Tree-sits, Pipelines, and Plantations: White Supremacy in Environmental Activism

Environmentalist campaigns, campaigns that always and unavoidably center on Native land, should never for a moment erase Indigenous peoples, their relationship to the land and its relationship to them, and the wholesale illegitimacy of the settler colony called the United States. Yet these erasures are the norm, erasures that settler environmentalists perform in order to render their own political desires sensible and make them appealing to other settlers. White environmentalists, both historical and in the present day, have failed at their stated goal of protecting the land. Even more damning, shoving issues of racism and colonialism under the rug, they claim stolen land and its resources as their own “heritage.” Instead of working for decolonization, they have struggled to “save the mountains” – and forests, and rivers, and more – for themselves.

These dynamics are deeply rooted in settler environmentalist activism, spanning the spectrum of the regional white left. This includes current efforts in opposition to the ecocidal Mountain Valley Pipeline. In an open letter addressed to Ralph Northram, the Governor of Virginia, one “concerned citizen” called for an end to these “private property seizures” by invoking stock tropes of Rockwellesque, white middle-class aspirations. The writer goes on to couple a liberal economic populism to their pride in Virginia’s vanguard role in Native dispossession:

I want, so very badly, to make my dreams of living in Bent Mountain to come true. I want to marry and have children, a house, and a dog on a quiet, pristine piece of land in my own corner of Virginia…

People over profit. Virginia has always led the nation. Jamestown is here!”

Jamestown is not a symbol of progress or “people over profit.” Jamestown is a symbol of land theft and genocide. Equating the two makes quite clear who and what is excluded from this kitschy Americana vision of justice.

Direct action organizing efforts, including those supported by more radical regional groupings, embrace the same logics. The Washington Post reports that the most publicized tree-sitter who had been blocking the pipeline’s path, Theresa “Red” Terry, is “trying to stop a natural gas pipeline coming through land granted to her husband’s family by the king of England in Colonial times.” This nakedly colonialist justification of land ownership – one made against a rival colonialist eminent domain claim – is centered by the Terrys themselves, with Red’s husband John Coles Terry III stating in one of the campaign’s promotional videos: “The land is originally from a land grant from the king of England. It’s been in my family now for, what, seven generations.”

No king of a European nation across an ocean had any right to “grant” Native land to the ancestors of the Terrys. The ancestors of the Terrys were recipients of stolen property, and this fact doesn’t change just because the theft has gone on for awhile. The land ownership claims of the Terrys are just as fictive, and based just as on a fundamentally unjust settler colonial property regime, as those of Mountain Valley LLC and Equitrans LP. Land theft going back seven generations is supposed to convince us that the Terrys are the rightful heirs of the land. We might then ask what the Terrys did with that land.

In an attempt to retain control of the land and “acknowledge, honor, and safekeep the Coles/Terry family heritage,” supporters petitioned to have the family’s 2,500 acre ownings declared the “Coles-Terry Rural Historic District.” That appeal provides a brief history of these holdings as its justification. The Terrys were plantation owners, slave masters, and ardent supporters of the genocidal and monstrous Confederacy, facts passed over in silence by their supporters:

Terry and Coles… hired contract labor to grow tobacco on their land during the decades prior to the Civil War. Aunt Grace’s narrative [a history of the family written in 1957] states that Terry and Coles moved Caucasion families to Bent Mountain as tenants, ‘with contracts for clearing, building, and crop-raising. This new ground of loose fertile loam was well suited to tobacco growing, it being the cash crop. An overseer managed these settlements of white tenants, in addition to separate clearings by colored families, brought from the lower plantations.’

Early in 1862, at age 17, John Coles Terry joined the Confederate forces under the command of General Stonewall Jackson. Later, at the death of Stonewall Jackson, Terry joined forces under General Jubal Early and stayed with Early through the valley campaign.”

Coles Terry rose to the rank of a captain of cavalry by the war’s end. This history sympathetically describes Coles Terry’s defense of the Confederacy – his defense of the inhuman slave system that profited him – as a “brilliant military career,” “gallantry in the Civil War,” and “excruciatingly touching.” A detail strikingly left out of the appeal’s selective narrative is that John Coles Terry became a slave-owner at the age of four.* The Terrys defiled Native land with slavery, deforming the land to conform it to that abhorrent purpose, and then they spilled blood to defend this barbaric sacrilege on the continent – and now their ancestors recite this “heritage” as a point of pride, as a proof of their superior right to ownership. Justice is not the ancestors of plantation overseers retaining that plantation’s title. Justice is decolonization, reparations for the theft of Black labor and life, and national liberation.

The root of ecocide in Appalachia is settler colonialism. Settlers have, over centuries, created a nightmare reflection of their pathological cannibal selves in Appalachia. They have torn down the mountains to rip coal out of the spined womb of the world – ripped it out to burn and to sell. They have torn down the trees to build theme parks celebrating the Confederacy. They have bulldozed sacred sites to build their homes and their Wal-Marts. They have carved innumerable scars into the earth and called them highways, to make their mode of life possible. Americans have committed genocides as a matter of course in building their nation of parasites, developing and defending their right to a consumerist and wasteful way of life that now – along with the other imperialist states of the Global North – is destroying life on a planetary scale. Settler colonialism is dedicated to the elimination of Native land and life, yet settler colonialism is also a project whereby settlers struggle to create their own homeland, their “New World.” And the world they are fashioning in their own image is an abbatoir.

Justice is not a redistribution of colonial loot among its thieves, with a few crumbs thrown back to the dispossessed. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang point out to us, decolonization is the repatriation of Native land and the restoration of Native sovereignty and ways of being on that land – it is not a metaphor for (neo)liberal anti-racism, a specific strain of anti-capitalism, or other political endeavors. This does mean that those settlers who possess stolen land will lose something: they will lose the land that they say is their heritage, but which is really their plunder.

As Tuck and Yang make clear,

for social justice movements… to truly aspire to decolonization non-metaphorically, they would impoverish, not enrich, the 99%+ settler population of the United States. Decolonization eliminates settler property rights and settler sovereignty. It requires the abolition of land as property and upholds the sovereignty of Native land and people.”

We oppose settler colonial capitalism’s industrial ecocide because we are outraged at the ongoing destruction of Native land and lifeways. Opposition to pipelines, mountaintop removal, and other forms of settler society’s assault on the environment is necessary. And our opposition to the heightened exploitation and ruination of Native land that would certainly come with the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline – and other forms of corporate land control – should always promote the repatriation of that land to Native nations. Decolonization is always an imperative. Reparations are always an imperative. These commitments cannot be sidelined or compromised away for the expediency of settler activist projects. Native land should not and will not belong to settlers, whether they are individuals or corporations, and whether they have occupied that land for a year or for many generations. Native land will not be safe under any form of settler tenure or colonial pretense at stewardship. Authentic solidarity requires practice based on this recognition – that we reject both plantations and pipelines, and we provide all support we can to struggles for Black and Native liberation.

*According to the family history “Recollections of Bent Mountain, Virginia,” published in the Journal of the Roanoke County Historical Society, “Upon [Caroline Coles’s] death, the small grandson, Coles Terry, then four years of age, inherited his deceased mother’s share of the estates. The executor divided the land into shares and the personal property into equal lots. The legal heirs drew from this lottery their inheritance. John Coles Terry, the little grandson, put in his small hand and drew his portion. Certain Negroes were listed as his also. He was a pet on the plantation and he told his children that some of his Negro friends [sic] said, ‘Little Master, please draw me” (p. 36).