For the last century, the most important source of energy for the human economy has been oil. We hear all the time, not the least from my blogs, about the environmental costs, including global climate change, of our oil dependence. And while it may seem like a distant memory even to those of us who lived through it, dependence on foreign oil has caused immense economic and geopolitical instability. It has taken decades for America to get to the point at which we import less oil than we produce, but we still use a lot of foreign oil. And we spew a lot of carbon into the air.
What I wish to address now is the immense toll of injustice that comes from our dependence on oil. Oil is a highly concentrated source of energy, both in terms of the number of calories of energy per volume and in the concentration of oil resources in specific geographical areas. In contrast, sunlight shines more or less evenly on the Earth’s surface. Although some places in the world are cloudier than others, and places far to the north or south get significantly less sunlight, solar energy is broadly distributed. The same is almost as true of wind energy. Low-level geothermal energy (which can be used to stabilize indoor temperatures) is also widespread, although only a few places have really hot rocks near the surface that can allow steam turbines to produce electricity. The fact that oil is concentrated in a few places means that whoever controls those places (whether governments or corporations) has an immense amount of geopolitical power.
And it is not necessarily the people who live in those places who have the power.
Native Americans from all over what is now the United States were forced into what is now Oklahoma, mostly in the nineteenth century, so that white people could have their land. The white-dominated government of the U.S. supposedly had a constitution, but whites broke every treaty with Native Americans, in complete disregard of the constitution as well as the most basic concepts of dignity and humanity. Then, much to the consternation of the government, oil was discovered on Indian land. While in some cases (as with the Osage tribe) this meant wealth for the Native Americans, what it usually meant was that whites decided to take Native land by any means necessary or imaginable, to treat Natives like vermin, as nothing more than impediments to oil production. By and large, having oil land has been a curse to Native Americans. I am speaking from the viewpoint of Oklahoma, where I was born and where I live, and the experiences of my Cherokee ancestors.
If you want to know about the many devious ways in which whites illegally took Native American land and oil rights, the most definitive source remains Angie Debo’s And Still the Waters Run: TheBetrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes. It is about how the land promised and then allotted to Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles was stolen from them (us) during the twentieth century. Lies and forged documents were routinely used to defraud tribal members. The courts appointed “guardians” to take care of the supposedly simple-minded Indians; these guardians would then sell or rent the allotted land and keep all, or most, of the money. In one case, a guardian had 51 Indians under his control. Three of them were children who held title to very productive oil land, but the guardian did not tell them about it. They were living in a hollow tree and begging for food when a conscientious state government agent found them. In this one case, the “guardian” had his privileges taken away; but this rarely happened. And this “guardian” never went to jail. Jail was for drunk Indians, not for the whites who defrauded them. And even today, prison is mostly for poor drug offenders, not for financial crimes committed by the rich, with an occasional exception like Bernard Madoff.
But it wasn’t just fraud that whites committed to get oil land from Indians (and from freed slaves within the Indian nations). It was also murder. The whites would trick the Indians (some of them children) to making them the heirs, and then they would kill them. In Glenn Pool (now called Glenpool, right down the highway from my house in Tulsa) whites dynamited two black Muskogee boys while they slept to get their land. Glenn Pool was the massive oil deposit that made Tulsa famous. In Choctaw County, the next county over from the place where I work, whites killed Choctaws with carbolic acid or ground glass (put in their food to make them bleed to death from the inside) in order to get their land.
When I read this, on page 200 of Debo’s book, I could not do or think about anything else all evening, just devastated by learning about this. For those of you who think that the last time that whites massacred Indians was at Wounded Knee in 1890, think again! Everyone has heard about the four little black girls who got burned in the church fire set by white arsonists in the 1960s, but has anyone ever heard about those two little black boys in Glenn Pool? At least my ancestors were only defrauded, not murdered.
My point is that nobody has ever defrauded or murdered anyone else in order to get a choice spot for putting up a wind generator or a solar collector. There will never be a Koch Brothers of solar energy.
Is it any wonder that so many Native Americans (and Native American freedmen) are so demoralized? Especially the ones who still live in their own ethnic communities. The white governments of the United States and of Oklahoma have driven them into the ground. Toxic waste sites are often near communities of color; and in Oklahoma, that means Native American communities, such as the Cherokee-Quapaw town of Picher, which drips with toxic metal contamination.
I would expect to see Native American rage over these things, but the steamrolling of Native pride by white culture has been so complete that Natives are in some cases embarrassed to not be white. What should Native Americans do? There is no clear answer. In his 1971 novel The Ordeal of Running Standing, Thomas Fall wrote about a fullblood Oklahoma Indian who tried to be white and use the powers of the white economy against rich whites, failed, and then did a useless but heroic act of defiance against the overwhelming white powers. (If you want to know what it was, you have to read my review in my other blog.) But nothing like this ever happened or ever will. The Indian nations are conquered now and forever. And oil was part of the reason.
As I said, I speak from Oklahoma experience. But anyone who listens to the news knows that rich people (some of them black) get even richer from the lucrative oil reserves in Nigeria, while the poor black Nigerians live in desperate poverty. And today the struggle continues in Ecuador, where oil companies take some land from the native tribes of the Amazon, and pour their wastes on the rest of it. El Oriente of Ecuador (east of the Andes) is the new Oklahoma.
Moving away from energy-dense fuel sources is essential for the ecological and economic future of the world, and also so that, at long last, justice can be done in the world. Oil is just too much of a temptation; it makes evil people destroy their fellow humans.