“Breaking the cycle: Standing up for Native Rights”
December 14, 2016
A hodge-podge of tents, teepees, and campers are strewn across a vast open field. Thousands of people, native and white, have left their warm homes and regular routines to gather at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. All these people have been in this spot protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline for the past several months. This extraordinary gathering is unparalleled in American history. War veterans, indigenous people, mainstream housewives and families with little children are all here peacefully advocating for native rights and clean water.
There are two primary issues these people are protesting. One is water rights and the fact that the proposed crude oil pipeline would cross a major drinking water source, which is highly dangerous. The second is the importance of supporting these indigenous people’s rights. This proposed pipeline is planned to not only cross and potentially contaminate their drinking water but has already desecrated burial grounds long held sacred by the Sioux people. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the sovereign nation of the Standing Rock Sioux was not rightfully involved in the pipeline planning process. This is the classic example from history of the powerful trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the oppressed and get them to drink the kool-aid, or crude oil in this case, but it looks like there is a new dawn coming for native rights.
There are a number of things that the protesters need to do to keep up the protest until they achieve their desired outcomes. If they want to maintain and further raise awareness, funding and support for their cause, it will be necessary to maintain and increase media coverage of the situation. This will require a continuous presence at the protest site. The weather has turned to winter, with blizzards coming to the region. A recent report stated: “A second massive winter blizzard has hit the resistance camps at Standing Rock in North Dakota last night, forcing water protectors to seek shelter in nearby community centers and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe casino. The Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council said it has treated two people for hypothermia…” (Democracy Now, 12/7/2016) There is clearly a need for more permanent winter shelter at the site. Because of the danger of hypothermia, sufficient heat sources are also necessary. You might ask why the protesters don’t go home until spring comes? Well there is a need for a constant presence to keep the pressure up. “Thousands… remain at Standing Rock, concerned that the company… has vowed to drill on…” (Democracy Now, 12/7/2016)
The Police response to the protests has become more violent lately. It is alarming that the Police are using tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets along with water cannons. As the temperature drops there has been an increase in the use of water cannons as a deterrent at the site. Clearly water cannons are very dangerous to victims in below freezing weather.
30-year Navy Veteran Rob McHaney commented, in an interview by Democracy Now, on the brutality of the treatment the protesters are being subjected to by the Police saying, ”They’re doing things to people there that we don’t even do in combat.” This is an appalling situation! Tear gas has been classified as a chemical weapon and banned from use in international warfare since 1993, yet, it is being routinely used by police at Standing Rock.
Unfortunately I doubt the pipeline will simply be cancelled. 3.7 billion dollars have been invested in this project by Energy Transfer Partners. (http://energytransfer.com/) Energy Transfer Partners is a publicly traded company with investors owning that stock and wanting a return on their huge investment. For this reason, I think the Standing Rock Sioux should endeavor to find the most ideal path for the pipeline. It should go around burial grounds and the reservation. The Standing Rock Sioux should work with Energy Transfer Partners to increase safety protocols to avoid any accident, so oil won’t be spilled and ruin waterways and native habitats.
Until such time as they can arrange to negotiate fairly with Energy Transfer Partners, the protesters need to keep the pressure up and stay in the media spotlight. To maintain the protesting presence through the winter, better infrastructure is needed for winter shelter and warmth for the protestors. The increased media focus will bring to light the police brutality and hopefully end it for the protesters and allow them to exercise their right to assemble and protest. this grievous injustice peacefully and successfully.
The role of non-native peoples in the Standing Rock protests is a lot like those in the Guatemala Accompaniment Project, the more people of any race, background, whatever, who are in attendance at a conflict, the more light is shed on the problem through awareness and media attention. When someone comes from far away and the world is watching you can’t behave as badly as you might if you were not being watched. If it were just native people protesting, then mainstream people can say, “Oh there go those same old savages, standing in the way of progress.” White people tend to pay more attention when there are more white people involved. That is because the white people are the conquerors in the continental conflict of the last 500 years, the privileged who write history and make the rules. When you are making a house you don’t make the dog door the prominent feature, and the native peoples of the continent were given dog status at best in the “house” of mainstream culture. When more white folks are protesting too, it draws the attention of more media and more white people hear about the issue.
Non-native allies are involved in large numbers at Standing Rock as protesters. They are there to show the world that more than only native peoples care about this issue. The fact that the pollution threat could impact more than just the water source of native people on the reservations plays a role. People should care about clean water regardless of the who it will effect, but it has a wider impact when there might be an environmental impact in my back yard.
The conflict at Standing Rock is unjust. The strong arm of business is appearing to take advantage of the less wealthy and influential people on the reservations but they aren’t taking it sitting down. The mainstream American people have a different view of the role of business and government in their lives these days than they had in past historical conflicts with Native people. Wall Street/Ninety-nine percent protesters of the past few years have awakened a whole other strata of society to issues of inequality and injustice in ways that they hadn’t focused on before. This conflict is another focus for the Ninety-nine percent-ers.
It is sad that white culture and society think that they can repeatedly take advantage of native peoples and the indigenous peoples will just take it lying down. The Standing Rock protest is showing that that is not how it goes now. American history shows that as a country we have been anti-Native American. This moment in history at Standing Rock is a turning point in the historical perspective. The army/ veterans are coming to protect Native rights. This is completely contrary to the historical, “arrival of the Calvary to kill those Injuns.”
This conflict is making people realize that if you try to run a pipeline through someone’s neighborhood they are going to raise hell. There is enough distrust of government and big business for average white people to be able to imagine someone running that pipeline through their own neighborhoods. They can empathize with the Sioux at Standing Rock. People are coming to see that the Standing Rock Sioux aren’t going to stop, they are going to keep raising hell about the pipeline in their neighborhood.
The difference in this conflict is the awareness of the mainstream white public. The players are different. Often in historical settings with land and resource conflicts between native and white peoples, business and government were on the same side against the native peoples. Now business is on one side and native peoples, white allies and parts of the government- veterans and the Army Corp of Engineers, are siding more and more with the Sioux peoples at Standing Rock.
What makes this movement different than historical conflicts is the promotion of it and broad reporting in the media, particularly social media, that is widely consumed by the white mainstream. There is a lot of symbolism present. There is a sort of developing awareness. By winning this conflict, the historical pattern of native rights and lives being dismissed and superseded by business interest and government bullying, can be broken and a new pattern established.