words by Sasha Houston Brown

illustration by Bunky Echo Hawk


522 years after the arrival of Columbus, Indigenous tribes across North America are still fighting to protect their homelands, cultures and future generations. But what happens when new massacres come equipped with a silencer? That's the type of behind-the-scenes colonialism happening today in the form of tar sand extraction. Hidden in the margins of consumer society, tribal nations are standing up against one of the greatest environmental threats of our time, the Alberta tar sands.

 In Minnesota almost 80% of the fuel we purchase now comes from the Alberta Tar Sands. Given the success of the energy industry in keeping the tar sands hush-hush, most Minnesotans have no idea that when they put gas in their cars at the local Superamerica that they are buying fuel from an evil Canadian development that is decimating forests, waters and the Indigenous peoples who call Alberta home. What’s happening in Canada looks like something out of a haunting apocalyptic sci-fi novel - a barren landscape of mining pits hundreds of feet deep, gargantuan excavation machinery and industrial pools of wastewater - where the profit motive has a chokehold on the natural world.

 As the unrelenting demand for oil grows, corporations are exploiting what remains of Indigenous lands across North America, using increasingly desperate methods of extraction. The Alberta Tar Sands represent a last ditch effort to uphold a petroleum economy in a world that has become addicted to oil. This extreme energy project threatens not just Indigenous lives, but our collective future as human beings. Recently, Indigenous artists have emerged as important voices of resistance.

Leonard Sumner is an Anishinaabe rapper, singer and songwriter from the Little Saskatchewan First Nation, and has experienced the impacts of the Alberta tar sands endeavors firsthand. “Our people tend to be hidden when we talk about the environment and energy. Or we are seen as an obstacle standing in the way of ‘progress.’ To corporations, progress is destruction, but to us First Nations communities, progress is about preservation. We are portrayed in the media as angry protesters but really, we just want to live our lives,” he explained.

It’s essential to recognize that tar sands oil is very different from conventional crude oil. Tar sands, also known as oil sands, contain a dense, sticky form of petroleum known as bitumen. Extracting this tarry bitumen first involves clear-cutting the Canadian boreal forest; which as one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, absorbs harmful greenhouse gases naturally. Soil, wetlands and forest ecosystem are removed to make way for mining operations. 

Large amounts of fresh water, natural gas and toxic chemicals are used to mine and isolate the bitumen from the sand that surrounds it deep in the earth. It takes three to five barrels of fresh water to produce a single barrel of tar sands crude according to the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental organization. This poison-laced water then ends up as toxic waste stored in monstrous lakes called tailing ponds. Giant industrial scarecrows draped in hoods loom over tailing ponds in a freakish effort to prevent birds from landing anywhere near the contaminated water. Tailing waste is acutely harmful to all life forms, containing known carcinogens and neurotoxins that leach into the surrounding water and earth. In an age of clean water shortages, tar sands mining should be criminal.

Frank Waln, Sicangu Lakota, is a 23 year-old rapper from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. His tribe along with other bands of the Lakota Nation have taken a firm stance against tar sands pipeline development on Indigenous lands. Recently, Frank traveled to Fort McMurray in Nothern Alberta, Canada to participate in a Tar Sands Healing Walk with First Nations community members. “Seeing the destruction, the scale of what’s happening, how sick the earth is and what it’s doing to the people, I can’t even describe it. We are talking about irreversible damage, it made me feel sick. The people can no longer fish, they can’t hunt the caribou because of the contamination,” he recalled. “There were these giant toxic lakes from the run-off. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen. On the walk there were Indigenous grandmas praying and weeping at the foot of these lakes. I will never forget it.”

 During our conversation Waln spoke of the unifying effects of corporate colonialism, “Colonization never ended. They are still trying to take our land, and destroy our water supply. All of the atrocities that have taken place are still going on. When we look at the Tar Sands and resource extraction, it’s always on Indigenous land. It always has been. But these aren’t just Native issues; they are human being issues. Native or non-Native, what is happening is impacting all of us.”

For Indigenous people of North America, land, culture, spirituality and identity are inseparable. My people, the Dakota, call the earth Unci Maka, which translates as “Grandmother Earth.”  She is our relative and is central to our ceremonies, stories, our history and our way of life. She provides for our people and in our culture it is our responsibility to give back and protect her. In order to fully understand the devastating impact of the tar sands, we have to understand the significance the earth holds for Indigenous peoples.

 In Alberta, tribal communities are now in a position where they can no longer drink the water or consume locally harvested traditional foods due to contamination. The Indigenous Environmental Network reported that as recent as 2006, 80% of the Fort Chipewyan community was living off of the land through hunting, fishing and gathering. The Tar Sands is rapidly putting an end to this way of life. The community has learned that they can’t drink the water or eat the fish without risking disease and exposure to carcinogens.

Extensive documentation exists of mutated and deformed fish, their bodies littered with tumors and abnormal growths, in the waters of Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray. Rare and extreme forms of cancer have been diagnosed in these communities at alarming rates. The Alberta Cancer Board confirmed that over the past 12 years cancer rates in the Fort Chipewyan community have increased by 30%. This directly corresponds with the rapid expansion of the tar sands oil industry in Canada.

John O’Connor was one of the first doctors to speak out about the impact of tar sands extraction on human health based on what he was witnessing with his patients in Fort McMurry. Health Canada accused Dr. O’Connor of misconduct after he concluded that the disproportionate cancer rates were being caused by contamination from the Canadian oil industry. Although he has been cleared of all charges, he risked losing his medical license and many doctors are now afraid to speak out. This disturbing cover up by the medical and energy industries would make a perfect sequel to Erin Brockovich. All that’s missing is Julia Roberts in a push-up bra.

 Sumner believes that Indigenous cultures and spiritual teachings have more power than any imposed system of government in North America.  “Both in Canada and in the U.S., Native communities have a similar outlook on what’s happening to the environment. We want to create a better world for our 7th generation. This stands in contrast to consumer culture, which is about profit and greed. All land is connected and what is happening here is happening there.” Many tribes have teachings that revolve around the 7th generation. These teaching and prophecies tell us that in all that we do, we must consider the impact of our actions on the seven generations yet to come. Each generation should make decisions based on the survival and interests of the next seven generations. If the tar sands industry continues at the current rate, what kind of world will our grandchildren and great grandchildren experience?   

We all need to recognize the relationship between what is happening to the earth and what is happening to us as people. While individual communities may be fighting specific battles, we cannot isolate what is happening in Alberta from what is happening right here in our own homelands. Waln put it best when he said, “There is a direct connection between what’s happening on Native land from North to South. What is happening here in my community in Rosebud is reflected in what is happening in Canada to First Nations communities. We need their fight just as much as they need ours.” He reminded me that as Indigenous people we are here, our voice is strong and we will continue to endure and fight to protect future generations. “All the time I hear that Natives don’t have a voice. That’s bullshit. We have a strong voice, you just need to open your ears and listen.”

 It will be impossible to defeat something as massive as the Tar Sands without a holistic approach that upholds the rights of Indigenous peoples. We can’t approach this as an individual pipeline issue, or utilize a strategy that separates the rights of people from the rights of the earth. The ongoing devastation to the earth will ultimately destroy the people who call it home. There are small steps that each of us can take stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and protect the earth we share:

 + Learn more about and support current Indigenous led efforts to stop tar sands expansion.

+ Educate yourself and others about where our oil is coming from.

+ Bike, walk or take public transportation to minimize the consumption of tar sands oil.

+ Find out what pipelines and refineries are in or near your local community and what groups are organizing to stop further development.

Sasha Houston Brown is an educator and writer living in South Minneapolis. She is Dakota from the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska.