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As a seasoned Beltway lawyer and lobbyist representing Native peoples, Tara Houska is no stranger to public conflicts. A member of the Couchiching First Nation and Ojibwe tribe, Houska represents tribal interests on Capitol Hill on a range of land-use and environmental issues.
But when she saw a Facebook post in mid-July from a Standing Rock Sioux member named LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Houska knew she had to act fast. An oil conduit known as the Dakota Access Pipeline was threatening traditional Native American burial sites, and if it ruptured, would pollute the Missouri River. Allard was putting out a call for people to take action on the North Dakota banks of the Missouri River.
Houska packed up her stuff, jumped in her car, and drove across the country to join the ranks of the self-described “water protectors” at the Standing Stone Camp, where she would spend the next three months. When she arrived, her tent stood alone in a big field. By the beginning of fall, it was just one of many along a well-ordered thoroughfare of tipis, RVs, and pickup trucks with camper shells. As thousands of people representing more than 200 native nations from across North America converged at the site, a solar-powered kitchen was set up, and an infirmary, too. Supplies streamed in from solidarity caravans.
A long procession of hundreds clergy of numerous denominations and faiths walk on Highway 1806 from the Oceti Sakowin encampment to the site of the violent clash with law enforcement with Dakota Access Pipeline protesters, Thursday, November 3, 2016 in Morton County, North Dakota.
On Labor Day weekend, the oil infrastructure firm Energy Transfer Partners leapfrogged its operations over a 20-mile section of the planned 1,172-mile pipeline route in an attempt to preempt a legal challenge by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Houska and other water protectors rushed the bulldozers. The situation turned ugly, as private security personnel working for Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) set attack dogs against Native American women. Videos of the melee, captured by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, quickly went viral.
“Imagine: You’re in this field in North Dakota with no cell service, and you’re praying, and there are people with assault rifles and helicopters overhead,” Houska says. “And it’s all against indigenous people praying over the land—praying.”
Since that early-September skirmish, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline has become the latest flashpoint in the national movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The #NoDAPL resistance, in Twitter parlance, has turned into a cause célèbre: Mark Ruffalo has visited the encampments, and actress Shailene Woodley was arrested in one of several protests there.
The pipeline fight has also has become an international symbol of the U.S. government’s often abysmal treatment of Native Americans. President Obama was questioned about it at a forum in, of all places, Laos. An arm of the United Nations is investigating whether the police actions at the site may have violated human rights standards or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, putting federal officials on the defensive. In early September, the Justice and Interior Departments, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, declared a halt to pipeline construction under the Missouri River and acknowledged in a sweeping statement that the matter calls for “a serious discussion on whether there should be a nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.” This week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would need more tribal input before making a final decision on whether to allow the pipeline to proceed.
While the ongoing federal review has stalled the pipeline at the Missouri River, construction is grinding ahead to the east and west of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, sparking other protests. During an October 27 confrontation on private lands owned by ETP, police and armed National Guard officials turned rubber bullets, pepper spray, and sound cannons on marchers and their horses, one Native American activist fired shots, and more than 140 people were arrested. On Friday, 39 people were arrested at the construction site as heavy equipment there was vandalized.
In a November 1 interview, Obama said federal agencies are investigating an alternative route, and wants the situation to be allowed to “play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of First Americans.” With American Indian activists vowing a “last stand” and ETP’s CEO expressing optimism that a President Trump will greenlight the project (Trump is an investor in the company, according to The Guardian), resolution may take longer than several weeks. Winter is closing in on the northern Great Plains, and the encampments have shrunk somewhat, but the protectors remain at least 1,000 strong.
“I’m staying forever, I’ll be buried here,” says Brave Bull Allard, the Sioux woman who established the first resistance camp back in April on her private land near the pipeline right of way. “This is my home, my dad’s home. People are making commitments to stay here until the pipeline ends.”
THE STANDOFF AT STANDING ROCK represents just the latest—though no doubt the most dramatic—manifestation of a resurgent Native American sovereignty movement. From the Coast Salish nations of the Pacific Northwest, to the Ojibwe lands around the Great Lakes, to the Iroquois territory of New York, a new fighting spirit is sweeping across Indian Country (as Native Americans call the archipelago of reservations stitched across North America). Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota and Dińe) likes to call the new wave of activism “Indigenous Rising.”
“This is indigenous territories rising up in self-determination, to decide what will happen to their bodies, their air, their songs, and their ceremonies,” says Goldtooth, a campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It’s a concept that is out there that is resonating across the diaspora of indigenous peoples. This is a critical moment, not just for climate change, but also for social justice and overall for all species. Indigenous communities are on the front lines.”
In a surprising—and, to many people, inspiring—reversal of the historic script, native nations are often finding themselves victorious in those frontline fights. Obama’s November 2015 decision to deny a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was due in no small part to early and energetic leadership from Plains tribes. In May, the Lummi nation in Washington state prevailed in its years-long fight against the largest proposed coal export terminal on the West Coast after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided the project would violate the nation’s treaty rights. Tara Houska’s Honor the Earth group notched a big win in September when the Canadian oil firm Enbridge Energy Partners pulled the plug on the proposed Sandpiper pipeline, which would have crossed northern Minnesota as it moved oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields to the refinery complexes in the Great Lakes region.
The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in central Iowa.
Native American leaders and historians say the current wave of indigenous activism represents the most muscular and cohesive push for indigenous sovereignty since the 1970s heyday of the American Indian Movement. At that time, figures like Dennis Banks and Russell Means grabbed the U.S. public’s attention with the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the seizure of Alcatraz Island, and a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C.
“In one regard, it’s not at all new, it’s very old—corporate and government interests have been exploiting native lands for centuries, and indigenous communities have been resisting and trying to remedy it,” says Melissa Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), a professor at San Francisco State and the president of an organization called the Cultural Conservancy. “But I think the level of intertribal unity has created this resurgence of indigenous activism on a global level that we have not seen. I think there is a whole new level of power and energy.”
Scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, agrees. “I think what we are seeing at Standing Rock is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says. “What is different about today, and is really stunning for those of us who have been in this movement for 40 or 50 years, is the fact that the [Standing Rock Sioux] tribal council jumped in. There are still some awful tribal chairmen, but the resistance from tribal councils seems very authentic and widespread. It’s a very exciting time.”
Sometimes the efforts turn militant. In South Dakota, Cheyenne and Lakota activists have blockaded roads to prevent heavy equipment from crossing their lands on the way to the tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada.
Sometimes the resistance takes on more of a culture-jamming flair. In 2010, the Iroquois national lacrosse team insisted on traveling to the World Lacrosse Championship in England using tribal passports; British officials refused to acknowledge the tribal papers, leading to an embarrassing situation in which the very inventors of the sport didn’t compete at the international competition. When he’s not organizing to stop pipelines, Dallas Goldtooth performs with a sketch comedy group called the 1491s, which has become a sensation in Indian Country by satirizing native stereotypes. Clayton Thomas-Muller (Pukatawagan Cree), an organizer with 350.org, is a fan: “Dallas and his bros go around the world making our people laugh. It may not sound like much, but laughter is the most powerful medicine.”
Several factors are fueling the fiery new activism. One is the success of Indian gaming. More than 20 years of casino receipts have left many nations cash-flush, creating a new sense of empowerment. Financial independence has given tribal governments more confidence in asserting their sovereign rights. And that new boldness from elected officials has, in turn, eased some of the generations-old tensions between the tribal establishments and dissidents, a split that stretches back to the 19th-century distrust between the accommodationist Red Cloud and the militant Crazy Horse. Though tribal councils haven’t publicized the fact, it’s an open secret that tribal governments across the U.S. have helped to underwrite the scores of solidarity caravans that traveled to Standing Rock.
At the same time, Obama’s unprecedented encouragement has opened up new political space for tribes. While some complain about occasional rhetorical missteps (Dunbar-Ortiz calls a few of the president’s statements “strangely colonialist”), Obama has won much goodwill for being the first U.S. president to organize an annual White House-Tribal Nations Conference. At this year’s gathering, which took place just as conflict was building at Standing Rock, Obama stressed the need for a more equitable relationship. “This moment highlights why it’s so important that we redouble our efforts to make sure that every federal agency truly consults and listens and works with you, sovereign to sovereign.” (Obama’s efforts to hit a federal-tribal reset button may go down as one of his greatest accomplishments in international relations, as his 18th- and 19th-century predecessors would have understood it.)
Seattle Stands with Standing Rock! march and rally held in Seattle in September 2016.
The Obama administration’s attentiveness to Native American concerns has realigned federal, state, and tribal relationships. State and local governments may no longer brush aside tribal concerns as they might once have. “Tribes’ ability to access the president and his cabinet has changed, and that rippled down,” says a former council member of a Plains nation and a current federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “That has changed the political dynamics of what’s going on. The other issue is that tribes are big voting blocs in certain counties, and they are beginning to realize that they have the power to change the outcome of elections. They are organizing better and playing the game of politics better.”
While it seems unlikely that Trump would continue Obama’s reconciliation agenda, the shift in the balance of power will be difficult to reverse. A new generation of leaders like Houska, Goldtooth, Thomas-Muller, and others in their 30s and early 40s are knitting together a sophisticated, continent-wide, pan-tribal movement that blends old-fashioned organizing, social media skills, and pop-culture sensibilities. Many of them are “AIM babies” who grew up in activist families where resistance was part of the household culture. Eriel Deranger (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation) works for Indigenous Climate Action. She says she was “privileged to be born into a family of political activists. My parents were occupying land to protest a development to remove uranium and force us off our territory in 1979, when my mom was eight months pregnant with me.”
“Everyone … has aunties and uncles that have been involved in social movements,” says 350.org’s Thomas-Muller, “and I think there’s something powerful in that.”
Activists like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Melissa Nelson say the new generation of leaders appear to have internalized some of the lessons that their elders had to learn the hard way. For starters, occupation and disruption only go so far; resistance needs to be counter-balanced by diplomacy and strategic alliances; there’s no substitute for on-the-ground community organizing; and, crucially, there’s no time to be wasted on internecine feuds.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but the Standing Stone camp was started back in April,” Goldtooth says. “With bottom-up organizing and working with the community, that’s how we got to where we are now. It was born out of solid organizing. … Here we have a chance to stop a pipeline that is 60 percent completed and stop it in its tracks. That will be monumental. That will show the power to change is people-power. It’s a process of we.”
THE NEW WAVE OF INDIGENOUS activism has centered on opposing fossil fuel development, and it has been energized by Native Americans’ self-identity as keepers of lands and waters. Those gathered at Standing Rock insist on being called “protectors”—not protesters. Mni Wiconi read the T-shirts and banners: “Water is Life.”
“It’s not just a slogan,” says Kandi Mosset (Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara), another Indigenous Environmental Network organizer. “As human beings, the essence of us is water. We are water. When we abuse the water, we are abusing ourselves.”
“All of our traditional knowledge is tied to land and water,” Houska says. “Because Native peoples still work with the land and have a close connection to it and need it for so many different aspects of culture. Like for us, the Anishinaabe, the wild rice is a sacred plant. If a pipeline wipes it out, we will know immediately that the water and land is sick.”
This is, of course, part of an old story. From day one, the contest for North America has been a competition over how the land will be used and who will use it according to their wishes. (See, by way of evidence: the near extinction of the beaver, the near extinction of the bison, the expansion of the transcontinental railroad, gold, silver, coal, timber.) For indigenous communities today, exploitation of the landscape often means toxic environmental injustice. For example, public health studies of Athabascan settlements downstream of the Albertan tar sands have demonstrated the presence of cancer clusters. In the Southwest, Hopi and Navajo communities struggle with groundwater pollution connected to decades of uranium mining. “The stories are the same, no matter where you go,” Houska says. “It’s the same stories again and again in different languages. Standing Rock has become such an important moment for indigenous peoples because we are standing together, because we all know how it feels.”
Only now, the stakes are as global as they are local—what with climate change and the imperative to keep fossil fuels in the ground—and that has sharpened native activists’ rhetoric. The indigenous sovereignty movement is proving to be the most vigorous and well-articulated, anti-capitalist effort on the far side of Bernie Sanders. It’s certainly the most effective. Compared to, say, the Roman candle that was Occupy Wall Street, native organizers have actually scored some tangible victories. Bolstered by a clear moral authority, the water protectors at Standing Rock are saying with uncommon clarity that continued fossil fuel development and human health are incompatible.
“Our people don’t want money and we don’t want ownership of the land,” says anti-tar-sands campaigner Deranger. “We want clean water and clean air and to be able to eat the food that we have always eaten, and we want our children to have that same thing.”
Students of American history may recall that First Nations have been saying this for a long time. Only now, it seems, the mainstream culture is paying attention, thanks to the drama of the fight at Standing Rock.
“As indigenous people and Native people, for 500 years we’ve been saying that capitalism won’t work, that if you’re doing all of this colonial stuff it will come back and get you,” Mosset says. “We’re not going to say, ‘We told you so.’ But we are going to say that now we speak for ourselves. And to listen to us. We are going to show you the right way forward.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Eriel Derenger is acting director of Indigenous Climate Action.