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Few people understand the historical impact of coal mining like acclaimed poet Barney Bush in Shawnee hills of southern Illinois. The French, in fact, stumbled on coal outcroppings near the Shawnee in Illinois in the 17th century, launching the first coal industry on the American continent. By the early 19th Century, Thomas Jefferson helped to engineer the removal of Shawnee in southern Illinois, largely to obtain the great reserves of salt and coal. As a child, Bush’s own family, which had survived relocation, lost their home to strip-mining expansion: “When they strip-mined our forests and valley, they strip-mined me,” he once told me. As a teacher, Bush also witnessed strip-mining ruin on Navajo and Hopi lands at Black Mesa, in Arizona.
Bush is author of several award-winning collections of poetry and stories, including Inherit the Blood, which chronicled the story of a grandmother confronted with an encroaching coal mine, and “the final removal area.”
Living in the Shawnee Vinyard Indian Settlement near Rocky Branch, Illinois, one of the most controversial strip-mine expansions in recent memory, Bush reflects on the experience of the Shawnee, the cherished Shawnee hills and forests, and what today’s showdown means for the rest of the nation. —Jeff Biggers
But as to what is possibly the single most meaningful characteristic that divides the human species—the presence or absence of conscience—we remain effectively oblivious. —Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
As a human being, I have emerged from a combination of large, extended families. Due to extremes of colonial invasions, our social lives that have evolved over tens of thousands of years have dramatically changed. To this day, as a tribal entity, we have struggled to hang onto our instincts for survival in spite of intermarriages/acculturations with colonial citizens, their legal and religious systems and have adapted beyond our senses of compatible culture, respect, honor and love for our homelands. We yet know that we are connected to all living things. And we still find it incredible that a low percentage of these immigrants has the last word in issues relating to life and death of the earth upon which all life depends, indeed, the life and death of related entities that include the human beings.
In every moment, 24 hours-6 days a week, coal trucks in singles and in convoys grind gears and dispense diesel fumes (all illegal) that disturb the peace of this hollow. If you and I are speaking face to face or on the telephone or listening to the radio or watching a film, or writing a poem, we have to stop all communication until they pass and leave a few, precious, silent moments to hear the voice of a friend, the wind, the spring peepers, rain falling on the roof, the music, an instantaneous outburst of song or a good night’s sleep. We seldom sing here anymore. Instead of standing up for their homes, “For Sale” signs line the highways. The disbelief overwhelms everyone who has a conscience.
“And for coal mining families across the nation, the Ludlow Massacre of children, women and immigrant union coal miners, is one of the most defining cautionary tales of injustice and rallying cries for action in the American coalfields that still resound today: No one’s loss of life, liberty and health for coal industry profits is acceptable collateral damage,” says author Jeff Biggers.
We have citizens who cannot bear to face the reality of witnessing our homelands, our river ways, our old village sites/recent home sites and our graveyards disrespected and destroyed forever as if we were never here. Some turn to religion, some assimilate/acculturate, some leave for other tribal areas and some simply vanish into the colonial mainstream of America. And, some say that we never existed, and their consciences are eased with the support of others bereft of conscience and/or humanitarian responsibility. The colonial system has always been able to recruit other indigenous people and non-Natives who have lived among us to serve against their own people as scouts and informers. And, some of us choose to stand our ground preferring to seek out ways to reeducate and inspire others to recognize that “We are all related.”
Michael Two Horses (deceased) formerly of American Indian Studies at Virgina Tech, Blacksburg, speaks of contemporary constructs by writers who falsely misconstrue “pristine wilderness” and “complete avoidance” of “… contested lands where members of marginalized races or classes live, and fail to deal with the concept of ‘national sacrifice areas’ in human terms, inasmuch as the Indians, Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and poor Whites living in those areas are sacrificed as well. These are zones where uranium mines and coal mines and their pollution of groundwater, or toxic waste dumps are located, without exception, in proximity to marginalized peoples.”
I have witnessed the effects that the Earth, its shapes and fragrances, winds, lightning and thunder, seasons, rains and storms have had on non-Native people. Those with conscience have been reshaped by the nature of this land, have indeed come to feel “reborn” here in the midst of this beauty, and all who love this land have always been welcomed. But the destroyers have not been welcome, the sociopaths, psychopaths, greedy, the ego driven and those who have “… a form of religion” as Jesus has been quoted to have said, a front for ego-driven ambitions that have reeked of gold and slaves since 1492 … and profit at any cost. This chronic behavior now encircles the globe. Perhaps former president George Bush was not too far off when he (or someone else) coined the phrase, Evil Empire.
Here in southern Illinois, the coal and mineral empires devastate the landscape including the removal of the historic hills of Saline, Gallatin and Hardin Counties destroying old indigenous village sites and graveyards as they strip, unmercifully, the holy land. Southern Hardin County transforms itself into what appears as Third World, war zones as rock crushing businesses backed by local citizens, elected officials and attorneys whose profit-driven motives appear to be without conscience.
The coal is not used in America, in spite of industry’s bold attempts to promote coal as “clean” but is sold to Asian countries without strict environmental laws, and whose pollution circles the globe. Here, citizens of conscience feel helpless in the face of progress and jobs, sell out to the coal companies, then regret it, regret that they did not know how to defend the homelands from their own kind which may include members of their own communities for whom the money “… was just too good to pass up.” Whispered dialogue often turns to acts of civil disobedience and defensive actions. After all, what do most people of the world do when their very lives, their families, children, farms are under attack?
The phrase will of the people suddenly causes one to pause and reason that this may have only been a metaphor, an unabashed doublespeak (will of the wealthy), to brand loyalty onto a gullible public imprinted with patriotic sacrifice of their lives and the lives of their children. We would pledge our allegiance to defending corporations posing as patriotic citizens working to build a “better America for a better tomorrow,” another catchphrase that we now know openly translates to rich and powerful. Everything would be all right if you worked hard, prayed hard, loved God and shopped in local, hometown markets. Little did they know that government subsidized corporations would be blowing up their front yards, destroying their water sources and threatening their democratic loyalties in their own homes. The man/woman without conscience finds no attachment to such notions and may even feel superior to the public it disenfranchises, observing that such detestable notions stand in the way of progress and success.
Stout writes: “Psychologically speaking, conscience is a sense of obligation ultimately based in an emotional attachment to another living creature (often, but not always a human being), or to a group of human beings, or even in some cases to humanity as a whole. Conscience does not exist without an emotional bond to someone or something, and in this way conscience is closely allied with the spectrum of emotions we call ‘love.’ This alliance is what gives true conscience its resilience and its astonishing authority over those who have it …”
These acts happen to the land, wildlife, forest and the people. It is and has always been, rape, and sociopathic rapists are bold enough and trained to counsel their victims. If this were China or the Middle East conducting this devastation and destroying the homes at Rocky Branch/Berry Hill and erasing the hills of Hardin County, citizens of conscience would take up arms. Here, at Rocky Branch, it is a Civil War-styled atmosphere: relatives against relatives, sell-outs, money under the table, temporary jobs but permanent destruction of earth and the other vital resources.
Numerous local people have proposed moves toward alternative energy, a move that would create businesses that would last as long as the sunlight and wind, much longer than the seams of high-sulfur coal, most of which is shipped to Asian countries, and because it is supposed to be illegal to burn here in the U.S. And, where, in Asian steel mills, much of the slag is used for the making of weapons which are sold to countries with whom the U.S. is at war. Treason appears to be a solid trade-off for JOBS. Go figure.
As it happens in this corporate devastation of the Earth, it evidences the fact that its colonial laws serve only the colonial corporations. They feed from each other and make a mockery of their alleged democracy, respect for religious values, commitment to “… one nation …” values and setting rightful examples for all of our children. As Native Americans, alone, we are denied basic rights of existence, subsistence and religious beliefs that are in direct relationship with the land, water, air and the animals. Our numbers are few. The feelings of helplessness are agonizing. John Trudell once remarked that American citizens would eventually feel the stinging felt by Native Americans.
“All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One,” Black Elk said.
As most of us are aware, there exist two primary Americas: one that believes and teaches its children to believe that it is born of conscience; the other that knows the truth but cares only that it is able to bully its way, which is really the first America. We watch again while soulless corporations with the approval of a colonial government devastate our homelands and burial grounds. And, yet, they continue to make excuses for a lack of conscience and dismiss the rights to what we indigenous people refer to as the spirit of our homelands and rights to the graves of our fathers and mothers. (Tecumseh [Dya’koom’sah] paraphrased).
“The entire planet is up for grabs by these corporate marauders but WE the people, organized in our common interests, can STOP this. We must recognize that we have, as a class, interests separate from the class of billionaires who profit from this destruction of the commons. They are turning everything into their own private property with which to create scarcity for the majority while they revel in wealth and luxury,” says Cathy Talbott, Co-host of OCCUPY THE AIRWAVES, WDBX Radio, Carbondale, IL.
Peabody hires spokespeople to insinuate its propaganda into the communities, to convince stunned residents that everything will be all right, and that there is no use to fight the inevitable loss of their homes, homes that hosted three or four generations or more of the same bloodlines, where they grew up, where they married, near where they buried their dead, reared more children and gathered in local churches. The spokespeople (usually from out of state or money-bribed locals) offer to rebuild the hills, leave the Earth, the farmlands, home sites in much better condition than when they first hustled, cajoled, and by reports, even threatened many of the residents into signing away all the homeland images of their lives.
“Small communities are regarded as resource colonies by corporations,” says Natalie Long, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. “We can challenge this by making our own laws that protect the communities.”
As true soulless humans, the corporate heads and their conscience-free investors and government supporters and bought-out county board members intend to meet their objectives at any cost and cite misleading, financial statistics worded to appeal to the greedy-hearted with the doublespeak of JOBS. Rocky Branch community is not taking these shameless threats lying down but are displaying heartening signs of resistance to the most real, contemporary terrorism to invade the Americas, the destruction of Earth, air, water and the entirety of the historic Saline Valley.
If we are to learn from our history, these corporations should know that a large segment of the public can only be shoved so far before violent action, as a means of defense and protection of life, limb and property, is the only recourse. Then comes the “wringing of hands,” always after it’s too late.
“The industrial economy is a subject of the environment—not the other way around. If we don’t have a healthy biosphere it doesn’t matter how much money we have,” writes Dr. Greg McPherson, Research Forester with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Center.
The citizens of Rocky Branch appeal to the consciences of people around this Earth, people who are fed up with corporate control of nature and treating we the people and our homelands as expendable for the greed that is without conscience. Indeed, this is an appeal to the consciences of humans who realize that the life forces are not only being held hostage but being destroyed.
Join the citizens of Rocky Branch in recovering their homes. The rally cry of Rocky Branch and their supporters “We won’t stop until you do,” says it all about this new wave of resistance through the Heartland. Peabody has already destroyed old farm homes built with beautiful sandstone, log beams and made to endure the years but not the greed of strip mining, fracking and hilltop removal, has clear-cut the forests in spite of endangered species, and has intimidated citizens including elders and church people. As one of the Rocky Branch citizens who spoke at Town Hall in Harrisburg, IL on March 27, 2014, said, “This is our Trail of Tears.” At the very least, the failure of forced relocation in the 21st Century.
“One way or another, a life without conscience is a failed life.” —Martha Stout