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From Unist’ot’en Camp to Mauna Kea: This is What Civilization Does

July 24, 2015



All nations are not created equal. Understanding this is a prerequisite to effectively stopping the colonial forces destroying the world.


I’ve been thinking this for the last few days watching members of two First Nations I love – the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and Kanaka Maoli of what we now call Hawai’i – come under direct, physical attack. In the last 16 months, I’ve had the privilege to go to work in support of both these nations as they struggle to protect what is left of their lands from the imperialism of nations like the United States and Canada.


In May 2014, I went to the Unist’ot’en Camp to stand with the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation on their unceded territory in so-called British Columbia. The Unist’ot’en are blockading pipelines that would carry tar sands oil from the Fort McMurray area to refineries on the BC coast at Kitimat. After being processed, the tar sands oil would be shipped to burn in markets worldwide. Helping to build a bunkhouse on the precise GPS coordinates of one of the proposed pipelines routes, walking the trapline in fresh, deep snows, and supporting the Camp with fundraising and organizing efforts from Victoria and Vancouver, I fell in love with the Unist’ot’en Camp.


I ran completely out of money, found it difficult to find much work as a non-citizen, and had to return to the States. While I was looking for work, I was encouraged to go to Hawai’i and write about what I saw. So, I went to Hawai’i Island to support Kanaka Maoli on their occupied land as they protect their most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, from the destruction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. Sleeping for 37 nights under the best stars in the world (that is of course why the telescopes want to be there) and walking through ahinahina blooms during the day, I fell in love with Mauna Kea.


Right now, the Unist’ot’en Camp (http://unistotencamp.com/) reports that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have set up check-points on roads leading to the Camp to harass Camp visitors and that the territory is crawling with police. On the one bridge over the Morice River that leads onto Unist’ot’en territory, RCMP have already attempted to force their way past the soft-blockade operating there only to be turned back when Unist’ot’en Spokeswoman, Freda Huson, demanded they leave. The Camp expects that the corporations involved in the Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) to apply for a court order to evict the Unist’ot’en and their allies, so the PTP may begin construction.


Meanwhile, in Hawai’i, the TMT has tried to force its way up Mauna Kea with an armed police escort twice. The TMT’s aggression has yielded 43 arrests on Mauna Kea, but so far no construction has been completed. Since the last time the TMT attempted to bring construction equipment to Mauna Kea’s summit and were stopped, the State of Hawai’i has forced through “emergency rules” that purportedly make it illegal to camp, or even to possess sleeping bags or tent, within one mile to either side of the Mauna Kea Access Road. Rumors that the National Guard might be called to remove Mauna Kea Protectors have become so strong that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser even ran a poll asking Hawai’i residents whether the National Guard should be applied against Kanaka Maoli on Mauna Kea.




This morning, as I was preparing to write, I was browsing through my newsfeed reading the reactions and commentary surrounding the hottest political stories as I always do to let the coffee soak in. I always find it a mix of exasperation and profound sadness to read comment after comment expressing surprise at police violence against people of color, at the total disregard for the lives and land of indigenous peoples, at yet another toxic “accident.” I feel despair reading the beyond tired question, “What is happening to America?”


I find it terribly sad because the vast amounts of surprise I see expressed demonstrate that many people are unaware that this is what America does. As any doctor will tell you, the proper cure requires the proper diagnosis. Before we can solve the problem, we must name the problem. Before we can can undermine this violence, we must accurately articulate what this violence is. Are we still so far from effectively resisting this violence that we’re surprised when cops kill another person of color? when the National Guard is called to neutralize native warriors? when another pipeline leaks more toxins into soil and water?


This violence is what America and other imperial nations were founded on. This violence is how America and other imperial nations gained their power. This violence is how America and other imperial nations continue to dominate the world. This violence has a name: civilization. The willingness to engage in civilization is one way we can distinguish between truly sustainable nations, and truly insane nations.


Before I go on, I know the positive connotations the word “civilization” carries with it. Is he really going to attack civilization? I can hear some asking. Regardless, these positive connotations must cease. Civilization is a bad word.


The most accurate definition for civilization – defensible both linguistically and historically – I have ever come across was developed by Derrick Jensen in the first volume of his work Endgame. The root word in “civilization” is “civil.” “Civil” derives from “civis” which comes from the Latin “civitatis” meaning “city-state.” From there, Jensen defines civilization as a “culture – that is a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts – that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities, with cities being defined – so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on – as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”


By Jensen’s definition, neither the Wet’suwet’en or Kanaka Maoli were civilized. They did not require the importation of food or other necessities of life. They developed cultures where one of the most sacred rules is never taking more than you need, never taking more than the land freely gives. In fact, I’ve heard that Kanaka Maoli sometimes punished the taking of a fish’s life out of season with death. Before you call this barbaric, remember whatever problems Hawaiian culture might have had before European contact, total ecological collapse was not one of them. Total ecological collapse of the Hawaiian Islands is a possibility today. Consider, too, that a fish’s life is just as valuable to it as yours is to yours and a fish’s life is just as ecologically important (maybe more important) than a human’s.


The beauty of this definition is that it accurately captures the material reality of civilization. It does not rely on the typically abstract definitions of civilization which often include vague allusions to “developed” and “advanced stages of society.” Another way to say this is Jensen’s definition contemplates what civilization actually does to the real world. I’ll let Jensen explain, “The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.”


Imagine you live in a nation th