12 Loose Rules to Follow as an Effective Ally at Standing Rock: A Blueprint for White Solidarity with Indigenous Movements
A brief disclaimer: As a relatively young white man, I am not an expert in white allyship for native causes, and am in no way a spokesperson for any indigenous movement. I was inspired to write this piece only because of painful mistakes I have witnessed continuously repeated in native space by people like me. In fact, virtually all the actions one can unintentionally take to hamper indigenous movements I have personally committed. I am writing this so that others can avoid common pitfalls and step into what I see as effective allyship within native movements.
1) Work towards the ultimate goal:
Everyone knows that the immediate goal of the protests are to stop the pipeline, but what many outside observers seem to fail to realize is that the ultimate goal is for unified indigenous peoples themselves to stop the pipeline. Why is there a world of difference in this subtle shift of priorities?
The last time that many of these tribes came together was for what the Lakota know as the Battle of Greasy Grass, and we know as Custer’s Last Stand. They are well aware of this fact at Standing Rock, as flying all over camp are exact replicas of the flag captured during that total defeat of the US army. This gathering is even more significant than that famous battle in terms of unity, because never in the history of this continent have so many tribes come together to work as one for a single goal. If this action against the pipeline is accomplished via grassroots indigenous support, as opposed to a bunch of vocal white activists coming in to save the day by running the movement, native unity is gaining a track record of successfully fighting for their equal treatment. Momentum is already building for a cross-continental tribal coalition to fight for indigenous rights, which will be orders of magnitude more effective than these communities being forced to rely solely on liberal bleeding hearts.
What this means for us on the ground is that our top goal is to strengthen the peace and unity of the indigenous factions within the camp, and to support natives stepping into positions of leadership and influence in this movement. Non-indigenous individuals attempting to assist the protests by leading, organizing, and coordinating natives are actually harming the long term outlook of this movement. If you are going there with the conscious (or unconscious) desire to step into some kind of leadership position, I would seriously take a step back and reevaluate how you are approaching this movement.
2) Understand the different ways you can help
There is a lot of need on the ground in North Dakota, and there are many ways you can support. One is by simply donating. There are several different funds for the various camps out there. If you donate in this way the money will likely be used for legal fees, central kitchen supplies, care of the children and elderly, winter gear for the protectors, and more.
There are also smaller funding pages online, which can have a swifter and more direct effect, but also run the risk of being potentially directed to scammers. When done right, these autonomous funding groups can have a powerful impact. I went to standing rock because a professional network I am part of raised almost $6,000. After debating about whether to give these funds to the centralized efforts, a few individuals volunteered to pay their own expenses out of pocket and distribute the money on the ground. This turned out to be a good strategy, as although the central hubs are using their donated money wisely, there is no organized group taking responsibility for everyone.
At Standing Rock, we met a lot of impoverished individuals who had been camping for weeks or months, and were prepared to spend the whole winter there, despite not even having sub-zero sleeping bags. These groups are often small, autonomous, traditional, and too proud to ask for the help they need when there are so many elderly and children present. For example, the first night I was there, we noticed that the group of youth we were camping next to was trying to chop wood by vertically sawing through the rounds, as they had no splitting axe. These are the kinds of needs a small group working intimately on the ground can fill. I believe that distributing aid directly to the people who are in it for the long haul has a powerful impact on ultimately stopping the pipeline. To read more about how aid on the ground can help, please look at this document we compiled tracking how our money was spent.
Another way to efficiently assist if you don’t have a lot of spare cash on hand is to compile goods that there is consistent need for (sub-zero winter clothing, heavy-wind proof canvas tents, sleeping bags, cordwood, compact stoves, nutritious food that keeps relatively well, etc) and send it directly by networking with various drivers heading out there.
There is also need on the ground. Kitchen volunteers commonly worked up to midnight, started feeding people at the crack of dawn, and could certainly use extra help. There is a school on site, that may still be looking for teachers. First aid skills, manual labor, trash clearance, minor landscaping, balanced media coverage, running errands: All were required from what I could see. If you feel comfortable contributing in these ways, are willing to navigate the complexities of race and colonialism, and able to be self sufficient, I think your presence would be valued and appreciated onsite.
3) Know how not to contribute
Since returning, I have seen a few fundraising efforts online that I thought were well intentioned but potentially problematic. One was of a Los Angeles based art director who was trying to raise $6,000 to fund her dance company to travel to standing Rock, so that they could make an art documentary and choreograph a modern dance piece of the protests. Another was of a Brooklyn based alternative healer who had raised $1,750 to fund her travels there so she and her coworkers could give free acupuncturist sessions to the activists. Both of these funds advertised the needs of the protesters on the ground and promised that excess money would be donated to the activists.
I am having a really hard time envisioning a situation where the movement for indigenous rights is helped by diverting donations, that would potentially help natives on the ground, to go instead to non-indigenous folks traveling to the protests.* The Black Lives Matter groups which have so far demonstrated solidarity may be a notable exception. If you do not directly represent the leadership of similarly powerful social movements, I would think very hard about using non-personal funds to travel to the poorest communities in this country to strengthen your personal art piece, alternative healing practice, or any other non-essential, mutually beneficial support. There is a painful history of indigenous personal struggles being appropriated for someone’s artwork, personal validation, or new age experience, and they are rightly sensitive towards these forms of well-intentioned exploitation.
Native communities have a long tradition of powerful art that resonates with individuals from all backgrounds, and alternative healing that supports their people in the absence of modern medicine. From what I can tell, this movement is about strengthening indigenous culture, not diluting it. Speaking in no way as a representative of these protectors, my gut tells me that most people who are not part of the tribes that are unifying should be paying their own way out there and fundraising for the activists. Moreover, unless your holistic gifts were specifically requested, you should probably focus on meeting the direct, stated needs of the camps.
*This brings up the obvious question, “Why is it not okay to fundraise for my travel expenses when it is okay for you to use your personal money to pay for yours? Wouldn’t that money be better spent by donating to the organizers if my fundraiser is better spent that way?”
Essentially, I view simply writing a fat check as one of the downfalls of western solidarity. There is a strong tendency to donate out of guilt and then move on from the struggle. As far as I can tell, this is a budding movement and needs individuals from all walks of life in this country on the ground, interacting with, and trying to understand the complexities of the challenges facing Native Americans. The camps themselves are asking for empowered allies, willing to do the hard day-to-day labor that this space requires. At this point, by my estimation, momentary allyship is not what is needed.
Equally disturbing as the distancing effect of remote donations, is the aid which is raised and distributed in a way that prioritizes the journey of the “saviour.” Where the money raised builds a stage upon which an individual can act out how benevolent a person they are, and convey that fact back to their funders, while doing only a modest amount of good.
Paying a nontrivial sum of money out of pocket for my travel expenses, an amount far larger than I would have been able to rationalize as a simple donation, is the best way I can find for ethically navigating all of these traps and needs. I am very open to further discussion around this.
4) Work to Build Unity:
Much white activism is built around generating outrage and anger, so as to better rally support for a specific cause. This is a fine strategy for many protests, but when these habits are brought to Standing Rock they fall oddly flat. This is because there is already plenty of conviction (and anger) on these reservations whose residents are turning up in force. There are hundreds of Natives prepared to camp through the winter if need be, and Standing Rock has turned into a village at this point, with all the politics and natural divisions that a village would have.
What this group of people effectively living together needs, is to have peace amongst themselves and celebrate what they are accomplishing, so that they have the emotional stamina to thrive for the long haul. Unleashing a bunch of dramatic agitators in this space does nothing to relieve these essential problems facing the various camps stopping the pipeline. If anything it exacerbates them. If you are going with the assumption that this protest is a place for theatrics, costumes, ironic signs, and anger, think again. The rules of activism there are fundamentally different, and revolve around building cohesion, unity, and mutual solidarity rather than incitement and dramatic education.
5) Trust native competency:
This is a particularly challenging thing for many newcomers to this struggle. First Nations do things a bit differently than we do, and at times it can feel grating. Often you may wonder if any Indian you meet will ever reference something specifically in time and space. You will even see individuals with critical jobs sitting around the whole day appearing to do nothing. Ignore your frustration and do not try to step in and save the day. If you feel the need to assist, simply ask how you can help and do whatever is asked of you, no matter how trivial. Just know that things happen on their own time out there, and remember that there is only one group to ever extract an unconditional military surrender from the Unites States of America: the Lakota nation. You are around highly competent individuals doing what they do best: protecting their lands, culture, and way of life. Take this opportunity to learn from the experts.
6) Understand the cultural context of the situation:
Before you go, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and read up on two things: Basic statistics on the quality of life on the reservations in South and North Dakota, and the activism of the American Indian Movement around the 70s.
You will find some things that surprise you. Alcoholism rates of up to 80%, 15% of high schoolers have attempted suicide in the last 12 months, and a life expectancy that is lower than any other country in the world. No you didn’t read that wrong. If your goal was to live as long as possible, you would be better off being born in Sub-Saharan Africa than on many reservations next to Standing Rock. You will encounter poverty and hear stories to rival and likely surpass anything else you have ever seen or heard. Brace yourself and check your privilege. You may have things stolen from you. Remember that for many youth on the reservation a dollar is powerful, a nice pair of jeans maybe comes by once every few years and a gallon or two of gas opens up a world of possibility. Protect yourself from theft and false promises about what offered goods will be used for, but respond to such events with compassion.
The incidents of the 70’s are complex and require time to research, and I don’t have the space to dive into it here. If nothing else, remember that the last time serious activism was occurring on these reservations, it resulted in great loss of life: A handful of cops and FBI agents were killed, and as many as 300 activists were gunned down by law enforcement during those years. Remember this quiet backdrop as you move through this space. Know that despite the peaceful nature of these protests, many are prepared to die for the good of their people, and personally know people who have.
7) Be prepared to experience race as the racial minority:
This is the thing I was least prepared for, which changed my life the most. I had been in other contexts where I was a racial minority (say Latin America or Nepal), where I was celebrated for my race or at least acknowledged as neutral.
This is different on “The Rez”. The reality is that most whites coming onto native land over that last 100 years have been exploiting, whether intentionally or not, these indigenous communities. Additionally, the last time there was serious activism on these reservations many of the whites trying to get involved were FBI informants. While all races are genuinely invited to all the camps at Standing Rock, as a white person you will find yourself having to prove yourself to be an exception to the rule. Ironically, this is how I imagine what it is like being a racial minority in America in general, where you have to continuously prove yourself to be the exception to stereotypes imposed on you by the majority culture. I am not saying that there is racism at Standing Rock, but I am saying we need to intentionally set a new standard for our culture, one more nourishing than what we brought before. Regardless, if you are paying the slightest bit of attention you will experience what it is like to be a racial minority with an attached sense of “otherness”, and this will likely change how you view the world.
8) Be aware of the importance of symbolism:
It was commonplace for Natives to recount intimate details of some historical massacre in casual conversation. It was normal to see someone carrying around a jar of water, or other item, from a piece of land where hundreds of their people had been massacred by colonialists. Why is there this intimate connection to the past when our own culture swiftly forgets details about anything that happened to our family before our grandparents?
In my opinion, natives have a greater closeness with the history because many view themselves not as wholly individuals, but also as a part of a larger tribe, with the trials and tribulations of those communities not being completely separate from theirs. It is important to try to navigate these difficult waters so that you aren’t accidentally rubbing someone’s face into an incident that seems like ancient history to you, but might as well have been yesterday for many of your companions.
I made plenty of mistakes when I was out there. One time, I suggested to the people who I was distributing funding and materials with that perhaps we should get some old army surplus wool blankets, as these are cheap, extremely durable, can fit both needs of cold weather garb and sleeping gear. I was gently reminded that many traditionals simply wouldn’t accept blankets from a white man, as the bio-terrorism of our shared history is still remembered quite clearly.
Try and avoid obvious pitfalls like these but also know that while you are there you will make mistakes, I guarantee it. Don’t let a gentle reminder hurt your feelings, as no one is questioning your intentions. It is important to not be defensive, but simply apologize and correct whatever you can.
9) Avoid ceremony unless you are explicitly invited:
I imagine nearly everyone has the desire to participate in a Native American ceremony, held by some powerful medicine person which facilitates a unique and authentic experience. These protests are not the place to come looking for that.
Moreover, I am sure many hold a desire to gain some kind of spiritual connection with these ancient traditions, and develop a relationship with these ceremonies such that you could hold them with as much power as any Native American you come across. These protests are not the place to demonstrate that.
There is something that can only be described as a deep hunger in white people for authentic, earth-based spirituality. Unfortunately, this hunger is often combined with an unfortunate combination of feeling entitled to be taught these traditions, and a complete lack of cultural awareness. Coming into native space with charged religious symbols, attempting to participate in ceremonies uninvited, or publicly leading new age rituals, patched together from the mutilated parts of other divergent traditions, makes you as complicit in cultural genocide as the racist cops arresting activists at the checkpoint you will be going through.There are very, very few places on reservations for whites to participate with authentic indigenous traditions without being complicit in direct exploitation. Most of these non-exploitative roles involve doing some form of hard or tedious work so that the already taxed traditional community has more energy to revitalize their traditions that are coming back from the brink of extinction.
On my last night camping next to the Missouri River, I was talking late past midnight with one local young man who seemed pretty traditional. I asked him if he was learning the old ways. He replied that he was trying to, but it took a lot of time. His elders and grandparents would often wait months or even years in between teaching or sharing with him aspects of his people’s religion, waiting for the moment that was just right to impart a specific piece of wisdom. After this conversation, the groups of caucasians at Standing Rock looking excitedly at the erected sweat lodges or trying to wheedle into ceremonial spaces became even more of a painful contrast to the extremely slow and careful mentorship that a true relationship with these traditions requires.
One incident, of many, that really bothered me was a small group of non-indigenous tending what they claimed to be the camp’s “sacred central fire.” While enthusiastically explaining this to me, while in this supposedly ceremonial space, a man was literally filling up his recreational pipe to smoke it. This would be akin to strolling into a catholic sacrament while quaffing bread and wine, except somehow worse, because the pipe is the most sacred religious item to North American natives that I know of. Being cautious, quiet, and highly respectful around anything sacred is the only way to mitigate these mistakes.
If you are personally invited into ceremony at Standing Rock, please accept if you are interested. Just know that ceremony is complex and can even be dangerous. Many Native rituals are designed to push you to your limits, and there is a real possibility of finding yourself in an amateurly run sweat lodge (this actually happened to our group out there). In short, this gathering is not the time nor place for spiritual voyeurism. There are many highly competent and dedicated Medicine people bringing earth-based spirituality to our modern world, in our modern world, and those spaces are much more appropriate venues to look for this. If you are truly coming to empower the tribes, make sure to remember that there is as much possibility to harm as to help as a non-indigenous person participating in native spirituality.
10) Leave your costume at home:
I am incredulous that this actually needs to be said, but apparently a bunch of people feel that they need to literally dress up at this occupation. I would like to ask these people, seriously, if they would consider wearing their sparkle pony fox-eared hat and matching mittens to the marches for women’s suffrage occurring in the 1920s. Or if they would even think about dressing up like a some kind of witch, complete with a giant glass bottle of purple potion strapped to their thigh, if they were marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for the equal treatment of African Americans. If not, why on earth are they showing up to most important indigenous activism in the USA over the last 40 years dressed like they are about to drop acid at a music festival?
Leave your burning man costume at home, cut your white dreadlocks, and don’t bring your dog. Pack clothes that are appropriate for the weather, utilitarian, and look like you are ready to interview for a blue collar job. We are here to support quietly in the background, not flaunt a radical-ragamuffin style that our privilege affords us.
11) Don’t take up space:
One odd but unsurprising thing I noticed was that although the protectors were ~95% native, 50% of the individuals who sat closest to the central fire were white. We have a habit of taking up inordinate amounts of space, and often can attempt to make a situation or movement about our own struggle and personal exploration. As stated before, this movement is about the tribes coming together. Move back and help from the edges so that others can step into the center. When participants look back, they should remember natives coming together in unity, not a bunch of white folks flaunting that they were there.
12) Check out this small recommended reading list:
Neither Wolf Nor Dog, by Kent Nerburn
This book was recommended to me by my native family when I was first going to help on a reservation years ago, and I found its perspectives indispensable. I would prioritize this.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen
This is the most comprehensive chronicle of the AIM resistance that I am aware of. This book changed my life and taught me what it meant to be willing to die for something larger than myself. Even if you never visit indian country, this book is required reading for every individual in North America.
I would also familiarize yourself with the history of the Sioux tribes which are spearheading this protest. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee is a classic which I doubt I will ever have the courage to read. I found The Heart of Everything That Is to be helpful in understanding why these reservations have been such a potent center for activism and resistance.
The First Peoples of this country have had the unfortunate position of being the most downtrodden minority group, with the least amount of compassion shown to them from across the spectrum of America. This protest appears to have the potential to shift this dynamic, and as such deserves our wholehearted support. It is tempting to motivate oneself from a place of guilt, having our shame around treatment of the Native Americans press us towards this struggle. This is good work, but guilt is fickle, and easily departs after a modicum of effort is spent to alleviate it.
Rather, I would encourage people to approach this movement from a place of desire: A desire to have our children born into a world where their race does not determine whether the constitution applies to them. A desire to support the beautiful, unique, and diverse cultures that were here before us and may yet outlast us. A desire to move towards renewable energy so that the earth regenerates under our care, and all the life on it flourishes. This future is well within our grasp, and we but need to walk with grace, awareness, humility, and sensitivity towards it.
Questions, comments, concerns? Contact me: purvis (dot) liam (at) gmail (dot) com