An Interview with Rod Coronado
The inspiring Native American earth warrior and animal liberationist Rod Coronado paid a visit to Brighton a little while back. Finally free to speak after years on the run, in prison and then with parole conditions banning him from engaging in any political activity, he made the best of it by going on a speaking tour around the UK. He managed to spare some time out of his schedule for a chat with Do or Die...
How did you first get involved with animal liberation actions and political struggles?
Well, I was raised with a value system that didn't see animals as property, a value system that saw the earth as our mother, that value system not being founded on anything that took years to develop through philosophical or ideological involvement but instead being what I was brought up with. Having that worldview, then being exposed to institutional animal abuse and earth destruction, that's what led me into direct action, as opposed to the more common path that takes years and years of frustration, and a feeling of ineffectiveness before one uses direct action. That's something that never occurred to me.
My political involvement began in the mid-1980s, when I became an adult and graduated from school. I was very much attracted to the mainstream issues of saving the whales and preventing the clubbing of seals and the most extreme examples of animal abuse and environmental destruction. I found myself gravitating toward the more aggressive direct action groups simply because I never had held much faith in governmental avenues of change and political systems. Whether it's as a Native American or an observer of history, I just always felt that governments were about breaking resistance or accommodating it, rather than listening to it.
So, for me the tactic was always finding the group that was most effective, or most involved with intervention and the physical disruption of killing. In 1978 or '79, I saw a documentary about Greenpeace's campaigns to interfere with the Canadian seal hunt, which in those days was the largest wild animal slaughter in the world. And their direct action tactics were the type of actions that I felt were necessary. And so I gravitated toward them until I saw there was somebody even more aggressive on the political spectrum of direct action, which was Paul Watson, who had broken away from Greenpeace to start Sea Shepherd. Of all the organisations that I joined as a teenager - mainstream animal welfare groups - it was Sea Shepherd that I got a human connection from in the form of letters back from people, letters back from Paul himself. When I was 17 and I left school, I started working full time for them on anti-whaling campaigns in the Faeroe Islands against the pilot whale slaughter there. My first voyage was in 1985 to interfere with that hunt and the following year, 1986, I returned to the same campaign in the Faeroe Islands.
Working with Sea Shepherd led me to a greater exposure to more revolutionary political movements here in Britain, and also to the phenomenon of anarchy and its role in the direct action movement. That's where I'd say I realised that direct action wasn't something that you waited for someone to ask you to do - you just took the initiative and did it yourself. And that led me onto a path that saw me beginning my own direct action for Sea Shepherd in the form of a campaign that we took upon ourselves in 1986, to stop illegal Icelandic whaling. And once that proved successful, with our sinking of two whaling ships and destruction of the nation's whaling station, that only inspired and encouraged me further to continue on this path of empowerment that wasn't dependent on any structure or politics or organisation. And it reaffirmed my personal feelings of where an individual in today's world is most effective when representing the earth and animals. By taking individual autonomous direct action and utilising the tactics of guerrilla warfare, you are able to strike much larger targets when they least expect it, as opposed to more mainstream strategies that involve lobbying, protest, demonstrations and letter writing.
What tactics did Sea Shepherd actually use? Like in the Icelandic whaling fleet actions, did Sea Shepherd ships take on other ships?
The tactic of intervention that we used against the pilot whale hunt was simply to place our ship between the whales and the much smaller fishing vessels that would sail out from small ports to drive the whales to shore. And by simply placing our ship outside the local harbours of fishing villages, when the whales were migrating past, it was intimidating enough to the locals for them not to pursue the whales. Based on the reputation that we had already built through previous years of direct action against whaling ships, they knew that we meant business, we weren't Greenpeace, that we weren't above destroying property, and that was a reputation that preceded us and proved to be very effective in itself. Simply our presence was enough of a threat.
In Iceland it was more of a covert operation. Me and one friend, with the wages we had made over a summer of labouring in London, were able to fly to Iceland, where we discovered through observation of the activities of the whaling station, that there was nobody on the premises at night. So it was possible for us to break into the facility and inflict maximum economic damage through sabotaging the machinery and computers. By having the experience of working on an actual ship, we knew that we could also get aboard the whaling ships, and if we could access their engine rooms, we could sink the vessels in the harbour without using explosives or risking any injury, which is what we were able to do. And we weren't trained mercenaries or commandos or soldiers, but just people who were empowered because nobody told us we couldn't accomplish what we set out to do. Being a saboteur is a power an individual can have if he or she studies the enemy long enough to find a weak link. And that is still an avenue of action that seems to be very effective, simply because the target is what industry and government care about the most, which is their profits, their financial base.
There's been an Earth First! movement in America for 20 years and there's been direct action and eco-defence actions for longer than that. But it seems that Sea Shepherd, with the exception of Greenpeace, who are now more of a mainstream organisation, are still the only people to have taken direct action onto the sea in a big way. Why do you think this is?
Well, I think there's just an unfamiliarity that our movements have with working on ocean issues in a hands-on way. I think that any issue that's land based is easier simply because we are a land based society. But I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that destruction of wilderness, where it can be seen, shocks a lot more people into action than environmental destruction that takes place in the ocean. The depletion of fish stocks and marine mammal populations and pollution isn't something that's really seen unless you live in a coastal environment; unless you depend on a healthy ocean environment for your existence. I think that has made it harder to generate attention for ocean issues because a lot of people don't really fathom the level of destruction. I mean, you hear commercial fishing being described as the strip-mining of the seas, but without any sense of the magnitude of it, it's harder to generate direct action campaigns against the commercial fishing industry. Also it has to do with people's conditioning, which makes it much easier to organise around furry cute animals or indigenous people as opposed to plankton or fish. We definitely have a tendency in our movement to be attracted to the causes that are easier to generate public support for. It is unfortunate that Sea Shepherd has been the only organisation to really fight for the high seas with a direct action strategy. But I think one reason that it hasn't happened more is because it just takes a hell of a lot of money to put a ship to sea. It's hard enough organising demonstrations and campaigns on land, let alone organising and raising the funds necessary to put a ship that consumes two tonnes of diesel a day in the sea - and there's also some environmental issues connected with operating a ship like that!
CAP: On the side of Sea Shepherd, its tally of trashed targets. The two Icelandic ships, Hvalur 6 and 7, were the ones sunk by Rod Coronado.
What are your opinions of Paul Watson? Because I know he is sometimes a controversial figure.
I think a lot of people tend to judge Paul on the basis of their opinions of how he should carry out his actions or how he should carry on his life as a reflection of his actions. And because we find it hypocritical for somebody to fight for animal rights and yet eat meat, a lot of people judge Paul for that. But regardless of what Paul's own lifestyle decisions are, I choose instead to just look at what can't be ignored in his life that he has done for the Earth. And after 30 years of action, he has never become an institutional environmentalist, or condemned the tactic of direct action, like so many other people have in the grassroots movement, once they gain a position within the mainstream environmental movement or turn their actions into a career. And at the end of the day, that demands respect. This is a warrior; this is someone who has repeatedly put his life on the line. Paul's now pushing 60 years old and he's still out there on the ship carrying out campaigns. There's very few activists in our movement that have been involved that long and are still doing the level of grassroots organising that they were 20 or 30 years ago. So I think that deserves a lot of respect. And as we said before, there is only one organisation that is active on the high seas, to protect and defend the whales and the sea nations. I don't think we're in a position to criticise the one organisation that exists.
In 1989 I finally felt that my term had been served with Sea Shepherd. I started to have differences of opinion with Paul Watson's strategy. Not that I questioned its effectiveness, but I knew it was no longer the mode of operation that suited me. Sea Shepherd used direct action, but direct action that could be argued to be enforcing international government agreements. I didn't want to wait for international bodies to recognise the need to preserve animals and the Earth; I just wanted to start taking actions that protected animals and the Earth on the basis of ecological law and moral law. I wanted to take actions that very specifically targeted the industry and worked, and didn't depend on public support or have publicity as their goal or a sign of their effectiveness. While many good organisations and campaigns do defeat their targets on the basis of getting public support, I found that the role I could best perform was to simply operate with only the intent of damaging the industry. I think this is also because of beginning to see more clearly the media's typical response to direct action - labelling it as criminal activity, as was the case when the actions in Iceland happened. I came to a threshold where I had to make a decision whether my actions were motivated by protecting the animals that I represented, or advancing the cause of our movement. And at the end of the day, defending the Earth and animals mattered a lot more than pleasing the movements for the Earth and animals.
Yes, in the mid-'80s - that was the first time I came into contact with people who were physically getting out into the field to protect animals, by disrupting hunts, by sabotaging fur shops and butchers' shops. But what I think was more important was the lesson to be learned in that seeing that people with very little money could still carry out actions in defence of animals and the Earth. There was the same level of social and ecological responsibility that I've heard most frequently spoken of in indigenous societies, whereby the individual is responsible for their own actions, and not only for their own actions but also for protecting and defending those who cannot protect and defend themselves. So that was something that resonated very strongly with me, the fact that you didn't have to be part of a larger organisation to be effective.
I went out hunt sabbing in Bristol and Plymouth and seeing first hand the level of violence that people were willing to inflict on us, because we were trying to protect the fox's life, was another transition that took place in my life; until that time I really believed that I was a pacifist. And I really believed that there was no place for violence or even self-defence. I believed in passive non-violence until I saw that as hunt saboteurs, the willingness to defend oneself against physical attack was the most effective tactic for avoiding physical attack. Really showing your enemy that you were willing, if attacked, to fight back, created a level of respect from your opponent that didn't exist when you just curled up into a foetal position and allowed yourself to get beaten. And being a person who is very much about fighting violence and avoiding violence, it seemed to be an appropriate logical tactic, to demonstrate a willingness to defend yourself and your comrades. The level of violence has increased against non-violent activists, whether they are representing the Earth or animals or human rights. This has led me now to be even more galvanised in the effort to avoid physical confrontation. Targeting the institutions' property and machinery and buildings that are used to destroy life, is much more non-violent than carrying out actions where you are physically confronting the people who are operating those machines and who occupy those buildings, who carry out the killing.
So you're doing it in a more anonymous way where you never actually physically confront another individual?
Yes, because the greatest level of violence I've seen in our movement is when we're physically confronting our opponents. And I strongly believe that we should choose our battles wisely, because when we are subject to arrest and the ensuing court proceedings, it not only disables us individually from activism but also creates a dependency on our movements to support us and provide legal defence. I also see that as part of the obligation we have to our movement, to always represent the Earth and animals first and avoid situations where we have to then claim to be the victims ourselves rather than keep the attention on those we are fighting for. We've repeatedly seen demonstrations for good causes turn into defence funds for the activists who were participating in them; the issue changing over from being about environmentalism to one of police abuse, protecting one's constitutional rights, etc., which also I find to be in a sense hypocrisy, because we're demanding protection from a society that at the very same time we seemingly oppose.
So you think that tactically it's more sensible to move away from street demonstrations and that kind of action, which is risking getting yourself arrested and tying up everyone else in a campaign of legal support?
You see a lot of people being arrested in large mass demonstrations who are masking up and carrying out small property destruction. Rather than all actions being supported, we can also be justified in questioning those people and debating within our movement whether it's effective for somebody to carry out action in the light of day for the TV, the media and the police cameras, or whether instead it would be better that we support the tactic but in a much safer environment where people who carry out those same tactics are so much less likely to get caught. I mean, in a sense it seems extremely irresponsible and reckless to carry out property destruction in front of the police when it can be carried out much more effectively if you just wait until the next day, or do it the week before the demo. And I think that that's something we owe to ourselves to do, rather than just argue that property destruction done on large demonstrations should be applauded and encouraged. If you're part of a mass demonstration that is targeting a research facility, animal breeders, or an immigration facility, where it is possible, by virtue of the sheer numbers you have, to rescue individual victims, then direct action should be carried out at that time. But, at the same time, I think that we also have to ask ourselves, "Well, gee, if I could save ten animals' lives in a mass demonstration against Huntingdon Life Sciences, maybe I could save 100 if I came back when the security wasn't escalated to meet the mass demonstration."
My avenue of action has always been based on what an individual can be most effective at doing. And applying that to my own life I have found that there's a lot more that I'm capable of, when I target the very same corporation or issue that larger groups and organisations do on demonstrations. And rather than just be another body on the picket line, I personally have found that I can be a lot more effective using sabotage and direct action against that very same industry. And I think that when we call ourselves green anarchists or anarchists, or we call ourselves revolutionaries, I think we really have to seriously consider what that means. We have to recognise that it isn't just about feeling that you do enough if you go out on a mass action every couple of months. If you fly halfway across the country or the world to go to an international protest against globalisation, that isn't enough to realise the power of direct action. In large street demos, you might get away with smashing a few windows. To me the power of direct action is about recognising what you can do away from a larger movement.
I think larger movements most definitely have an effective place in our struggle. But already I think that we've seen that the anti-globalisation movement, by virtue of being very successful in its first couple of demonstrations in Seattle and other cities, has been meeting with ever-increasing police violence and ever increasing arrests. Activists are being banned from travelling out of their home countries, and are being pulled off aeroplanes before they even attend the actions. I really wish those demonstrations would be left to people who are living in those countries where it's easier for them to organise, as opposed to us utilising our limited resources in paying for flights and travel, and just being one more body. I think that we have to recognise as revolutionaries that as young, physically fit people, it shouldn't be enough to just go to a demo every two months, even if we are able to mask up and commit some property destruction. I think that's a dangerous, slippery slope that one can easily slide down as an activist, when you start feeling that the actions that you carry out as part of a mass movement are enough. Masking up and smashing some windows is effective but it's nowhere near the only direct action I want to do.
I think there are a lot of people who believe in the power of revolutionary action and who support revolutionary struggles but are very apprehensive about starting their own in their own home country. And I think that's a product of our privilege as members of a First World society, regardless of many of us being working class or poor. We are still for the most part not representing ourselves but representing the Earth and people in other countries, and as a result we're not directly being oppressed as much as those that we represent. You see some struggles where people are paying a very high price for the same level of activity that we carry out with the blessing of our governments by virtue of being able to organise overtly. I think that we have an obligation to do as much as we can with the privilege that we have. And if you're a revolutionary, I think that means a lot more than just smashing a few windows. It's been repeatedly seen over and over again, that when people do rise above that and do recognise that they can do a lot more on their own, independently, the results speak for themselves.
So when you were over here, back in the '80s, and you met up with hunt sabs and animal liberation people, were there particular things that you thought could be carried over to the USA, or things that you thought would work back there as well?
I think that I really recognised the effectiveness of ALF tactics of economic sabotage against the fur industry. I participated here in London, by smashing up fur shops on my own, without knowing any animal rights activists in London, I just did it. Collectively by my doing that, then other people doing it at demos, I think we were pushing these retail businesses into bankruptcy. I recognised that the fur industry was a winnable target. So when I did go back to the States I was very motivated to attack the fur industry there, which hadn't met the level of economic sabotage that it had met in England. And I knew that if we persisted to the degree that people in England had, that there was no reason why we wouldn't meet with the same results, because regardless of them being different countries, it's still the law of economics that we were working under. And we were able to put a couple of retail fur shops out of business, so the evidence was there. I think that's what led me to decide that it wasn't enough to target individual fur shops; that we needed to set even higher goals, and hit larger industry targets. That's why I found myself beginning to work against the fur farm industry.
I realised that a lot could be gained by an intelligence gathering mission, so with the support of a mainstream animal rights group, we were sent to carry out an investigation of the fur farm industry. At this time the majority of the animal rights movement's arguments against the fur trade were based on fur trapping and as a result the fur trade was shifting its emphasis from trapping to the domestic rearing of fur-bearing animals, which we knew very little about. So we spent about a year infiltrating fur farms under the premise that we were looking for breeding stock and wanted to start our own operation. We accumulated massive amounts of video documentation of the abuses on fur farms that could be used as ammunition to educate people as to what was going on - the suffering that was behind fur coats. And at the same time, carrying out this investigation revealed to me the level of vulnerability that the industry had in America, because it had not been targeted by ALF direct action. So, on the conclusion of this investigation and having achieved our goal of gathering evidence to prove the level of psychological and physical abuse that was experienced by animals on farms, I felt that the next logical step was attacking the industry using direct action. We'd gotten images that could be used to get public support for the anti-fur movement, but I also recognised that there was an industry here that could be hurt by direct action. So I felt the logical obligation to carry out that direct action, in the way I had carried out actions against the whaling industry.
So after you'd researched it, you knew where all the fur farms were and you knew what might be the most effective points of attack?
Yes, like any industry, I knew that research and development was the cornerstone and the pioneering front that advanced the industry. So this seemed to me the most vulnerable link in the fur farm industry in the United States, targeting the handful - four or five - university researchers who were funded by the fur farm industry to carry out vivisection on mink and to study and overcome the obstacles that were encountered by the industry, in terms of animal husbandry. Because whereas factory farming is based on the intense confinement of domestic animals, fur farming is based on the intense confinement of native predators who are yet to be domesticated.
So I drove down to the nation's largest experimental fur farm at Oregon State University. I walked into the facility after careful reconnaissance. I was by myself, and you know, they weren't expecting anything - the fur farm industry hadn't been hit in America yet. And so I got into the guard fence and I looked at the main research building and there was an open bathroom window. So I took the screen off and I crawled in and there was all the research records and documents and experimental equipment of the nation's largest experimental fur farm. And no alarms went off and so I climbed on the roof and I told myself, "Look, OK, if you decide to do what you're thinking..." I'd been captured in 1987, four years previously, smashing up fur shops in Vancouver, Canada. So I knew the consequences of what would happen if I took direct action, and what I was thinking was total destruction, not minimum damage, and in this case it was arson. For me, as an indigenous person, fire is a cleansing force - it's how we clean ourselves when we take sweat lodge ceremonies; it's how we clean ourselves when we burn sage and sweetgrass and other medicinal herbs; It's a power, a force of nature, and you use it to rid away evil, so in that way it's a very sacred application when the ALF or the ELF use arson. And so I was on that roof knowing that the actions that I was thinking about taking would probably lead to prison eventually, because having done the investigation of the fur farm industry, I knew that it would probably only be a matter of time before my presence in the fur farms and in the auction houses and the feed co-operatives would... you know, people would start connecting the dots. It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to see that probably these people were the ones responsible.
But despite prison or a fur farmer's bullet, I just knew that it was what had to be done - it wasn't a heroic decision, it wasn't a brave decision, it was just recognising the obligation that I had to the animal world, to my brothers and sisters. So that was the beginning of what we called Operation Bite Back. For the next year and a half we attacked five of the six recipients of research grants given out that year. We destroyed many, many major research projects: we destroyed experimental feed barns, we rescued a couple of dozen mink and other animals, and we destroyed over 32 years worth of research at Michigan State University.
Well, I definitely found that my targeting and subsequent imprisonment was largely a result of my above ground activism rather than illegal activism. Had I never been identified as an ALF member fighting the fur trade and as somebody that believed in property destruction to defend the Earth and animals, I never would have been caught. So that leaves me advising other people who find themselves ready to carry out direct action to sever whatever connections they have with the above ground movement that is a part of the same struggle they are representing illegally, simply because the police investigation's first tactic in searching for the perpetrators of illegal political action is looking at the legal activists that are part of that same movement. So if you are not a part of that same movement in the above ground you instantly preserve your anonymity and remain off their radar until further investigations. It's definitely making things easier for them when we wear one hat during the day that identifies us as an animal rights activist or environmentalist and then in the middle of the night wear a separate hat when we're carrying out illegal activities for the same cause. And even though we repeatedly do this due to the limitations we have in our movement of numbers of people willing to carry out direct action, it's easy to see just by looking at prisoner pages that the majority of people who are getting busted for direct action are busted because they were seen within the above ground movements.
Arrest and Imprisonment
Well, my criminal indictment came about from a paper trail of documents that were discovered after a raid - documents that were being delivered to mainstream animal rights groups who could then use the information that we had confiscated from the laboratories. And also it was a result of handwriting samples that were obtained from handwritten communiqués that were confiscated from personal storage lockers that were raided by the police. But interestingly enough, the majority of evidence that led to my criminal conviction was not related to the actual committing of the crime, but more to the publicity that we tried to generate for the issue that we were attacking. And as I stated before, I was trying to be effective both as a source of public education and as an impact against the industry, and this cost me. Ideally, if we were part of a more organised movement, my only job would have been carrying out the action. The media part of it would have been handled by somebody else. Since we were very much in the infancy of a direct action movement in America at the time, I found myself in multiple roles, still being a spokesperson while also carrying out the actions I was speaking for.
Is that partially the idea of having the ALF/ELF spokesperson office?
Exactly. Which didn't exist at the time. Or if it did, I wasn't aware of it. I mean, there was a press office in England, but in America, it was pretty much up to independent media sources to spread the word. The point of a press office is to create a safe avenue for an individual to defend actions that they themselves are not a part of, as opposed to trying to create an avenue of communication for those that carry out the actions, which is extremely risky. It helps preserve those people's anonymity to have a press office, and in that way it serves a very important role.
|"For me, as an indigenous person, fire is a cleansing force - it's how we clean ourselves when we take sweat lodge ceremonies; it's how we clean ourselves when we burn sage and sweetgrass and other medicinal herbs; It's a power, a force of nature, and you use it to rid away evil, so in that way it's a very sacred application when the ALF or the ELF use arson."|
What was your experience of prison? How long were you actually in for?
I ended up doing just about four years in prison and my experience was that the struggle did not end as I entered prison, but that it just shifted. Rather than carrying out direct actions against industry, my new role as a prisoner of war was to educate people - not only the prisoners, who themselves are victims of state repression, but also the numerous people who corresponded with me and were part of the environmental and animal rights movements. I expressed to them through my story of imprisonment, how the sacrifice that we are forced to make is so much smaller than that faced by other people in other struggles in other countries or the sacrifices faced by the animals themselves we represent. And also, by being able to write to people and tell them how I was and what I was doing, I could show them that prison isn't a disempowering thing if you don't want it to be. Prison's intention is to break our spirits and make us lose faith in what we believe in. But when you're sent to prison for something no more than protecting life and a healthy environment, it's a situation where you wake up and you feel really good about why you're there, as opposed to having done something that you regret.
It also becomes a very strong representation, not only to our movement, but also to the people in prison, that you are so serious about what you believe in that you're willing to go to jail for it. That in itself I think really validates our struggle and earns us the respect that we deserve as direct action warriors, as opposed to people who sometimes feel that animal rights and environmentalism are privileged movements. I think when we demonstrate our willingness to give up that privilege and go to prison for what we believe in, we show the rest of the world and the community that it's time to start recognising this movement that isn't about humans or protecting the environment for humans' sake.
I think that the outrageously long prison sentences being handed out to people like Free and Critter are evidence that there is a very strong political motivation behind our persecution by the law. We're not being sentenced as if we were simply criminals carrying out illegal activity, we're being sentenced as people that represent a movement engaged in direct action, in order to intimidate other people from joining that movement. So I think that while being a very real obstacle to our movement, at the same time it's forcing many people to evaluate what this struggle is about for themselves; whether it's only something you do for a couple of years in college until your career comes around or whether it's something you dedicate your life to, as many people have. So, I think in America, any reduction in action as a result of police repression is simply because we are working out separating the wheat from the chaff and seeing who is really ready to live up to their beliefs and walk their talk as opposed to most people who might be attaching themselves for other, less selfless, reasons.
What sort of relationships did you have with the other people in prison?
Well, considering that there was a large Native American population in the prison, I had a very good relationship with all of these people who were raised believing in a worldview that I shared as an animal rights activist or direct action activist and as an indigenous person. And as for the rest of people, the concept of environmentalism and animal rights was very foreign to them, but in time, they were exposed to it by associating with me, me providing them with reading material, answering their questions about who was writing to me, and giving them a face to a movement that they previously maybe had only heard about in the media. And so I found that it was very educational in that the next time those people heard about a direct action attack or even a protest about animal rights or the environment, they would think back to me, not believe what the media were saying about the people engaged in these things, but know that the type of people who do these things are very real because they knew one of them.
Well, I definitely do not recognise the animal rights or environmental movements as being movements of a contemporary time. I definitely do not believe that I can contain the things that I believe in within the framework of animal rights philosophy or environmentalist philosophy. For me, that's impossible, because it's not just about protecting animals, it's not just about protecting the environment, it's about being part of a larger global resistance that for hundreds of years has resisted this worldview that has plagued the Earth for so many centuries now, that attempts to force indigenous peoples, animals, and the Earth, into subjugation and reduce them to property or a resource.
After being involved with the struggle for so long and with the history of my people, I don't see this as a new phenomenon. I don't see the Earth Liberation Front as this new force that just burst on to the scene; I see the Earth Liberation Front as being the modern incarnation of the very same resistance that has existed everywhere in the world. The world that our people come from and that still exists for many indigenous people - and non-indigenous people too, if they choose to recognise it - is a world that sees every human being, every animal being, every plant being, as part of a whole and equal to each other.
I'm not sure how familiar people are with the natural world as it existed in north America, but that is really the basis for understanding my whole worldview, because the world that we come from, the world that all indigenous people come from, is a world that prior to European invasion was a vibrant, highly advanced civilisation. We weren't primitive people - we were more advanced - in our science, in our understanding of the workings of nature - not through any establishment or institution, but just through the participation of being a member of the circle of life, and through the observance of the harmonious existence of the natural world through generations.
Our elders come to us and talk to us about what kind of world existed before, and in North America that was a world where not only 40 million-plus bison blanketed the plains from one end to the other so thick that early explorers said that all they could see from one horizon to the next was just a mountain of moving animals. It was also a world where in the eastern seaboard of the United States, a squirrel on the Mississippi River could travel the 400 miles-plus to the coastline without ever touching the ground. The canopy of the eastern forests was so dense and thick that it created its own eco-system, much like that we see still surviving in South America. It was a world where bird life as we see it today can't be compared to the way it existed in the past. There's records that were saved, written by white settlers and explorers, that recount flocks of geese and other animals that were so thick so as to block out the sun, sometimes for days. And the passenger pigeon, which is now extinct - one European reported that it took five days for one flock to pass by. And in just a little over 125 years it was reduced to extinction. Whales, which are animals that are sacred to our people and very much to myself, were a nation of beings that were so prolific in the oceans that the Europeans identified them as a navigational hazard, there were so many of them along the coast.
So this was the world as it existed before. And I'm not going to lie and say that I believe that it's a world that can exist again because unfortunately the damage that has been done by humans is never going to be reversed in our time, that's for sure, and maybe not in the time of humankind. In the time of the earth it will, because the earth is much more powerful than anything man can do to it, and though we may destroy the living environment for every being that lives on the earth presently, the earth is a living force, it is an organism, and it will grow, it will evolve, and hopefully when it does we won't find ourselves on the top of the food chain.
I think there's a spirit of resistance, a spirit that infects us because we live in this land where past generations were killed and where their bones are buried, and we live on the land that they died for. And a result of that I think is that we hear their cries and our spirits are home for their restless spirits. So we find ourselves being the children of the invader, the children of a generation that is responsible for the things that we now oppose. And that is how I think the spirit of resistance exacts its revenge - by infecting the very children of the people who caused the suffering and now we are using that effective position to fight from within the belly of the beast, within the First World nations. It's not just about indigenous peoples fighting us, in the jungles where British or US corporations are based; it's about British citizens and American citizens fighting American and British companies. Not for our rights but for the rights of other people who cannot represent themselves in our homeland.
Presumably in America, the continuity of the struggle is more apparent, in that there has been direct military conflict more or less continuously between Europeans and Native American nations up until relatively recently.
Well, I'm from the Yaqui nation, outside of Tucson, Arizona, and when I see the American flag, that represents to me probably the same things that a Jewish person would feel when they saw the Nazi flag. That flag was carried into battle against our people repeatedly, it is still carried into battle against indigenous peoples in other parts of the world and it will continue to, because it's nothing new - that behaviour is what the US government has always done, it is how it was founded and it is how they maintain their control and power over not just our tribe, and other people of the world, but the natural world too.
Just thirty years ago the American Indian Movement were facing the brunt of US repression for wanting to do nothing more than represent their lands and culture and traditions. Living in a nation where there are still people who live in harmony with the land and keep a worldview alive that sees animals and the Earth as our relations, it is so much easier to realise the continuity of our resistance. It's so much more logical to see that the indigenous resisters of the last century are today manifesting themselves in the radical environmental and animal rights movements, the anti-globalisation movement, and the anti-racist human rights movements. I mean, it's very easy to see that it is about fighting for the same worldview and value system that other people have fought long and hard to defend. And my own experience was that when I was forced into hiding and forced to live on the run, I found sanctuary amongst indigenous people whose ancestors had died for the very same thing that I was a part of. And even though animal rights and radical environmentalism were foreign terms to them, the principles of what I was fighting for were very familiar.
CAP: American Indian Movement member Buddy Lamont (centre), killed by the FBI during the 71-day seige at Wounded Knee in 1973. In the first time since the Civil War that the US Army was used in a domestic operation, the Pentagon used helicopters, Phantom jets, Armoured Personnel Carriers, grenade launchers and CS gas against less than 300 Indians engaged in a peaceful protest at the symbolic site of the 1890 massacre.
What sort of relationship has there been between the American Indian Movement and other Native American activists and the animal liberation and Earth First! movements?
Well, I think that the most obvious relationship that's been seen has been the one that has been the most exploited by the media, and that was the division that was seen in North America, when the Makah tribe of Washington State decided to exercise their treaty rights to kill whales and were hence faced with overwhelming opposition from the animal rights movement and the environmental community, mostly privileged middle class white people. And it was an issue that the media was most willing to take advantage of simply because it helped demonstrate a clear division between two otherwise very powerful allies. And what reinforced my opinion that this was being exploited to both of our movements' detriment, was the fact that there has never been nearly as much publicity on those issues where we have worked together. The animal rights and the environmental movement worked very closely with Native American activists to fight uranium mining and coal mining in Arizona, to protect Shoshone lands in Nevada, to fight nuclear waste transports and shipments to Indian lands, and to fight for protection of the bison herds and the Yellowstone eco-system. All of these movements have been conglomerates of animal rights and environmental activists and Native people, and they have worked very effectively together and built very strong solidarity as a result.
But now, by participating in a campaign against a Native American tribe, we have allowed our opponents to create division in our ranks, where there would otherwise only have been strength. And so I think that we have a long road ahead of us before we can recognise the common ground between the Native American sovereignty movements and the movements for the rights of the animals and the Earth. I think that a lot of it is dependent on us recognising that we are very much a part of Western culture and do not have an understanding of what it means to live the way we only speak of living, as opposed to many Native American people who were raised with a worldview that we only by choice adopt.
Message to the Movement
Most definitely. I think that a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to any spirituality, as most of our experiences have come not through spirituality, but through religion, from the Christian church, which is really the opposite of what we believe in. So, when you talk about spirituality, I think it's hard to get around the bad taste in people's mouths. But at the same time, we really have to identify with the things that we fight for on a spiritual level, because there is a lot of power in them. The past generations that I mentioned before, that made the sacrifices that we now do, based themselves in a recognition of the power of the Earth and the power of the animals.
So the reason I talk a lot about spirituality as a component of direct action is simply also because it has served repeatedly as an effective and empowering element that kept me from falling into a pit of despair and depression and a feeling of ineffectiveness that I've seen many activists succumb to. I've seen friends of mine commit suicide because they were exposed to so much evil in the world and they had so little happiness in their lives that they just couldn't see a world that was worth living in. Whereas for me, the only way I can hold on to faith and hope is by continually discovering the power of the Earth and the beauty of animals and the things they have to teach us - that keeps me going. And if it wasn't for my ability to do that, I might fall down that same dangerous trap.
So you think spirituality actually has direct practical application; it can make your actions more effective?
Yes, you know, I can't see how it couldn't. I mean, we fight for the lives of indigenous peoples and their cultures and we fight for the lives of animals. And I think that when we see the beauty of an animal that isn't being pursued and we see the beauty of it in its own environment, when we learn from indigenous people who still live in harmony with the land and see how they sustain themselves, how they suffer from none of the psychological and physical ailments that we do, that to me is a very healthy thing to be gained from struggle, as opposed to just fighting for the Earth but still living under the laws of man and living in the system of man.
Many Native people say that we have to call on the animals for help and that if we do so, they will come forward and help us. Not just so we can help ourselves, but so that we can help everyone survive. I went to live on the plains when they finally indicted me for the actions against the mink industry. I stayed on this land of this elder. When I was living on this land it was the first time I had been living the life of my ancestors, the life of my animal relations, of being a hunted individual. And I prayed a lot and I asked for guidance and support - it was a time when I was living in fear, I was carrying a gun with me, because I knew the history of the FBI in their attempts to stop the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party, so I was prepared that they were going to come in and kill me. And one day I was walking on the plains, just really sad and I was calling for help and I saw a coyote and I saw a hawk. And when they came to me, they seemed to be looking at me and rather than speak any words I just felt this huge burden removed from me and in the wind I heard them sing, "Now you are one of us - you are a hunted one, just like us, and whenever you need us, all you have to do is ask for our help and we'll be there, but we cannot be there as long as you believe more in them than you believe in us." And so that was the point when I started accepting my faith more.
There was one more action that we needed to do. We had discovered in our reconnaissance of mink farms another research facility whose sole purpose was the development of new traps and poisons and techniques to control coyotes for the sake of protecting the livestock industry. The facility had a bunch of enclosures where they kept coyotes that they would starve for three to four days and then they would put newly developed poisons and traps baited with food in these enclosures knowing that the coyotes would be forced to eat them or step on the traps and then they would study the impact. So we had just put that in the back of our minds, but later that summer I was in this sacred place I used to go to pray when I lived in Oregon and the coyote came forward again. There was a full moon and it was a very sacred time and I realised that these beings were nations and families of their own people, just like we were, and I realised that I had to carry out this last action. So I gathered some friends together, and even though I was on the run at the time, we went to the research facility and after reconnaissance, decided we would attempt to burn down the Predator Research Facility.
The night we took action we prayed. Previously to this I hadn't really involved prayer in my preparations for actions - I always just worried about the logistics. But this time we gathered together and we prayed and we called upon the coyote nation to help us and to guide us in this act. That night when we went into action, I was the one chosen to get into the Predator Research Facility and I thought I could get in one way but when I actually got there I couldn't, so I had to find another way. I found a window that looked to be open, but to get to it I had to remove this big screen and there was a caretaker's house really close by and I knew that he would probably hear me and so I just started praying and calling on the coyote spirits and asking for help and in a sudden chorus from all around me all the coyotes that were in the kennel building and those in the enclosure started to sing. And they sung so loud that it provided enough cover for me to rip this frame off the window and I got in there and planted an incendiary device and later that night the facility burnt to the ground.
When I left, I met up with two other people who were busily going around to the enclosures cutting the fence to release the coyotes. This place abutted National Forest lands so the coyotes had a quick escape. But the others were just shaking and moved because they said that while they were trying to cut through the wires of the fences, the coyotes had gathered and they were on the other side of the fence digging. And so they had in that way helped us, just as we had asked. So that was a demonstration to me of the power that is available.
To finish then, do you have any advice or ideas for the animal liberation and ecological defence movements in this country?
I think that what I just spoke of, you know - finding what empowers us and what keeps us strong, what keeps us connected to the things we fight for, is really one of the best things that I think I can give to the movement. By fortunate circumstance I have lived in two worlds, as a person that's politically evolved into a direct action activist, and as a person that was raised with values to respect the Earth and animals. It leaves me with much to share with my warrior brothers and sisters who are fighting alongside me. There's a power that I feel by maintaining the relationship with the animals and the Earth that my ancestors did. But the Earth doesn't care what colour your skin is - she just cares what your actions are. And in that way, you don't have to be a Native person to enjoy the benefits of a renewed relationship with the Earth and the animals, you only have to demonstrate to them your compassion, love, and the willingness to accept them as members of your family, and then they will also give you the rewards that they share with other people - basically the recipe for our survival. And that to me would be foolish to ignore, as somebody who believes in fighting for their liberation.
And now it's our turn - our purpose on earth isn't for our own sake. In Native American prophecies people say we're the seventh generation - we're the people who have inherited this earth and now it's time for us to protect it for seven more generations. So that is something that we have to do, whether you do it against fighting the war in Iraq, or you do it for protecting the animals or protecting peat bogs or forests or indigenous cultures - we have to recognise that sacrifice is necessary - that is the greatest, greatest demonstration of love. You know, I did end up going to prison, I went to prison for four years and I just finished three years of probation - for the first time in eleven years I've finally finished this chapter in my life. But I feel so grateful that I had this opportunity to serve my animal relations. And so I spent four years in prison... you know, that's nothing. That's nothing compared to the sacrifice my ancestors have made. You know, they used to hang our people with barbed wire from telephone poles and electrical lines. And it's not only for the animals and the earth and ourselves and our own families that we take such action, but it's for the children. We have to think of that - our children are the ones who are going to inherit the world that we are now responsible for and I sure as hell do not want to have to explain to my grandchildren why I didn't do anything to prevent the destruction that we see today. So that's what I'm asking people to think about or remember when the time has come - which is now - for us to defend the earth..