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When he considers the current political moment of supposedly divided rural and urban politics, geographer Zoltan Grossman points to the steady deluge of coastal liberals asking, “How can we find a way to talk to these rural white people?”
“I just think a lot of the analysis is off-base. It’s frustrating,” Grossman said.
Instead, Grossman, a professor of geography and Native studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, has spent his time documenting occasions when rural whites have joined neighboring Native American tribes to build effective, stronger relationships in spite of a more contentious national political environment.
“There are many examples of places where Native tribes and rural whites have faced up to their histories, figured out how to respect each other’s culture and share a common love of place,” he said. “They’ve come to protect local watersheds, local hills and mountains that the outside world doesn’t necessarily care about.”
Grossman has conducted numerous interviews to document and map these stories. The result is his new book, Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands.
The book documents stories that navigate the sometimes messy politics of local natural resource issues. Conflicts between Native Americans and white anglers, for instance, grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s in the Pacific Northwest and Great Lakes states as tribal communities started to more thoroughly reclaim their treaty rights to traditional practices and fish harvest numbers. In Northern Wisconsin, onetime adversaries over the available trout resources eventually became allies working together to challenge and stop extractive mining proposals that would have likely decimated local streams and fisheries.
“What fascinated me is the people involved with these local campaigns and alliances,” said Grossman. “I’m excited, and encouraged, that some of the racial and cultural divides are beginning to be overcome in some rural places.”
Grossman said that many of these grassroots land and place-based protection efforts between Native Americans and rural white communities are underfunded, and that they receive very little media attention. Still, the “unlikely alliances” lead to many examples of local people successfully halting metal-mining projects, coal and natural gas production proposals, or efforts to establish weapon-testing ranges.
“Companies that target rural communities,” for these types of extractive or damaging land use changes, said Grossman, “are used to working against and marginalizing outside or urban environmental groups. But it’s a lot harder to get your way when the rural people themselves are united in opposition across cultures.”
The most prominent recent example of these alliances is the “Cowboy Indian Alliance” that helped to document grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. In 2014, numerous farmers, ranchers and Native Americans from Nebraska and South Dakota rode horses to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate local opposition to the international oil pipeline. Then-President Obama later rejected the Keystone XL proposal in the fall of 2015.
These alliances demonstrate a possible way through the division of identity politics that too-often focuses on racial or ethnic tensions, according to Grossman. “It’s possible that showing pride in your cultural identity is one of the critical steps forward. Especially when there’s inequality, cultural expressions are necessary in showing that diversity is a strength.”
The alliances between rural white people and Native Americans that are most effective, Grossman says, protect the rights of local people to speak for themselves. “Solidarity between diverse groups is an important concept.” Alliances that win victories for local citizens are “not just about ‘helping other people;’ they’re not about altruism.”
“I’m concerned by the line that everyone needs to be together and they need to be the same in order to accomplish progress. If that were the case, the only focus would be on things where everyone agrees,” said Grossman. “Freedom isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s very possible for Native American rights to be respected, and for the rights of farmers and ranchers to be respected at the same time.”