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White girls’ burden

Indigo Girl Amy Ray on responsible activism


Amy Ray is half of a folk music duo—the Indigo Girls—that’s sold millions of albums during two decades in the business. She’s also an environmental activist, working in particular on American Indian issues. But when it comes to the potential pitfalls of celebrity activism, Ray says it’s her identity more than her celebrity that needs to be kept in check.

“It’s more like ‘what do you avoid if you are a white person,’” she says. “How do you be a white person and not co-opt everything?”

Identity and privilege are topics Ray and her musical partner Emily Saliers address in their pursuit of environmental justice, channeled through Honor the Earth, a nonprofit advocacy group the duo founded more than a decade ago with Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe living on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, award-winning environmental advocate and Green Party vice presidential candidate in both 1996 and 2000.

Ray’s involvement with the group has entailed an education in the confluence of environmental issues, class and race, she says, but her work consists of supporting the organization financially, not steering its agenda.

“We just want to help raise money and be an amplifier,” says Ray, who will appear with Saliers and LaDuke at the University Theatre Friday, Jan. 12, for a Montana’s Human Rights Network benefit performance and presentation. “The authority is not in our hands and we would never want it to be.”

Ray and Saliers first met LaDuke when LaDuke spoke at an Earth Day rally in 1991 where the Indigo Girls were performing. “One of the things [LaDuke] talked about was the lack of representation of people of color in mainstream environmental work,” Ray says. “So when you were working on issues, if you weren’t addressing them from the Native perspective to begin with, you weren’t getting at the root of the problem or at the best way to solve it.” Inspired by LaDuke’s rhetoric and impressed by the successes of her grassroots organizing, Ray and Saliers decided to join forces with LaDuke.

The result was Honor the Earth, which LaDuke describes as “a national Native foundation that works largely on energy policy issues, because we think that energy, being the biggest business in the world, and arguably something that motivates world governments to do a lot of bad things, is worth looking at.” Honor the Earth emphasizes the potential of renewable energy, especially wind and biofuels, while encouraging Native nations to resist demands that their land be used for extraction of resources like coal and uranium, disproportionate shares of which are mined on Native lands.

A case in point is Honor the Earth’s work with the Northern Cheyenne, whose reservation in southeastern Montana has been the focus of interest from coal companies since the 1970s. Last November, in a referendum, the tribe overwhelmingly rejected coal bed methane development while leaving open the possibility of other coal mining, albeit with a caveat to go slowly.

“Native people, by and large, live in pretty tough poverty situations,” LaDuke says in an interview. “It’s not because Native people are predisposed to poverty; it’s because of structural barriers and institutional racism and an unjust development program, which relies on a lack of just wages. Native people have fought for every speck of land we have. The Northern Cheyenne are a perfect example of that, and what they have left has this coal on it…I just don’t believe people should have to trade their whole ecosystem to have a just standard of living in the richest country in the world, which is basically what Native people are asked to do.”

The connection LaDuke makes between economic vulnerability and exposure to environmental harm is at the core of the environmental justice movement and Honor the Earth’s work. “People of color are impacted more from environmental devastation,” says Ray, “because they have less of a voice because of socioeconomic conditions and because the power is usually held in this country, and in a lot of places, by white people…You have to start with the disenfranchised and work in those areas and clean up what’s being done to them as a starting point because it’s like they’re easy targets, communities of color and Native communities specifically. You can’t have the idea of human rights and social justice without looking at the environmental piece.”

And as far as Ray is concerned, she and Saliers couldn’t imagine a life without their involvement in human rights causes. “We’re activists. We would be activists even if we weren’t playing,” says Ray. “Activism is omnipresent in my life; it’s not something that is connected to my celebrity very much. It’s just that we see a way to draw attention to things and to raise money for things with our jobs. If we were lawyers, we would be doing pro bono work.”

But being an activist—celebrity or not—on behalf of historically disenfranchised communities requires not just advocacy, but a pledge not to colonize the discussion.

“You’re doing the community’s bidding,” Ray says, “letting them speak for themselves. It’s their battle and you’re supporting what they do…In any community work, that’s what you do, it doesn’t matter whether you are a celebrity or not.”

The Indigo Girls play a Human Rights Network benefit Friday, Jan. 12, at 7 PM at the University Theatre. Winona LaDuke will speak, and Amy Martin opens. $45.

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