On June 16, five women marched onto the site where U.S. Oil Sands, a tar sands mining company, was bulldozing a forested ridgeline into a flat parking lot. Dressed in orange vests and hard hats, we waved flags as we approached the worker in his machine. “Work has to stop. We cannot let this violence continue,” one of us said. At first the worker argued, but as we moved in front of the machine, he shut it down and left.
We are WAAVE: Women in Action Against Violent Extraction. And we are not backing down. We are mothers who have seen our own bodies depleted and poisoned by nonconsentual pollution, sisters who have seen our own sisters driven to the edge of self-destruction by the broken society in which we live. We are young women who have chosen never to bring children into this world, yet are fighting for the children of our friends and siblings so they might have a chance at a liveable future. We are non-gender-conforming people who have fought for the right to identify and live in a way that befits our true spirit. We are our male supporters, because separation is an illusion we refuse to adopt. And we will fight tooth and nail for our collective future.
Throughout our bioregion, women are on the frontlines of the effort to protect our earth, air, water, and climate. We are guiding the environmental justice movement and taking bold action together. Why women? There are at least a couple major reasons. First, as women in a patriarchal culture, we’ve had to deal with oppression — often in intersecting forms, like racism and sexism — throughout our lives, which makes us especially attuned to and impaced by environmental injustice. Women’s lower earning potential — particularly women of color — makes us more likely to end up closer to sources of pollution. Second, the nature of our bodies often makes us particularly attuned to how harm to ourselves harms the future, as the toxins we absorb would poison the children we might bear. Our bodies are also ecosystems of their own, harboring life when we choose to bring it to fruition. Even if we never wish to have children, that awareness is often part of our being — and by we, I am inclusive of the many trans-women who may feel this awareness. Moreover, this awareness of course is not limited to women, though our bodies and identity often act metaphorically to bring it to our attention.
The rape and exploitation of the earth is inextricably linked with the rape and exploitation of women’s bodies. Nonconsentual poisoning of our bodies and offspring via the poisoning of rivers, lakes, air is violence. Slow violence is killing not just the future, but the present as well. Those women most likely to be raped, kidnapped for sex trafficking, or killed — primarily by white male abusers — are overwhelmingly the same women whose bodies are most poisoned by toxic industries, like the Lakota women of the Great Plains.
Let’s call it what it is. Tar sands is violent to an extreme, just as the uranium mining on Lakota and Diné lands is incredibly violent. Tar sands miming drains rivers of water, making it a ludicrous proposal in the arid west where climate chaos is drying our rivers year by year. It releases toxins into the watershed that nature keeps immobilized in the earth. And it emits three times the greenhouse gases of regular crude, contributing dramatically to the violence of climate chaos.
Among the many victims of tar sands violence in the west would be the Cucupa, an indigenous people who live in the delta of the Colorado River. Robbed of their water by industry and frivolous extravagances like golf courses, they were forced to flee their homeland by catastrophic storms likely influenced by climate chaos. The forced exodus of a people from their lush homeland is violence. Turning people who had everything — abundant fish, fertile land in which to grow squash, melons, beans — into an impoverished people relying on bottled water and storebought food is violence. And if tar sands and oil shale strip mining happens on the Colorado Plateau, that violence will impact more and more people down the river.
The refineries of Salt Lake City are already inflicting tar sands violence on people, particularly those of poorer communities in industrial areas. Chevron is already processing tar sands brought in from Canada, which emits high concentrations of some of the worst stuff we could put into our air, like sulfur dioxide and VOCs. Systemic violence, including lack of access to healthcare and forced reliance on unhealthy, nutrient-depleted food, exacerbates the violence of pollution for people of color, immigrants, and low-income residents. Hauling in tar sands from the Colorado Plateau and processing them in Salt Lake would enact further violence on these communities, not to mention those in eastern Utah, where a spike in infant deaths is occuring due to the prevalence of dirty industries.
That indigenous women’s bodies are some of the most likely to be poisoned is just one more parallel between rape of the earth and women’s bodies. And settler women — myself included — are obligated to stand together with them as we fight for environmental justice. Our presence on the land where we live — even if we aren’t from the first generation of colonizers — means we are benefiting from and continuing the legacy of oppression that birthed us. Fighting for a liveable future is not a way to redeem ourselves, as there is no redemption for complicity in such a system, but it is a duty. We live on stolen land, have access to stolen resources, and benefit every day of our lives from the color of our skin and our heritage. When Mormon settlers came to Utah deadset on forcing the original inhabitants, the Utes, to farm, they forced them to eek out their subsistence on the most arid tracks of land. They then began even seizing pockets of that, running cattle over it, draining the water via irrigation ditches, all while the Ute people were starving, and to this day even those of us settlers who came over later are benefiting from access to land and resources that this land’s original inhabitants were forced off of and away from. Yes, the outright battles happened in the past, but setters still have the things we took, and the gravely unfair distribution of resources is a severe form of violence.The seizure of resources is a violent legacy here, as it is virtually everywhere, and we have the duty to halt it as it procedes to consume the land, air, and water we all depend on.
Being a settler yet defender of land is relatively new terrain — not to mention a terrain that’s still being negotiated — and it’s a role we must take on with humility. It’s not about ego, about our descendents looking at us as some kind of heros. It’s about necessity. Finding that humbleness, for me, means becoming rooted in the land by spending long periods of time in it, which allows me to experience myself as a fragile part of a much greater whole. Sitting in the sagebrush on a hillside acrossf rom one of the watering holes, I see elk, turkey, coyotes emerge from the aspen-covered canyonside. Each one does much for the whole without demanding recognition or honors, and that is the spirit in which we should act: purpose-driven, but humble.
That’s not to imply that WAAVE or tar sands resistance work is comprised only of settlers, because of course that’s far from the case. People of many backgrounds are bravely taking a stand for a liveable bioregion and planet. I simply hope these words will inspire more reflection in other settlers about our role in this movement and how to approach our work.
It doesn’t take a superhero to shut down a bulldozer. But we do need more folks like us out here—more women, transpeople, queers, men, committed to spending a day or a week or a month or a season taking a stand against the violent extraction that is harming your children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren before they even take a breath of life on this planet.