Editor’s Note: Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment is a new Resist grantee that is bravely standing up to one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Once we heard how they were physically putting a stop to ExxonMobil “mega-load” trucks that were driving through their community, we knew we had to share this story with Newsletter readers. These trucks were destined for Alberta, Canada and carry massive equipment to extract oil from tar sands (virtually the dirtiest type of energy extraction there is). As they state, “Nimiipuu is the English translation for ‘the people’ which is one amongst many names the Nez Perce call ourselves. And protecting the environment of our traditional lands was the common commitment that brought us together.” Here we interview Julian Matthews from Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment on how they came together to take on one of the most destructive forces in the world.
Saif Rahman: Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment’s story is so inspiring. Could you describe the beginnings for our readers?
Julian Matthews: Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment formed about three years ago. It was the offspring of a group that we had attempted to start around ten years ago called the 1855 Coalition, which was based on the 1855 Treaty of the Nez Perces. I had been working with the Friends of the Clearwater (FOC), an environmental group in Moscow, Idaho. The FOC worked on issues that included our Treaty of 1855 and they always were good allies on protecting the interests in the wilderness and roadless areas that also fall within our Treaty area. This is where many of our traditional hunting, fishing, and gatherings takes place. It is very pristine and holds much of our history of our people. When the “megaloads” first came to the Port of Lewiston in 2010, I began looking into where these megaloads were going. The first load went through on Highway 12. They had been talking about using the Highway as a commercial road to transport equipment. During this time I was trying to get tribal members involved and interested in stopping these loads.
SR: Tell us a little about tar sands and what happened next.
JM: They use an ungodly amount of water in these evaporators and the water is being depleted near the First Nations villages and affecting them with arsenic, cadmium, and other chemicals used in the process. I made a resolution to our tribal general council to stop these and they approved it, but our Nez Perce Tribal council wouldn’t do anything tangible. I also had met activist Heather Milton and she and a couple of Fort Mac tribal members came and we met at the casino to discuss what we could do and what they were doing up there. Two were in the Sierra Club Canada. During this time it was very frustrating trying to get more tribal members involved and we held meetings at the tribe and did get some support but nothing very substantial. On August 6, 2013 the “megaloads” were parked at the Port of Lewiston and I was driving by the casino and remembered that they were set to leave that night to head upriver. I felt bad about them just going by and heading up there with seemingly no one doing anything about it. So I drove out to the Port to check them out and to see what they were doing and trying to figure out what to do. I headed back to the casino and then saw a bunch of people there parked and milling around, including Tribal members. I asked someone what was going on and they said, “the Chair was having a press conference about this and how they weren’t going to let them do it.” I was surprised as I hadn’t heard any of this and I work at the tribe. So I hung around and some tribal members and the council were setting up these blockades on the highway so I thought this was cool they are going to stop them. Then a number of tribal members and folks from the area went onto the highway so I was pretty happy about this. There was a drum and singers and so we waited there. At about 11:00 pm, the megaload trucks, with 30 state and county police cars, came ambling up the highway right before the casino and the Nez Perce Reservation boundary. It was pretty wild when this big thing came up to us with all these lights and cops surrounding it back, front, and the sides. As it came up everyone was yelling, singing, and dancing and the trucks stopped about 100 feet in front of us. This was a trip seeing this and also not knowing what was to happen next. The tribal council and many other tribal members were arrested and taken to Nez Perce county. We stayed there on the highway and then they told the Non-Indians if they didn’t leave they would be arrested. That night they only made it about four miles down the highway and were parked in the middle of the highway waiting. The next night I was waiting and talking to a tribal member about gathering down at the Ant and Yellowjacket tribal site. We drove down and I thought no one was going to show up and we would get arrested if there were only a couple of us. We waited there and then all these people began showing up. We all got on the road and waited for them to start moving. It was a narrow roadway they had to go through so it seemed we would have a better way to stop them. We stood on the road and they began moving and cops starting telling us to get off the road. A number of tribal members were arrested that night also and when they began moving we kept on trying to stop them but they made it past us that night. They subsequently made it to Orofino, Idaho and then to Kooskia and then on up to Missoula. During this time Idaho Rivers United had filed a lawsuit under the Scenic Rivers Act and sued the US Dept of Transportation and after much wrangling with the Forest Service the judge said the Forest Service had the authority to stop these megaloads. The Nez Perce Tribe also joined in this and now it is in “mitigation” for the last year. They have stopped since then and tried alternate routes but haven’t had much success.
SR: That is quite the story. So much gratitude and love. What were the next steps to continuing this fight and expanding?
JM: About January of 2014 I received a call from Heather Milton in Fort Mac and she said a group called Seventh Generation fund was trying to get tribal groups to provide funds for this type of activity and she thought of me and our efforts down here. I called up Tia Peters, executive director of the 7th Generation fund and she said if we applied we could get some funding. We used Friends of the Clearwater (FOC) as our fiscal sponsor and then in April of 2015 we incorporated and now were a Tribal run 501C3 non profit and have applied for and received additional funding. In 2014 and 2015 we had tribal environmental summits on the reservation and meetings with other tribal members on local reservations trying to assist them with their environmental issues. We have a good tribal network and have participated in actions and activism with non-Indian groups also.
SR: What is ahead for you?
JM: Our future is to mainly get tribal members involved and educated, especially youth. We will continue to expand our efforts and to network with other tribes. We have a good tribal member board with an elder and work with the Circle of Elders of our tribe and the Senior Citizens Advisory Board so have good support and cultural advice from these two groups.
Julian Matthews is a board member of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment and has been actively involved in environmental issues for the last 20 years, primarily in response to threats made on or near the Treaty of 1855 and usual and accustomed areas. Saif Rahman is the director of communications at Resist and the editor of the Newsletter.