A young Native American man stood on the outdoor stage before a melancholy crowd at Stanford’s White Memorial Plaza on Thursday evening. He tilted his head back and broke the silence with a shriek.
After a beat, he said, “That’s just one voice.” He reminded the crowd there are many voices, and that together they will be heard.
The #NoDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) rally organized by students involved in Stanford’s Native American Culture Center brought together more than 100 people, some just curious and others in solidarity with the Standing Rock movement in North Dakota.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says the Army Corp of Engineers failed to fully include them in negotiations and improperly green-lighted construction for the $3.7 billion 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline to take 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day to a transportation hub in southern Illinois. The route includes an underground crossing of the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and poses a threat to drinking water for the tribe and millions of non-indigenous people downstream.
The Standing Rock movement, its organizers say, isn’t limited to stopping the pipeline construction from decimating sacred Native American cultural sites at the Missouri River crossing. It’s about protecting water. It’s about respecting Native American tribes’ sovereignty. It’s about shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and it’s about protecting the earth for the sake of future generations.
Another young Native American who spoke at the rally, Joseph Manuel, co-chairman of the Stanford American Indian Organization, said he chooses to fight for any community that is marginalized. “We need to fight each others’ battles because that’s the only way we’re going to achieve justice.”
Standing at Stanford
So why is a Wyoming journalist observing rallies and discussions at Stanford University instead of covering the Standing Rock story in person in North Dakota?
I am a John S. Knight fellow living on campus for the academic year. I get to audit classes, visit with students and conspire with some of the most interesting Stanford and Silicon Valley experts on any topic you can imagine. And in my mind the Standing Rock movement epitomizes matters that are contemplated here everyday: media, energy, the environment, technology and social justice.
Justice, when it comes to matters of Native American sovereignty and fossil fuels, never comes easy, and it might become even more elusive under a Donald Trump administration. His potential appointees include an oil executive at the Department of the Interior, and a climate denier to carry out his promise to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet Standing Rock speaks to matters beyond presidential appointments and federal legalese.
“Ultimately, this is not a legal issue. It’s a people and cultural issue,” Buzz Thompson said at a panel discussion hours prior to the Stanford Standing Rock rally on Thursday.
Thompson, founding director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said he believes collaborative partnerships can help resolve the Standing Rock dispute. But only if those partnerships are truly equal, meaning that the federal and state governments must recognize the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s sovereignty.
President Obama seemed to understand this, Thompson said, albeit a little late. Only after more than 90 Native American tribes and tens of thousands joined the movement, and after demonstrators were subjected to pepper spray, rubber bullets, attack dogs and modern military force.
Thompson said if legal action doesn’t satisfy the concerns of the tribes and their supporters, “the only thing left is civil disobedience.”
Thompson and Delphine Red Shirt, a Lakota and lecturer of Native American History at Stanford, agreed that in light of an incoming Trump presidency the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe certainly must continue to appeal to the international human rights and indigenous communities.
At the rally speakers consistently called for unity and peace and perseverance in the face of oppression.
“These people — being attacked by dogs, tear gas, beaten — even though this is happening, they choose to voice their objection in peace,” said Joseph Manuel. “There are no weapons at Standing Rock. … We’re making a statement; We are here and we’re standing up for our rights, and we’re doing it in a loving way.”
The rally-goers marched in silence to Stanford’s main gateway in recognition of voices that are not heard. They chanted loudly as they marched back to White Plaza.
I have to admit that listening to calls for unity and perseverance at the rally was a welcome salve after a divisive election and outcome that threatens even more divisiveness from the incoming administration. I belong to an institution that Donald Trump has promised to marginalize directly and through threats that would undermine the First Amendment. And as I watched the marchers I remembered that I belong to an institution that is also blamed for much of today’s division, and for not paying nearly enough attention to the actions and inactions that culminated in the Standing Rock movement.
Before I became a JSK fellow, I worked 18 years as a reporter and editor covering energy, policy and environmental issues in Wyoming. I know a few things to be true;
I know that laws and regulations do not always ensure fairness, or even accurately reflect our scientific knowledge. I know that oil pipelines spill, all of the time. I know that sometimes when people take on giant energy interests there’s a tradition of marginalizing their concerns and sometimes the people themselves.
I also know that there are journalists who do care about minority groups and what happens in so-called Middle America — a place where declining editorial budgets have starved newsrooms of their institutional knowledge while leaving little to nurture the next generation of journalists.
What I don’t know is exactly how to reinvigorate journalism and democracy in places like the rural West. That’s what I’m using my JSK fellowship to research. There’s much to learn from the recent election and Standing Rock, and it’s critical that journalists work with all who are affected to figure it out.