Protectors were attacked by police with tear gas and rubber bullets last Wednesday, but held their ground in extremely cold waters. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)
By: Kelly Hayes
Last week, I made my third trip to Standing Rock since the movement’s first camp sprung up last spring to resist construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Since then, the struggle in Standing Rock has grown and reshaped itself numerous times. With multiple camps holding space for months now — one of which was recently, violently dismantled by police — the on-the-ground population of the camps has risen, fallen and risen again. The core communities of #NoDAPL remain intact. But many Protectors are impermanent residents at the camps, who make the journey, stay for a week or a weekend, and move on. In my experience, a day at Standing Rock can feel much faster or longer than the normal grind of life elsewhere, with more action and community building in a day than I am accustomed to experiencing in a month, despite my city’s bustling organizing scene. All the while, the camps’ media narrative continues to compete with the bombast of an election cycle, which mercifully comes to a close tomorrow.
As we have seen with other movements, an acceleration in political action can exhaust even the most energetic, dynamic organizers, but such people often labor on, because the outcome is a matter of survival, and therefore non negotiable. The core community of #NoDAPL is no exception, despite the stunning resilience of its members.
During my most recent stay, I received word of President Barack Obama’s hollow promise to watch the situation closely for a few weeks, stating that he “generally” believes that projects like DAPL can be reconciled with the needs of Native populations. This statement, of course, implies that there is some significant precedent on which to rest such conclusions, or that Obama himself is willing to make a bold move that would prove his supposed “general rule.” But as anyone familiar with the history of environmental racism in this country knows, there is no encouraging precedent that could inform such an assertion, and Obama does not seem at all poised to set one.
While many have cited Obama’s eventual role in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline as evidence that the president can be moved, it must be noted that the movement against Keystone XL was not, first and foremost, one that centered Native survival. When examining the history of the United States government’s negotiations with Natives, in matters affecting our well-being, political triumphs are hard to come by, because our survival has always been at worst a hindrance to “progress,” and at best a non-issue to officials.
Having stared down Morton County law enforcement in Standing Rock, and having been harassed by the constant noise of low-flying planes and the buzzing of drones — in the only state that has legalized the use of weaponized drones against human beings — I stand firm in my belief that the state has as little regard for our humanity as ever, and that its violent armed forces still view us as less than human, or at the very least, much less than themselves.
When I arrived at Standing Rock, numbers had dwindled from the time of my last visit. I imagined the chilly approach of a North Dakota winter and recent, brutal attacks by law enforcement had driven many Water Protectors away. But in truth, it’s likely that many simply had to return to their lives, after giving every day, week or period of months that they could to the struggle. More people were arriving, my friends assured me. Things were on an upswing. The UN had sent a delegation to observe conditions on the ground, and according to one of my friends, “The planes fly over us less when they’re here.” But the fatigue in the camps was evident, and the air was cold. I believed in my people, unwaveringly, but I could feel the strain of the moment in the air. Something had changed, and those present needed a surge of strength.
Surrounded on all sides by water and Highway 1806, the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires camp, is located near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers. It is the largest camp in the #NoDAPL struggle, and is in a standoff position with law enforcement. Beaten back from all attempts to push into the path of the pipeline, Water Protectors have held the line at Oceti Sakowin, crossing cold waters by boat, and revisiting the bridge on 1806 where they recently made a courageous stand to halt advancing police, who, having violently evicted one camp, attacking both its community and supporters, were pushing towards the Oceti Sakowin camp and those who had come to support it. As vulnerable individuals were moved from the camp, a group of Protectors, largely led by Native military veterans, held back police, going so far as to set stationary fires to block the road. The Protectors who defended that bridge were faced with a small army of police. Law enforcement officers were firing rubber bullets and chemicals at the crowd and using sound cannons against the Protectors, but the Protectors were unmoved, and a great many people were spared the violent advance of police.
There was something profoundly transformative about that moment. Native veterans, chronically betrayed by the state they’ve served, turned their tactical knowledge around on government forces. They brought police to a standstill not with a physical attack, but with a burning line declaring that police would not further assault Indigenous peoples that day.
As with a number of actions at Standing Rock, it was a symbol of the extremity of the moment, and the level of colonial violence that peaceful Protectors have been forced to resist.
While not everyone at Standing Rock subscribes to such tactics, both those who call themselves Water Warriors and those who would not adopt such language stand in a common identity. They are all Water Protectors, and like those who held the bridge last week, they all believe that a line must be drawn that mustn’t be crossed. As an “urban Indian,” I rarely find myself in a Native space so diverse in political perspective and experience. From elders and spiritual leaders, to warriors who have served in the military, to warriors who have opposed the state throughout their adult lives, to the two-spirit camp, which provides the kind of community space we don’t see often enough in any context, this is a true convergence of Native backgrounds and perspectives. It is also a convergence of Native movements from around the country, and in some cases, from around the world. From night to night, one might encounter a circle dance around the sacred fire, or a tense watch for police attacks, or both.
The existence of such a space is, in itself, a triumph against colonialism. It is a world unto itself, beyond the cellphone reception of most community members, with an atmosphere that Native people have never seen in modern times, if at all.
It is also a community under siege.
Heading in any direction in the main camp, one either encounters icy waters or Highway 1806. If one turns left on 1806, upon exiting the camp, they are faced with police checkpoints and facial recognition software. To the right, they are faced with a road shutdown and heavily fortified police position. With an advancing pipeline that threatens their survival, and with law enforcement looming at every turn, the Natives at Standing Rock are a people reliving history. Those in power want to take a resource, and while the white residents of Bismarck were allowed to reject the risks of a pipeline, the lives of the Standing Rock Sioux have been deemed expendable.
Once again, our cries for justice have been met with the armed enforcement of capitalist expansion. Such endeavors, while often unseen by many, have never dissipated. But in this space, the movements that oppose them and the larger violence of colonialism, have joined a chorus of resistance. They have demanded that the cycle of violence against them be broken, and they have demanded that they be seen. Joined by delegations of tribes that were once sworn enemies, Black Lives Matter delegations, and other allies from around the country and the world, Natives in Standing Rock have inarguably harnessed the power of a remarkable moment.
In between my trips to Standing Rock, I have tried to bring awareness of the struggle to Chicago — my own city — and to the larger public through my written work, but those efforts have never felt sufficient. I, like many Natives, felt a constant pull towards the front lines. It wasn’t “a fight” that I was longing for, as I do not romanticize state repression. It was the chance to show up with love and to do whatever labor I could to support the movement. On my third trip, that at times meant leading workshops, and at other times meant sorting through donations, to ease the workload of volunteers who are often overwhelmed by the task of organizing car and truckloads of donated items — some usable, and some not. Surrounded by friends who were immersed in the logistical and tactical elements of maintaining the space, I felt the weight that some of those closest to me were carrying. Their disciplined hope remained intact, but freezing nights and repressive days had taken a visible toll.
However, that toll did not stifle the determination of Protectors, some of whom built an actual bridge at Cantapeta Creek that would allow Natives to cross onto Army Corps land to hold a prayer ceremony. The action was a symbolic one, as the Protectors were making no attempt to secure a space or encampment on the shoreline. But police reprisal was nonetheless swift and as violent as one might expect, given the violence that DAPL security and local police have already unleashed. Police, who like DAPL security, have defended the DAPL project by any means necessary, once again released clouds of tear gas and sprayed rubber bullets at the crowd, this time driving Protectors backwards into icy waters. There is perhaps no clearer representation of this fight than the Protectors, faced with a massive, violent line of police, while standing firm in the water they hold sacred. As more protectors called out supportively from the opposite shore, facing the police line, the movement was manifest in a single moment.
The violence of police had harsh consequences, but those outcomes could have easily been much worse. Law enforcement was clearly risking the lives of those whose prayers it aimed to halt. In addition to the harmful effects of the chemicals unleashed on Protectors, a teenage boy was also shot in the chest with a rubber bullet, causing him to cough up blood. A journalist was also hit with a rubber bullet during the police attack. But despite the violence repression at hand, I felt an invigoration during and after that standoff, where spirituality and a love of the water held firm against the dehumanizing violence of the state.
Far from broken, our spirits were lifted, and our heels dug in further.
In the days that followed, our numbers continued to grow, and the days felt a bit warmer. When I left on Friday, I sensed that more action was on the horizon, and that those present were rallying their energies to face what was to come.
As construction lights illuminated the round-the-clock momentum of the pipeline’s advance, the timeline couldn’t be clearer. Despite Obama’s empty statement, which conveyed that he “thought” that the Army Corps was looking at alternative routes for the pipeline, and that federal officials would monitor the situation for a “few more weeks,” those at Standing Rock could have no doubt that, without continued action by the Protectors, this struggle would never last that long. Once again, Obama had simply kicked the matter down the road. Having done this once before, to significant liberal accolades (in spite of the noncommittal nature of his so-called intervention), Obama was clearly not to be believed. Fortunately, it seems that many around the country are refusing to be fooled twice.
While I was at Standing Rock last week, #NoDAPL protests sprung up in cities around the country. From Los Angeles to Chicago and New York, people were holding space, shutting down banks and hitting the streets the week before a presidential election week. Democrats would no doubt prefer to turn the down the heat around this issue. Even though a Clinton victory is all but certain, disenchantment over issues like #NoDAPL could cause fewer leftists to show up at the polls on Tuesday, which could hurt Democrats in down-ticket races. Amid that climate, it was reported yesterday by Levi Rickert, on Native News Online, that the Army Corps had apologized for allowing Morton County police to attack the Protectors on their land, and assured the Protectors that they would halt construction near the river while they further reviewed the situation.
While a delay could also be of great importance to Protectors right now, the political context is not encouraging. All of Obama’s efforts have thus far been mere PR gestures. The promise of a delay, right now, on the eve of an election, is probably the best card the government could play. Creating a false sense of victory is a tactic the government has already employed to temper the momentum of the protests, and this is a critical moment for the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton’s coronation has been a long time coming for the liberal left, but Clinton has repeatedly faced criticism by those who who say that the ascension of the first woman president cannot be celebrated as a victory for all women, when Clinton has consistently advanced policies that have harmed Indigenous peoples and Black communities.
In short, cries of “where is Clinton?” with respect to #NoDAPL have come at a decidedly inconvenient time for the Democratic Party.
Given the history of the Dakota Access pipeline, and the government’s previous tactics of dismissal, violence and political misdirection, one can only reasonably assume that the Army Corps will conclude its deliberations, “regretfully” deciding that the project should continue, and promising greater Native consultation in the future. Some may even call that stipulation a victory.
While many may hold hopes to the contrary, we should all expect construction to resume apace once still-pending electoral concerns have been neutralized.
I don’t say this to diminish what could be a turning point on the front lines. While DAPL crews have been allowed to work during supposed legal interruptions in the past, an actual work stoppage near the river, or even a work slowdown, could give our people time to build numbers and continue the fight. But since no talk of delays can be trusted, and any stoppage will likely be fleeting at best, there is no room for even a moment’s complacency.
So to those who are wrapped up in the election frenzy, I would ask that you take a look at the electoral math and recognize that it’s not Hillary Clinton who desperately needs to be lifted up on the eve of the presidential election, but Standing Rock. Our people on the front lines need everyone who supports their cause to push government officials to actually bring DAPL construction to a halt.
As a Native person, I am asking each and every one of you to help give my people time, and to continue to raise the profile of this fight. Leverage this political moment to bring this movement to the forefront of public discourse. Confront the fact that neither major presidential candidate has substantively addressed this issue. With Clinton’s only statement failing to rise to room temperature, we have a duty to use this moment to demand Native visibility. We have a duty to rise, with the pipeline having barreled within days of the river, and to give this fight all we can.
In moments such as these, we must decide who we are and what part each of us will play in the course of history. If you have ever shaken your head at the atrocities against Native peoples that you’ve seen in movies and history books, this is your chance to do more than empathize. You can help shift the course of a brutal history. One hundred million Natives have died for the sake of this nation’s expansion and wealth, and countless more have suffered unspeakable abuse and the violence of forced relocation. This is a time for all of us to help turn a page. It won’t happen because our leaders care. It will only happen if the momentum of resistance is greater than the momentum of capitalist greed.
So, if you have been thinking about heading to Standing Rock, get there, and soon. As the pipeline inches closer to the river, every hour counts, so don’t waste even one. Raise your voices for our people today and tomorrow, and flex this moment of political vulnerability for all it’s worth. And once that moment is over, keep on fighting.
If you can’t join the front lines physically, continue to raise the alarm about this crisis, online and everywhere you go. Take action and shut down the banks that are funding DAPL. Target any vulnerable politician who has supported this pipeline. Hold Hillary Clinton accountable, not after the election, but here and now.
Lift up our history and our right to a better future.
Don’t allow our calls for justice to be drowned out by the noise of an electoral circus. Because as frightening as the specter of Donald Trump may be, the election is a story whose ending has already been written. The end of our story at Standing Rock has not.
This chapter of our history doesn’t have to end in tragedy, like so many before it. But we must remember that DAPL is forged from the same trappings of greed, racism and white supremacy as every atrocity that we have experienced under colonial rule. The only distinction is that we are all living this chapter, in real time, and one day, we will all be accountable for what we did and did not do about it.