Cowboys, Indians, and the EPA

Picher, Ottawa County, Oklahoma

Picher, Ottawa County, Oklahoma


The biggest-selling country music album of the past three and some odd decades was Garth Brooks‘ “No Fences“.  I don’t count Shania Twain as “country”.


I’m going to give a guy with a degree in advertising the benefit of the doubt here, and choose to believe that Brooks’ chosen album title was a poetic expression of longing for a free-range world, where some things, like the very ground we walk upon, are not reduced to mere “private property” bound by fences and walls – “massive, beautiful walls”, as a recent former president described his pet project.

The great American poet Robert Frost, in his piece “Mending Wall“, recalled a rural truism spoken by a fellow country dweller.

“Good fences make good neighbours.”

Mr. Frost left any judgment on the truth or wisdom of this proverb hanging loose in the air.

In our current western world of fences, walls and borders, it might strike us as unimaginable that most land until recent times was unenclosed, much of it simply held in common by the people who lived upon it, or near it.  The greed of powerful British elites led to full land enclosure by fences and walls only as late as the 1700s, by a series of “Inclosure Acts”, famously lamented by the English poet John Clare.

By limiting the peasant farmer to a fixed piece of ground, the peasant was forced to eke the maximum from his allotted space, thus increasing the wealth generated to the property “owner”.

Woods which once spanned miles of valley, hill and mountain, woods which were once shared for fuel and kindling, for coppice wood for chairmaking and charcoal burning, for fattening pigs on acorns and beech mast every autumn – those woods were now divided into “parcels” of individual property, with a bare naked commercial value to the “owners”, to do what they wished with their commodities.

This relatively new English system of land ownership and boundary marking was transferred to colonial America with a vengeance.

Most American Indian tribes and nations still understood natural resources as things held in common by their people.  Not in an airy-fairy hippie-dippie “I got high and ate all the food in the shared fridge” kind of way, but in a real, tangible, well-managed, common-sense kind of way.

When Indians “sold” land rights to Europeans in the beginning, they believed they were accepting gifts in exchange for allowing European settlers the right to live upon and use traditional tribal hunting and farming land for sustenance, in much the same way as the native peoples had used it.  These indigenous peoples were deeply mistaken.

Most Europeans who “bought” land, or were “awarded” land for military service, settlers who cheated, squatted, or stole this land outright, had only the English land enclosure model in mind.  Any expanse of land was “property”, and property to such men had value only insofar as it could be marked-off, fenced, and made to yield up things to sell for hard cash – silver, tobacco, guano, deerskins, lumber, grain, lead, indigenous slaves…

Treating land, and the world in general this way, is rather like auctioning-off the individual parts of an airplane to thousands of different owners, in mid-flight.

Each “property owner” begins to cannibalise and sell whatever is of “value” from their privately-owned section of the airplane.  The easy stuff gets sold-off first: seats, kitchen fittings.  Then people begin to strip aluminium.  Then some greedy fool sells the kerosene from “his” fuel tanks.

Most colonial settlers of the USA began stripping the airplane long ago.  Fur trappers.  Buffalo exterminators.  Cattle barons.  Speculators and land barons.  Lumber companies.  Railway magnates.  Coal barons.  Oil barons.




The Quapaw people of SE Arkansas “lost” their homes near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers following the French “sale” of their lands to a young and land-hungry USA – all as part of an outrageous act of theft disguised as a legitimate “transaction” – the Louisiana Purchase.

“Purchase”.  Millions upon millions of acres of land changing “legal title” on paper, as if thousands of years of towns, cultures, homes, rivers, lakes, and forests and bears and living human beings could simply change hands.

Imagine buying a new house today with a family of eight “just included” in the deal.  You get to keep one family member as your cook and housekeeper.  You take another as a concubine.  The rest are told to f**k-off somewhere else, or die.  Multiply that a million times.  There’s your “Louisiana Purchase” – just not the cheery one all about Lewis and Clark from schoolbooks.

Everyone has heard of the Trail of Tears, in which southeastern tribes such as the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and others were driven-out of their homelands to points west during the 1830s.

The despicable ruffian responsible, Andrew Jackson, also saw to the removal of the Quapaw people from their Arkansas homes to the badlands of Oklahoma in 1834.  Just one more inconvenient ethnic group with its home inside “The Louisiana Purchase”.

And after shunting the last indigenous Americans onto what they thought were worthless dusty reservations, such Americans still would not let anything of “value” go – they would eventually come back for the valuable minerals buried under that parched Indian ground.

Only two generations after being forced from their original homelands, the new Quapaw lands near present-day Ottawa County, Oklahoma were already being raped for lead and zinc.

“Rape” is not “lib” or “woke” hyperbole.  By 1950, mining companies had made over a billion dollars in just over four decades, but the aftermath was a blasted landscape, a world of silently stalking death in the form of lead dust and mining tailings – an environmental disaster which caused terrible rates of miscarriages among indigenous women, while their children suffered decades of neurological damage from chronic lead poisoning.

Racist hiring policies ensured that the mining operations which would destroy their new homes (and their health) did not even allow the Quapaw access to mining jobs…

In the face of such man-made catastrophes, even a rapacious speculator nation such as the USA eventually came to realise that unbridled “free enterprise” needed limits.

The US Environmental Protection Agency came into force under President Nixon in 1970.  That’s right, “Tricky Dick” of Watergate fame, a Republican, a man flawed in so many ways.  Even this crook saw the wisdom of not allowing the airplane to crash while hucksters sold off the landing gear.

The man angling for a second term in office in 2024 promises to “free business from over-regulation” in order to create “economic growth”.  The EPA will be gutted, the last Alaskan wilderness will become a vast oilfield, and all opposition will be portrayed as “radical leftist tree-huggers” standing in the way of prosperity.

It’s worth making an analogy here.  This economic strategy is essentially a licence for billionaires to chop down every last forest – all with a promise of cheap firewood to consumers.

For a little while, rich people will get richer, there will be a few token jobs in the timber industry, and every house will be toasty-warm as they burn their cheap firewood.

Just like in frontier times!

And then when the woods are all chopped down and burnt, and climate change finally becomes an unstoppable catastrophe, these odious scoundrels will skulk-off to their yachts and mansions to sip cognac and slap each other on the back, safe inside their gated enclaves where immigrant gardeners will still tend “specimen trees” and hedges high enough to screen them from the squabbling mob.

Any later incoming government might try to pick up the pieces, but of course a largely fickle, foolish, and mentally-groomed electorate will soon be grumbling about how “firewood was so much cheaper back in the day”.

There are some real nasty bastards waiting in the wings this year.

And no environmental laws, no number of protestors – not even climate catastrophe and the end of democracy – is going to stop them this time.

The rich and powerful have always understood how to divide and rule.  Historically, “race” was always the easiest point of division.  Lately, the rich and powerful have been pivoting to “culture wars”, laughing themselves silly as the disempowered tear strips off each other in the “gender wars” and “identity wars” stoked by the media they own.

Maybe if we want to understand who the real enemy is, we should just ask people like the Quapaw.

#history #quapaw #environment #election2024

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *