About a month ago I traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to support the Water Protectors in their fight for indigenous and environmental justice. I initially had difficulty sitting down and writing about my experience, as I needed some time to properly process what I learned, and what this means for our society. But seeing the recent developments prompted me to push my course books aside and write.
Although the police have used intimidation and violence from the start, this past week they escalated their tactics. The police have shot with rubber bullets, brutally beaten, maced, and arrested hundreds of Water Protectors.
This schizophrenic election season, and the corporate media’s insistence on not covering the protests unless the police get violent, has distracted our attention and obscured the facts regarding Standing Rock. Therefore, I think it’s important to clear up some of the basics. Rather than go through the timeline, I will chart out the pertinent points.
First, the Dakota Access Pipeline being built by Energy Transfer Partners snakes through North Dakota and will connect the Bakken Oil Fields to transfer stations in Illinois, and eventually to oil refineries among the Gulf of Mexico. However, the price of oil has collapsed and therefore the State of North Dakota, which relies heavily on oil money to fill its coffers, is intent on building this pipeline in the hopes of meeting its budget gap. That is why we have seen from the start an unwillingness of the state government to work with Standing Rock. Furthermore, since many fracked oil and gas wells are shutting down in North Dakota, you might be wondering why a pipeline is being built in the first place. Climate activists believe that after the halting of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners became interested in providing an alternative route to transport crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands just to the north, the production of which is the most ecologically-destructive and greenhouse-gas intensive form of oil extraction.
Second, the pipeline was first proposed to run under the Missouri River just north of the Governor’s mansion in Bismarck, ND. However, it was re-routed to cross under the river just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Although the state government claims it was simply protecting the water supply of a city with a larger population, this was a fairly clear act of environmental racism. And the problem with the state’s logic is that if this pipeline ruptured (and leaks from pipelines occur regularly) it could potentially pollute a major American water source. So, no matter the placement, this is a risky venture. In a time of dwindling fresh water supplies, is this really something we want to risk?
Third, the Water Protectors are peaceful protestors engaged in non-violent direct action. Indeed, when I first arrived at the camp I was asked if I had any weapons, drugs, or alcohol, which are banned. Anyone found in possession of illicit materials is ejected and not allowed to return. Camp guards ensure the camp remains safe. Furthermore, these are spirit camps in which native peoples are praying for a just and peaceful resolution. The assertions made by the police that the protestors are armed is simply false. It is a tactic to sow seeds of doubt in the general public, and unfortunately perpetuates historical misconceptions of native peoples as “savage” and militaristic. The militarized police force and Energy Transfer Partners’ armed guards have instigated the violence. Not the other way around.
Finally, we must not forget the long history of United States imperialism, in which our government waged what seemed an endless, vicious (some argue genocidal) war; nearly extinguished the American bison (historically the most critical food and materials source of the Sioux nation with profound cultural and spiritual importance); perpetrated cultural genocide by forcing native peoples onto reservations, forcibly placing American Indian children in violent indoctrination schools, and disrupting the spiritual and cultural underpinnings of their societies; and, finally, undermined indigenous sovereignty through a patchwork of broken treaties. Furthermore, after the Standing Rock were forced onto their current reservation, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Missouri River that flooded sacred sites and the most ecologically productive land. So, this is nothing new. All branches of the US government have repeatedly undermined indigenous sovereignty and exploited native tribes’ resources in the name of progress and profit. But something is happening at Standing Rock. Indeed, the most common refrain I heard while talking with people was, “it’s time.” Indigenous peoples around the world are standing up to extractive, exploitative industries and oppressive governments, but they can’t do it alone.
In my time in the camps at Standing Rock, I was moved by the peaceful, joyous, and welcoming atmosphere. There are now several camps operating as overflow around the Sacred Stone Camp. I was struck by just how well these camps functioned, considering the many thousands of people flowing through. The camps have a school, several medical tents, water and sanitation services, and multiple kitchens and other infrastructure to sort through donations, work with media, among other functions. Working with some volunteers in the main kitchen sorting donated food and washing dishes, I had the opportunity to talk with people who have come from around the globe. One man devoted himself to establishing a food storage system, and spoke about the importance of “feeding a movement.” I washed dishes with some Sami women who came all the way from Norway to show solidarity with fellow indigenous peoples. These volunteers’ tireless work ethic and unbridled optimism revealed to me the absolute beauty of democracy in action.
Camping on the high plains is not for the faint of heart, nor the weak of tent! I pushed through the first night, bundled up in my sleeping bag with multiple layers on until about 3am when the wind picked up to 30 mph. After tossing and turning for a good hour with the fabric of my tiny tent buffeting against my ear, I conceded to the wind, and, taking down my tent so it wouldn’t fly away, curled up in the back seat of my rental car. Experiencing a night like that really convinces you of the dedication of the Water Protectors.
But it doesn’t seem so extreme when you consider what is at stake. This is a fight not just for clean water, but for sacred lands. Indeed, after Energy Transfer Partners learned of Lakota and Dakota burial and ceremonial sites in the pipeline’s path, they simply plowed right through them as quickly as possible. It makes you wonder, if native people took excavators and destroyed Arlington National Cemetery, how would the US government respond? Yet the desecration of these sacred sites seems to have elicited nothing more than a wag of the finger by Washington.
One of the nights, while sitting in on a meeting, I learned just what protestors meant by it being a militarized zone. I had, of course, known about the National Guard checkpoint that discriminated against native folks, as well as the militarized police presence. But while sitting in on a meeting a man formerly in the military pointed out the aircraft overhead using infrared to count the number of bodies in the camp, and another aircraft used to intercept cellphone data, which made me pause and consider what has become of our democracy. Indeed, when reporter Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! is arrested for carrying out her First Amendment right to report on the protests, when the government treats peaceful protestors as enemy insurgents, when the right to corporate profits supersedes the right to clean water, when the Bundy brothers and their white domestic terrorist circle get acquitted while hundreds of unarmed, non-violent indigenous activists are daily charged with felonies, and unarmed black men are wantonly shot by our police officers, our democracy is certainly under threat.
I think it’s important for those of us who grew up with a Western frame of reference to try to understand why this pipeline is such a threat to indigenous culture and why the Standing Rock Lakota and Dakota people have decided to take a stand. It might be hard to grasp if you view the earth’s elements as “resources” to be consumed, commodified, bought and sold. But for many native people, these “resources” hold a higher value. One man speaking at a meeting powerfully and succinctly summed this up for me by describing how the oil extraction occurring on Mother Earth is equivalent to his mother in the hospital with an IV attached to her arm, dripping blood on the floor. And he asked, “wouldn’t you do whatever you could to save her?” Water. Soil. Rocks. These are beings with spiritual value that cannot simply be commodified. Many native spiritualities operate with a sense of reciprocity with the earth. The earth cares for you, and thus you must care for the earth. This is not just about environmental justice. It’s also about cultural justice. Indeed, spiritual justice.
My intent is not to speak for indigenous people, I think they are doing a fantastic job conveying their message on their own. What I share with you was shared with me by Native friends and colleagues. But since the corporate media seems not to care much for anything besides reporting on violence, I thought it important that I try to help make the spiritual underpinnings clear.
It appears state actors not only value a liquid that is destabilizing human and ecological systems more than a liquid that sustains life, but, moreover, corporate profit trumps the safety and well-being of our citizenry, especially people of color. But this is nothing new. Indeed, this is just one battle in the long war indigenous peoples have fought against colonialism. Furthermore, although this movement has raised public consciousness about climate change and access to clean water (very important issues), it is first and foremost a fight for indigenous sovereignty and against state violence. Yes, this is about environmental justice, but I believe it is also a fight for civil rights and self-determination. So, to me, the question remains, what values do we espouse as a nation? And if we purport to support justice, liberty, and democracy, how well do our actions reinforce our values? If Standing Rock is a litmus test, I think the answer is clear.