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Letter to DU's Board of Trustees from Native Student Alliance

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Dear Members of the Board of Trustees,

We are the Native Student Alliance representing various tribes in Indian Country. Though we cannot speak for all nations, we want our voices about the land to be heard. Our people have inhabited this region way before the colonial contact of 1492 and our DNA is tied to this land. The University of Denver acknowledges that it sits on Cheyenne and Arapaho land post the 2015 John Evans Report. The report concludes that John Evan’s "reckless decision-making” contributed and made him culpable for the Sand Creek Massacre. Following the report, Chancellor Rebecca Chopp created the University of Denver Native American Inclusivity Task Force to support and work closely with Native peoples, including Native students. To this day, we as Native people understand that this land is sacred to our people and we believe that it is our responsibility to be caretakers of the land.

Neglecting the Native American perspective has been a dark and consistent theme in United States history. Far too often, economic and industrial development was realized through the unlawful seizure of land from Indigenous peoples. The expansion of the United States from coast to coast has directly correlated with crimes and injustice against the indigenous populations of North America. Since the early days of our nation, the Native American was seen as a pest to be exterminated, then contained, and ultimately excluded from the rights of liberty and justice.

Although there is no formal war against the Indians today, there is indeed a battle of ethical and humane consequences raging against us. Oil, gas, and coal companies choose to extract resources from land belonging to Native Americans. These companies exploit the lack of financial and political access of indigenous tribes to make huge profits.

This exploitation must come to an end. As a university, if we continue to support these companies, which are indeed part of a dying industry, then we seal a future of hardships. Not only will this institution be harmed, but those from the Native community will be continued to be exploited. We, as Native American people, experience violence at a larger rate than the rest of the general population. In many ways, we are a forgotten population.

When considering divestment, consider two things: Firstly, the decision to invest in oil, coal, and gas companies will be a decision to invest in a past rather than a future. Renewable energy is growing as an industry while non-renewable energy industries are shrinking every year. Money from gas, oil, and coal today will dry up, and by the time that happens, those who chose not to transfer their investments will be too far behind the curve to reap the economic benefits. This includes us. Secondly, and more importantly, fossil fuel industries exploit our sacred land and continue to break treaties. Construction and operation of fossil fuel extraction infrastructure will allow for the continued violent victimization of our men, women, and children. As an institution of higher learning, we have exceptional research at our disposal which can help us transfer investments into industries of the future. It will also end the cycle of destruction aimed towards the original peoples of this land who are a part of this nation's, and more specifically the University of Denver’s colonizing history.

While Divest DU’s report on divestment covered important reasons as to why the University of Denver should divest from fossil fuels, including fossil fuels being a direct threat to the future of humanity that threaten both the economic and social stability of the world, the impact that climate change caused by the fossil fuel industry has on the Earth’s ecosystem, and other moral and economic aspects of divestment, we believe that the report missed a major consequence: DU’s investment in fossil fuels is an investment in modern day violence against Native American communities.

The Board of Trustees may have read the section of the Divest DU report that highlights both the social justice and environmental racism dimensions of climate change. This section states how “communities of color, particularly low-income, female, and/or indigenous, suffer the most at the hands of global warming,” and defines environmental racism as “the reality that people of color and low-income individuals, which are often the same groups, are most likely to live near contamination and away from clean water, air, and soil” (Divest DU Report). The report even mentions how the fossil fuel industry benefits from the destruction of indigenous sacred spaces and land. We would like to further Divest DU’s argument by providing specific examples of how the fossil fuel industry commits violence against indigenous communities beyond the destruction of land, and how by investing in these companies, DU is complicit in violence against Native communities, the same communities that the University claims to be trying to heal its relationship with. We would like to stay away from the argument of how climate change affects indigenous communities, a fact that has been proven extensively, but rather focus on how the fossil fuel industry itself harms the community. We believe the Board of Trustees did not truly consider the destruction and cruelty Native American communities face at the hands of fossil fuel industries.

We cannot talk about violence committed towards the Native community without talking about the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline not only threatened the reservation’s clean water, but also its burial grounds, once again providing an example of how the fossil fuel industry exploits Native land and water for its own personal gain. What’s even more important in this example is the violence that took place against Native American resistors. On September 3, 2016, unarmed indigenous water protectors were pepper sprayed and had guard dogs unleashed on them as cops watched from afar (Indian Country Media Network), leading to six people needing treatment for wounds caused by dog bites and 30 others being pepper sprayed in the face (Democracy Now). This event was quickly compared to the violent reprisals that took place against African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. It is our understanding that this type of violence towards Native people is something that DU is fully against.

Unfortunately, this was not the only instance of violence perpetrated against the indigenous water protectors. During the time of the protest, there were hundreds of arrests made, resulting in harsh and unusual punishment. One woman, Sara Jumping Eagle, was required to remove all her clothing and “squat and cough” after she was arrested for disorderly conduct (Democracy Now). Similarly, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard said that when her daughter was arrested and taken into custody, she was “strip-searched in front of multiple male officers, then left for hours in her cell, naked and freezing” (Democracy Now). Many similar cases were reported. This is the violence that is perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry, and this is the violence that DU is currently investing in.

It is easy to ignore what happened at Standing Rock as a one-time occurrence, but the reality is that this type of environmental racism and violence has been targeted towards Native communities for centuries. Resistance at Standing Rock did not come out of nowhere because hundreds of tribes from all over Indian Country, including international Indigenous groups, came to stand in solidarity. It was an accumulation of continued neglect of Native people’s sovereignty. The United Nations released a report in 2008 on climate change and its relation to indigenous peoples. The report states: “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, owing to their dependence upon, and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by vulnerable indigenous communities, including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination, and unemployment” (United Nations).

Environmental racism towards Native peoples is not a new concept. In fact, many see the Indian Removal Act of 1830, also known as the Trail of Tears, as the earliest example of environmental racism towards Native Americans as these tribes were forcibly evicted to land that was too dry to sustain them. More contemporary issues of environmental racism towards Natives is almost always committed at the hands of the fossil fuel industry. For example, Alaska’s North Slope industrial complex, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, emits more carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide than the entire metropolitan Washington D.C. area annually. This area is home to the Inupiat people (Reimagine).

Three tribes from North Dakota; the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara; are trying to stop a proposed oil refinery and production facility by Bakken on the Fort Berthold Reservation (Reimagine). The Dene, who are the Indigenous people of Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada, have had their lands fragmented and destroyed by the tar sands development. The waste ponds created by this project covers much of the heart of the Dene territory and can be seen from outer space. Most of the oil taken from the tribe’s land is sold directly to the U.S. market, once again providing an example of the exploitation of Native peoples and their land for the profit of the fossil fuel industry (Reimagine).

The exploitation of Native people has been rooted in American history through the colonization of the country and continues today. Fossil fuel industries not only exploit Native land, but they directly go against Native treaty rights. Oil spills and river contamination lead to the destruction of rivers and the species that live in and around these rivers, including salmon, moose, and others that are both spiritually and economically important to tribes in the area. Treaties are supposed to guarantee continued tribal access to the species even when their habitats are threatened by environmental stressors, yet this is not being honored by fossil fuel industries. Many tribes are having to fight for their rights guaranteed in the treaties made with the United States (Treaty Rights at Risk).

Another important exploitation is that when these industries come to exploit tribal territories, they bring “man camps”: thousands of male workers who have come to work on pipelines, oil rigs, etc. With these camps often come more violence: murder, rape, and human trafficking. This results in indigenous women going missing.

Once again, we would like to bring up the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota as an example of violence perpetrated by fossil fuel industries on Native communities. When the Bakken oil boom began and man camps were set up in the reservation, North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report shows that violent crime increased by 7.2 percent from 2011 to 2012 (Honor Earth). An article in The Atlantic notes, “In 2012, the tribal police department reported more murders, fatal accidents, sexual assaults, domestic disputes, drug busts, gun threats, and human trafficking cases than in any year before. The surrounding counties offer similar reports. But there is one essential difference between Fort Berthold and the rest of North Dakota: The reservation’s population has more than doubled with an influx of non-Indian oil workers—over whom the tribe has little legal control.”

Unfortunately, this is not the only example of violence committed against indigenous women because of man camps brought in by fossil fuel industries. In Spirit Lake, Iowa, there have also been an unprecedented rise in sexual assaults, domestic violence, and sex trafficking in tribal communities since hydraulic fracturing began after the Bakken oil boom in 2008 (Indian Country Media Network). One resident, Melissa Merrick, was quoted in Indian Country Media Network as saying, “The trauma that these (oil) workers leave behind will stay in our communities for generations.”

Not only does this exemplify the violence fossil fuel industries cause Native women, but it again exemplifies the lack of respect these industries have for Native treaty rights. Indian Country Media Network reports that the “tribes of South Dakota signed treaties with the U.S. government including the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that includes the bad man clause that reads, ‘If bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States, shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will, upon proof made to the agent and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington city, proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.’” This is never the case as crimes against Indians often go unpunished.

Now that we have addressed the many ways the fossil fuel industry commits modern day violence against Native community, we would like to revisit the reasons why the Board of Trustees has stated that it has voted not to divest:

The Denver Post reports, “Board chair Douglas Scrivner said divesting from fossil fuel companies ‘wouldn’t be an effective means of mitigating global warming’ and isn’t consistent with the university’s ‘long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit’ to its students, future students, and employees.”

The email sent by Chancellor Chopp on January 24 about the Board’s decision not to divest states the same sentiment, “Regarding divestment, the Board adopted the task force recommendation that divestment in fossil fuel companies, or any other industry, would not be an effective means of mitigating global warming nor would it be consistent with the endowment’s long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit to present and future students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders.”

The DU Clarion reports “Board of Trustees member Catherine Shopneck says the decision not to divest is for two main reasons. ‘One reason is that it wasn’t going to have a direct impact in any way. Divestment as a strategy to combat global warming wasn’t going to either reduce the amount of energy consumed by people and also our divestment wouldn’t have been able to have a significant impact on the prosperity or the fortunes of any of the major energy companies,’ said Shopneck. ‘My second point was they basically were hoping that this would somehow stigmatize the industry. I had some trouble with that, of stigmatizing the people that work in the energy field.’”

We mention these reasons to note that we believe the Board has missed a crucial reason for divesting: The well-being of Native communities. We are not asking for the Board to consider divesting to “combat” or “mitigate” global warming, “stigmatize the people that work in the energy field,” or “reduce the amount of energy consumed by people.” We are asking for DU to divest from fossil fuels because the fossil fuel industry directly profits from the violence committed against Native Americans, and if DU continues to invest in these companies, it is also complicit in profiting from this modern-day violence.

This investment in violence by DU was made evident when the university hosted the 2015 Pipeline Leadership Conference, which included those involved in/responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The university gave no regard for Native students on campus and how it might affect them, and further encouraged the horrors that were taking place in Standing Rock at the time. One can’t help but wonder if this was also for profit, as the cost to register was $1,000 per person.

Not only is DU profiting from the violence committed toward Native Americans, but it is also breaking its promise to Native communities. When introducing the Evans report in 2014, Chancellor Chopp wrote: “The DU committee hopes its report will promote healing by understanding our founder's role in this catastrophic event—thereby uniting us as a community and helping us to forge new relationships to the past for the benefit of the public good.” She later writes, “The Sand Creek Massacre is a tragic event in the history of the University, the city of Denver and the state of Colorado. We embrace our obligation to learn about it, to learn from it, and to carry those lessons forward as we continue to realize our vision of being a great private university dedicated to the public good.”

When announcing the Task Force on Native American Inclusivity in 2015, Chancellor Chopp said, “The work of the University includes the mission of healing as well as creating and supporting a world in which such atrocities (The Sand Creek Massacre) will never occur again. It is time for the University to discuss next steps, especially initiatives that will support our Native students, faculty and staff members, and alumni. The University needs to serve the public good in service to and in partnership with Native communities.”

Our question to the Board is: How is investing in violence against Native Americans “helping us to forge new relationships to the past for the benefit of the public good?” How is it promoting healing with Native communities? And how can DU claim to learn from its past mistakes against Native Americans when it is still investing in violence against Native Americans?

We, the Native Student Alliance, see these contradictions and not only are we confused, but we are also hurt. When we chose to attend the University of Denver, we were sure that the institution would do all that it can to support us and our community, as well as protect us. It hurts us to see that the university that we put our hope and trust in, invests in violence against our land, relatives, community, and our people.

It is our hope that by reading this letter, you will reconsider your decision not to divest from fossil fuels based on the violence that the industry commits everyday against Native Americans. We hope that you will also remember your commitment to Native students and the Native community. We are asking for a full divestment from fossil fuels.


DU Native Student Alliance

Grace Carson

Ontario Duley

Justine Medina

Autumn Murphy

Raelene Woody

Works Cited

Divest DU. "Divest DU Report.pdf." Google Drive. Google, Apr. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Dog Attacks at NODAPL "VIDEO: Dakota Access Pipeline Company Attacks Native American Protesters with Dogs and Pepper Spray." Democracy Now! Democracy Now!, 4 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

"Canine Expert Decries "Egregious" & "Horrific" Dog Attacks on Native Americans Defending Burial Site." Democracy Now! Democracy Now!, 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Manning, Sarah Sunshine. "Manning: 'And Then the Dogs Came': Dakota Access Gets Violent, Destroys Graves, Sacred Sites." Indian Country Media Network. Indian Country Media Network, 04 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

"Dakota Excess Pipeline? Standing Rock Protectors Strip-Searched, Jailed for Days on Minor Charges." Democracy Now! Democracy Now!, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples. the Search for Legal Remedies. N.p.: n.p., n.d. United Nations. United Nations, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Thomas-Muller, Clayton. "Energy Exploitation on Sacred Native Lands." Energy Exploitation on Sacred Native Lands | Reimagine! Reimagine, Jan. 2005. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

"Treaty Rights at Risk." Treaty Rights at Risk. Treaty Rights at Risk Initiative, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

"Man Camps Fact Sheet." Honor The Earth. Honor The Earth, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Crane-Murdoch, Sierra. "On Indian Land, Criminals Can Get Away With Almost Anything." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Pember, Mary Annette. "Brave Heart Women Fight to Ban Man-Camps, Which Bring Rape and Abuse." Indian Country Media Network. Indian Country Media Network, 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Brown, Jennifer. "DU Won’t Divest from Oil and Gas, but Board Approves New Green Initiatives." Denver Post. Denver Post, 24 Jan. 2017. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Sienkiewicz, Taylor. "Green Fund Offers Promise of Sustainability, but Still No Divestment." DU Clarion. DU Clarion, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Chopp, Rebecca. "John Evans Study Committee Report." University of Denver. University of Denver, 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

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