I was just reading this book that came out last year, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, which isn’t so much a telling of the US from the native point of view, but rather looking at US history as essentially being about Indian removal. There’s a passage where the author, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, talks about the gold rush, and the enormous depredations inflicted on the indigenous people in the European-American rush for gold. Some of the worst slaughters of the Indian Wars were to remove natives from their land, so that the Americans could get gold. (Remember, Custer was in the Black Hills to drive out the Sioux so newfound gold fields would be safe for Americans.)
In talking about the actions of the gold bugs, who brought torture and rape and disease and death to the natives, and who fought and killed each other over it, she mentions, almost as an aside, that for the natives, “gold was irrelevant.” Which is wild when you think about it: it had always been there, but was just sort of an interesting rock, until some other people came for whom it had imaginary value, and then it suddenly became death.
And that’s just the first-level horror. The miners choked the streams with silt, and of course, runoff from mining pollutes water supplies all around, leeching into aquifers, into the bodies of fish and anything that eats fish, and throughout whatever path the dirty water flows. That’s one of the lingering effects of mining, and it is why the US has been trying to regulate the industry as part of the Clean Water Act. That’s going away with the Trump administration, but there are some places which show us it is possible.
In this case, El Salvador.
SAN SALVADOR — Lawmakers in El Salvador voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to prohibit all mining for gold and other metals, making the country the first in the world to impose a nationwide ban on metal mining, environmental activists said.
Declaring that El Salvador’s fragile environment could not sustain metal mining operations, legislators across the political spectrum approved the ban, which had broad support, particularly from the influential Roman Catholic Church.
Supporters said the law was needed to protect the country’s dwindling supply of clean water.
“Today in El Salvador, water won out over gold,” Johnny Wright Sol, a legislator from the center-right Arena party, wrote on Twitter.
Now look: I’m not going to sit here and, you know, romanticize life in El Salvador. In some respects, it seems like a crummy place to live. But that’s sort of the point. Gold is really valuable, and I’m sure it could be used, but El Salvador is looking at long-term (and short-term) consequences of putting profit over elemental needs. It seems like the smart thing to do, and the obvious thing to do, which is why it is all the more bewildering that the dominant political party in the United States doesn’t seem to think so.
It’s essentially a continuation of the consistent project, which has been a 500-yr struggle to turn the indigenous land into capital. It’s a past and present we can’t reckon with, and increasingly, it makes the future a more shaky proposition.