A highway twisting through the wilderness of northern Idaho lies at the heart of a battle pitting some of America’s most powerful corporations against a small tribe of native Americans and their allies. And the corporations are losing.
“We are not gonna stand by and let this happen,” declares Nez Perce tribal chairman Silas Whitman.
“We are not gonna go away. It affects our homeland, and our resources, and our way of life, our treaty culture, everything that we are about, and we are not going to see a re-visit of what happened to us in the past. No more.”
US Highway 12 runs through the Nez Perce reservation and the tribe’s historic cultural territory, along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers. It’s also the cheapest route for the Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips and General Electric corporations to transport giant oil-processing equipment, from manufacturers in Asia for use in the tar sands of Alberta, in Canada. The shipments, called “mega-loads”, are too big to fit beneath overpasses on larger highways. They take up the entire width of the two lane highway.
The highway 12 corridor is protected from development under Federal law as a place of unique natural beauty and environmental value. Plans to run hundreds of mega-loads through the corridor appalled Lin Laughly and Borge Hendrickson, who’ve live nearly all their lives along the river.
“When you are in a place like this as we are every day of our lives, you have a deep sense of the spirit of the natural world”, says Hendrickson. “Its almost incomprehensible that something as beautiful, spiritual, historical as this could be industrialized.”
“This area is too important to the American people to sell it to Exxon Mobil or Conoco Philips or GE or anybody else who wants to transform this route into an industrial route to the tar sands,” Laugly says.
The couple began organizing a network of supporters and taking legal action to stop the megaloads.
Meanwhile, worry that megaloads would harm the habitat of salmon that swarm in the Clearwater and Lochsa got the Nez Perce involved. Aaron Penney runs the tribe’s state of the art fish hatchery on the banks of the Clearwater.
“The river system here has been our lifeblood for thousands and thousands of years,” he says. “My worry about the megaloads is that it’s the tip of the iceberg leading to something bigger and possibly more dangerous to the environment.”
In August, hundreds of Nez Perce blocked the highway inside the reservation, halting a General Electric mega load. This cellphone video was recorded by one of the demonstrators. Over several nights of peaceful protest, dozens were arrested by Idaho state troopers and Triabl police. Alicia Oatman, a Nez Perce mother of two, was one of them.
“I was picked up, by two state police officers, and manhandled,” she says. “I was bruised severely and my arms were hurt.”
GE’s equipment passed through but that was the last megaload on highway 12 to date. On October 10, a federal judge upheld a ban on any more megaloads travelling down the highway until studies of their environmental, social and cultural impacts are completed.
A GE spokesman contacted by Al Jazeera said the company had no comment on the ruling.
The Nez Perce have fought powerful adversaries to a standstill before. In 1877 Nez Perce warriors won a series of battles with the US army, before tribal leader Chief Joseph surrendered to prevent a massacre of Nez Perce women and children.
Many Nez Perce can recite from memory Chief Joseph’s famous speech, which includes the phrase, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The fight against megaloads, activists believe, is also a fight against the ecological damage in the tar sands region of Alberta.
“The megaloads, they are going to the tar sands and its no secret what they have done to the native peoples who reside in Alberta, specifically in areas affected by the tar sands development,” Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Whitman says.
Many also believe it’s a blow in the battle to stop man-made climate change.
“I believe the world is looking at us to stop a lot of this, depending on us,” Oatman says.
So far, the Nez Perce and their allies are winning the latest battle.