in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, for a lot of reasons—not only the historic trauma of displacement of the Sioux people and the reduction of their land base under the great Sioux treaty, which established a very large area until gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The United States unilaterally diminished that reservation into smaller chunks, which is where the current boundary for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is, which was a historic claim.
And then a more modern claim of the Lake Oahe Project there that flooded 260,000 acres in the 1950s and ’60s to resolve the downstream flooding issue, in which people actually located their households in the floodplains of the Missouri and Mississippi River and then discovered that every ten years or so, it flooded in the flood plain. Can you imagine that? And so it was the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who had something like 260,000 acres seized to create this upstream water control project, which again eroded the ability and took away probably some of the most fertile land and some of the most productive indigenous farmers in that region.
So that happened in the 1950s and ’60s. So in 2016, when the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline and decisions by the Army Corp of Engineers and the United States Government started taking place, in opposition to what the people there locally wanted, you saw the resistance grow. And it’s interesting that it grew to the size that it did, with people from throughout the United States, Canada—I mean, there were visitors from throughout the world who came there to stand up for clean water and environmental justice, the need to really recognize that indigenous people have something to offer. I was certainly honored to be part of some of the activities that led up to that as a member of the board of directors for Honor the Earth. And Honor the Earth played, I think, a key role in some of the activities there. There’s Indigenous Environmental Network, there’s lots of organizations that came together. But there’s a continuing project there with a solar village that’s being funded in part by Honor the Earth and some other organizations. There’s other activities in terms of building straw bale homes and putting up wind turbines out in the Dakotas that Honor the Earth and Winona LaDuke have been advocating for, for years.
And so those projects are very consistent with the opposition to the extractive fossil fuel industry that is now mesmerizing people throughout the world. I think this is coming together. We see actions throughout the United States and Canada that’s putting a lot of pressure on the funders of the extractive industry as the fossil fuel industry gets down to the dirtiest of the dirtiest of oil products and shale and fracking and tar sands in Canada. And, you know, for great gain for a small group of individuals, at a great risk to the people who are dependent on clean water and drinking water and a clean environment. So I was happy to be able to not only cover some of the activities through Indian Country TV and the newspaper News from Indian Country but to be involved in some of the decision-making process that continues to put money into a push to see more renewable energy products produced in the United States and the jobs that come with that as well.
TM: Well, you know, as you speak, I can see why you’re named Skabewis, which I think you told me means “messenger,” because you certainly are well spoken on the overview of this. I really appreciate the way you just kind of put this all together. And what I think I just heard is that there are things that actually have then grown out of that that are still going on that have a lot to do with this whole idea of protecting our water, and alternative energy, and especially a lot of the ideas that Winona LaDuke had from Honor the Earth.
PDM: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s a part of the general awareness having to do with… I think it’s local communities waking up and understanding that big corporate entities like Walmart are extractive, and energy-extractive industries. That is, is that there has always been corporate entities and projects that come in and take the wealth out of a community and move it elsewhere for their own use. And generally those communities, once they’ve been extracted and exploited, are left to figure how to survive.
And so what I see in the indigenous community, and I see it paired in the non-Indian community in many, many places, is this realization that somehow we’ve gone around our local communities in terms of what they’re able to provide locally and what they mean locally. And that is, is that when we sit down and talk with people, the common thread is that most people would like to have jobs for their children and grandchildren into the future. They want a decent education, and they want clean air and clean water and a clean environment. They want parks, they want places that look nice, feel nice, and are comfortable. And that somehow in this race to, what I call sometimes the game of monopoly and capitalism and how it works and when they don’t have checks and balances on it to redistribute the wealth, that we find communities in which corporations extract stuff, whether it’s the oil wealth or whether it’s the iron ore or whether it’s Walmart extracting the money that used to go to Wall Street and family businesses on Main Street—that we can get back to supporting our farmers, we can get back to growing our own gardens, we can get back to capturing solar energy and wind energy and turbine energy from the water and the waves. And we can look at ways to reduce the impact that each one, we individually have, our families have, our tribes have, our communities, our clans, whatever it may be—that there are ways to reduce our impact and use of fossil fuel products, whether it’s plastics, or whether it’s driving, or whether it’s the kind of car you drive, that the world is becoming much more aware now. And some of it’s out of the necessity to become more aware.
In the indigenous community, man was put on the earth last and is dependent on everything that exists that the creation put here for our utilization. And we need to maintain a relationship with those entities, whether it’s the food or the trees or the water; that each one of those things is a living entity in some sense and response. We’re only beginning to learn a lot of things from experience and from in-depth contemplation about these things. Which is different from scientific study, because scientific study, in my short 60 years, has changed. You know, the Bering Strait, the date when it occurred keeps getting put back all the time as scientists have to adjust themselves to the archeological discoveries. We’re discovering that indigenous people were great farmers. They had raised gardens and aquaculture and hydroponics thousands of years ago. At Manistee, Michigan, on the Menomonie River between Wisconsin and the Michigan’s UP, on the Menominee Reservation a raised garden bed there that’s 1,400 years old, from my understanding, that people are only beginning to study and say, “Well that’s interesting, because we didn’t think indigenous people were farmers. We thought they roamed around and hunt and fish.”
But you go back in history, you find these great societies like Cahokia in southern Illinois, which was a very elaborate society that had trade routes in which products taken out of the Penokee Hills, spotted copper, are found throughout the world. And the question is, how did those pieces of copper with silver in them, which is a footprint for the Penokee copper deposits—somewhere along the line, silver got splashed into a batch of copper and the Cahokians sought that out for their artisans in southern Illinois. When 2,000 years ago it was a 22-square-mile [unclear] village site. When London, England, had a couple thousand people, there was thirty or forty thousand people living at that site. And the agricultural society across on the west side of the Mississippi River in St. Louis was an extensive agricultural activity that fed them and fed people up and down the line, all the way through their sub-communities in Wisconsin and Illinois and to the south, all the way up into the Keweenaw Bay Peninsula where they came to mine spotted copper.
So we’re still learning a lot of things, and we’re still trying to find hope in the potential of the future. But what I see as very positive attributes is a community who’s trying to accomplish a number of things through resistance to the dirty, extractive corporate industry. And that is, is that we once fed ourselves, and we can do better than the USDA commodity food program when we feed ourselves.
It’s saying that at one time at Lac Courte Oreilles and a lot of other communities, archeologists and historians would tell you that when they came through the community, every single family had a small garden. When you go to Madeline Island, look at the historic nature of the island, you find that some of the narratives say that there was corn, beans, and squash growing in the nooks and crannies of the forest on Madeline Island 200 years ago. When you look at the raised garden beds on the Menominee River or on the Menominee Reservation or in Manistee, Michigan, you find out that 1,400 to 2,000 years ago indigenous people had garden settings that are more elaborate than anything else you find in North America. It’s just that when people say, “Well, Indians didn’t farm,” it’s they didn’t have a little red barn and a row of cows to milk every day. No, we hybrided corn from grass to where it is now with 360 or 370 different varieties of corn, from Meskwaki popcorn to Pawnee eagle corn to Iroquois white flint corn. And to some extent, that historic agricultural knowledge and a lot of the seeds were lost to history as farmers began to standardize yellow feed corn or yellow sweet corn for the market so it looked pleasing to the eye, and doing things with food that commoditized it in a way that stripped it of a lot of its nutrition.
So we have very unhealthy communities, not only because of some of the alcohol and drug abuse and cigarette smoking and other things, but because the diet of our community is no longer taken from the woods in a 30-mile radius of where we lived, which it would have been historically. And what you couldn’t find in the woods, you grew. You grew sunflowers, you grew several varieties of squash, you grew several varieties of beans. You grew the corn that was prolific throughout North American indigenous communities, from Iroquois country to the Hopi blue corn. And we fed ourselves, and we fed ourselves in a healthy way that allowed us to live long lives despite how dangerous life was in the woods and deserts and other places to gatherers, foragers, hunters, and other activities. But we were much healthier. There was a lack of diabetes, there was a lack of heart disease. Every day I hear about a new kind of cancer of some kind that has gotten out of hand.
So we’re looking at some of the things, because our elders continuously said—not only about our history and our culture and our language—that if we wanted to know where we needed to go into the future, if we wanted to look at where we were headed, we needed to look behind to see what was there and to learn from it. And so feeding ourselves, and collecting our wild rice, and making sure that the venison is clean venison and the fish have clean water, has all become a very large circle of activity that has to do with food sovereignty and feeding ourselves, creating healthier lifestyles, doing things with the family in the woods, doing it in cycles that doesn’t create the anxiety of the daily work agenda. And it doesn’t mean sitting around and collecting food stamps and not doing anything—it means busy in the woods, it means busy in the garden, it means busy hunting, it means busy foraging, it means busy cooking slow food that you can sit down and relax to eat it, rather than participating in some of the anxiety-creating things that this society has created. Which, it’s wonderful that everyone has cellphones and they get can everything right on their phone, but if you look how society’s beginning to treat each other, you can look at tables of people who are all looking at their phones and they’re not talking to each other. It’s almost like the way they communicate was they’re texting each other as they’re sitting at the same dinner table.
TM: So true!
PDM: And we’ve learned, you know, my kids and grandchildren, they know how to warm food up. And so we’ve got to get back to these things that were in our community that give health to our bodies. Our minds will be healthier because of it. And this has spawned activity against some of these big corporate extractive processes as well that could damage the earth in way that renders it an inability to provide the sustenance that, from our point of view, the Creator put these things on the earth to help provide us sustenance. And there’s a reverence in that, and that’s what being pro-life [is] about. It’s being more than just pro-birth. It’s being reactive to the entire creation and understanding that that’s a special gift that needs to be protected in a way, rather than exploited for the profit of a few.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Paul DeMain, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and of Ojibwe descent, and in fact his Ojibwe name is Skabewis, which means “messenger.” And we are discussing the Native American issues as well as Standing Rock, but also what are the issues threatening them with regards to clean water and of course food sovereignty.
While you were talking, I was wondering, didn’t some of those things that you’re saying—this is what we need to do, we need to go back to cooking and to slow cooking and being together in community—didn’t that happen at Standing Rock, and wasn’t that part of maybe the learning that everybody who was there experienced?
PDM: Absolutely. What made the news was the confrontations at the front line as protestors and Martin County Sheriff’s Department went toe to toe. And we saw some of the ability of our relatives in law enforcement to be able to inflict pain and suffering on individuals who in many cases were peacefully demonstrating, and the unleashing of dogs and water cannons in 26 degree weather—things that the world was shocked to see. The untold story, to a great degree, was really the ability for these camps and villages—I’ll call them a regular village—to have sprung up and people working with each other from the top to bottom. There were indigenous chefs that went—one of them was Brian Yazzie, who works with The Sioux Chef out of the Twin Cities—went out there to organize the kitchen with indigenous people, with an indigenous cooking philosophy in mind. You know, where can we get ingredients that we utilize that are good for us? Let’s shift this paradigm over as long as we’re here.
And so there were people were working on creating composting sanitary systems. There were thousands of people that had to be fed on a daily basis. There was all kinds of structures that arose down there which housed thousands of people. There was village solar panels. There was a place called Facebook Hill where everyone went up to use the solar panels to regenerate their cell phones and to connect with Facebook—that’s why they called it. Everyone wanted to go up there and Facebook up there. That was run by solar panels.
And so to me, this was an interesting experiment and an interesting dynamic of thousands of people coming together and creating a viable community that worked. I mean, to have that many people together in a very remote place like that, certainly there were problem and issues, but I was in awe at how that many people organized themselves—and to do it in an orderly way, under the duress of law enforcement and media who weren’t always very helpful in terms of how they described that. I mean, they went in, and it was going to flood, and they went in and they took great big trucks and shovels and plows and just plowed everything out of the way, when there was thousands of dollars of tents and stoves and other things that had been winterized under a blizzard there when it blew in—that was good stuff. But in their hurry to clear the camps, thousands of dollars of equipment and blankets and tarps and everything was just bulldozed into big piles. Then you take big pictures of that and say, “Look at how trashy this place is!” Well, the thing was, is that when we were there, I was surprised at the amount of order that existed in a community of several thousand people. People were self-policing themselves and cooperating with authorities. People were trying to work on sanitation on a regular basis.
So that was a huge learning experience for people all over North America. And when some people say, you know, they didn’t know that they were germinating hundreds of thousands of new water protectors when they sprayed everyone down for several hours on that cold winter evening with the water cannons—oh yeah, all they did was germinate a whole lot of people who were mad at law enforcement, mad at the fossil fuel industry. And these people have gone back to their communities where they’re going to organize educational forums, where they’re going to walk those lines and discover leaks that even the companies that own the pipelines didn’t know existed. They’re going to educate their neighbors about the kinds of billions of dollars that flow through that pipeline when they get a mere pittance in the lease that’s a 50-year lease, and Grandpa took the money and that’s it. But the potential environmental dangers that may occur with an oil eruption or leak will be paid for by the public, will be paid for by those individual land owners and the public in the long run.
So there’s been a great deal of awareness in what happened in Standing Rock. Many, many people went to Standing Rock to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their battle against Dakota Access Pipeline, only to come home and learn that they had pipelines on their own reservation or running through their own community, and perhaps had as much or more danger because the Dakota Access Pipeline is a brand-new pipeline. We have pipelines that were put in the 1950s in the ground here in northern Wisconsin that have all kind of anomalies. That means there are pin leaks, there’s disruptions, there’s a loss of oil that the company is always recording. I mean, there is never a pipeline that’s 100 percent pressure. There is always some kind of leakage and shrinkage of your product in pipelines because there are always small leaks and disruptions and anomalies going on.
Well, these pipelines—Pipeline 3 in Minnesota, Pipeline 5 across the Bad River in northern Wisconsin, Pipeline 7 from Superior down to the Illinois border—they were put in in the 1950s when there wasn’t an Environmental Protection Agency. None of those pipelines have abandonment plans to take them out. I mean, no one ever thought, “Well after 25 or 50 years maybe they ought to be taken out.” They’re supposed to be abandoned in place. They’ve been—Line 61 most recently was pressurized to carry four times the pressure that it was built to do. There’s pipeline fitters and other people who are concerned about the pressure on the line and the ramifications of what might happen if there is a weak spot in some of those pipelines.
So it’s not a question of if a pipeline will leak—pipelines leak all the time. The question is, where will the next leak be, and how big will it be, and how costly to the public and the environment will that leak or eruption be as well.
TM: This is Part 1 of our interview with Native American Paul DeMain. Listen in next week for part two of this wonderful conversation with managing editor and CEO of News from Indian Country, Paul DeMain.