In recent years, powerful alliances of Native American nations and their rural white neighbors have stopped major resource corporations from carrying out their plans, in a common defense of the same land and water they have historically fought over. Last year, tribes and white ranchers and farmers, who had joined forces in the Cowboy Indian Alliance, blocked the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Similar Native alliances with white farmers, ranchers, or fishers have blocked proposed oil and coal terminals in Washington and Oregon, and stopped mining plans in Montana, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. I’ve chronicled many of these alliances in my book Unlikely Alliances: Native and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands, forthcoming this spring from the University of Washington Press.
So while visiting Standing Rock for three days in early September (with Debi McNutt bringing supplies and donations from Olympia, Washington), I had to ask the question: “where are the cowboys?,” because they were nowhere to be seen. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has showcased an unprecedented degree of intertribal unity, even including tribes with their own fossil fuel development. It has also brought about an intratribal convergence, with tribal government leaders, traditional chiefs, and Indigenous activists sharing a common goal of protecting the water and sacred sites, an especially groundbreaking occurrence in the history of the Oceti Sakowin (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, or “Sioux”), even if they do not always agree on strategies and tactics.
The Native organizers who founded the Camp of the Sacred Stones last April have also been very open to unity with ranchers and farmers along the 1,172-mile route of the “black snake” through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, asking “everyone who farms or ranches in the local area, and everyone who cares about clean air and clean drinking water stand with us.” They have been backed by former Keystone XL opponents from South Dakota and Nebraska. A tribal youth relay run delivered 140,000 signatures against DAPL to the White House. Farmers in Iowa have strongly opposed DAPL, resulting in many protests and dozens of arrests.
But in contrast, North Dakota farmers and ranchers have only rarely been visible in the Dakota Access Pipeline fight. Most local landowners gave in to the “eminent domain” confiscation of their property for the pipeline, even if they mistrusted the company’s promises of safety, and others were more fearful of the Native “protesters” on the roads. It’s not that the white landowners don’t have reasons to be alarmed by the $3.8 billion pipeline, projected to carry 450,000 barrels of Bakken shale oil a day.
Indigenous Environmental Network organizer and Cheyenne River tribal member Joye Braun stated, “When this proposed pipeline breaks, as the vast majority of pipelines do, over half of the drinking water in South Dakota will be affected. How can rubber-stamping this project be good for the people, agriculture, and livestock? It must be stopped…with our allies, both native and non-native.” Standing Rock descendant Waniya Locke noted, “The Missouri River gives drinking water to 10 million people. We are protecting everyone. We are standing for everyone…. They are violating not only my people of Standing Rock, but they are violating ranchers and farmers and everybody else who lives along this river.”
Braun stated in an interview that owners of the Cannonball Ranch just north of the have “had words” with the pipeline company, Linton-area landowners had visited the camp, and other landowners were “pretty upset about what’s going on.” One Emmons County landowner said, “The first thing I thought about when I heard about the Bakken pipeline was that beautiful black soil that my grandmother taught me to love…. She’d always point it out to me when she’d see that beautiful topsoil… the best soil there is….[I]t hurts see it trenched and piled up and eroded the way it has been.” Although her sentiment may be shared by other white landowners, they have remained largely quiet so far.
Three reasons may explain the relative lack of visible rural white participation in North Dakota to stop the pipeline. First, the oil fracking industry has become so powerful in the state that fatalistic private landowners assume that would lose any legal battle against eminent domain. Braun explained in our interview, “There is support from non-Native landowners, not as overtly as in Nebraska or even South Dakota, because of the political atmosphere here in North Dakota, because oil is such a big deal ….There has been contact; it’s very difficult for them to come out. Sometimes we’ll be at a rally in Bismarck, and some of the local people will come to give out cupcakes but they don’t want their name known or anything. That’s a hard sell.”
A few individual non-Native landowners have defied the pipeline companies. For example, the tribe announced on September 2 that a landowner had allowed a tribal cultural survey on his property in the pipeline corridor north of the reservation–contrary to company instructions. The tribe had documented at least 27 burials, 16 stone rings, 19 effigies, and other features, including one described as “one of the most significant archaeological finds in North Dakota in many years.” The following day, the company took its bulldozers to level the same 2-mile-long site, and its private security contractors unleashed attack dogs and pepper spray on 200 unarmed Native “water protectors”, injuring six (including a pregnant woman and 6-year-old girl). Oceti Sakowin women’s societies appealed to President Obama to stop the violence.
The second, related reason that most rural whites have stayed quiet is that the Dakota Access permitting and construction has been “fast-tracked,” in contrast to the drawn-out, multiyear process around permitting the Keystone XL. The pipeline companies perhaps realized that delays could allow rural Native/non-Native relationships to develop, and solidify into a strong alliance. Braun stated as soon as landowners “start seeing the raping of the land, the bulldozing, and they start seeing how big [the companies’] so-called small tract of land is, then they start to get really worried.” The companies appeared almost obsessed with constructing the pipeline segments as facts on the ground that would be difficult to reverse. (A visible counterprotest movement also has not had time to grow, and I saw no signs opposing the tribe, unlike around similar rural confrontations elsewhere.)
In fast-tracking their pipeline, the Energy Transfer Partners and Enbridge companies also pit Native and white communities against each other. The route originally was proposed to cross under the Missouri River near the state capital of Bismarck but the company rejected the northern route because it “could jeopardize the drinking water of the residents in the city of Bismarck.” In a classic case of a racialized “shell game” at work, the route was quickly diverted southward to cross the Missouri just north of its confluence with the Cannonball River, the boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the main source of reservation drinking water.
The third reason for the lack of visible local white participation is that state government and media accounts of the controversy have tended to demonize and criminalize the Native opposition. After a Lakota spiritual leader was heard urging others to “load your pipes”—meaning the chanupa wakan (sacred pipe)—Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier announced at a press conference that the activists had “pipe bombs.” Indigenous Environmental Network organizer Dallas Goldtooth replied, “These are dangerous statements by Sheriff Kirchmeier and only foster greater resentment between local native and non-native residents.” Native/non-Native relations in the state have generally been worse than even in South Dakota, including the long and divisive conflict over the University of North Dakota’s racist “Fighting Sioux” team name (which state voters finally rejected by a margin of two-to-one in 2012).
The New York Times (9/13/16) reported that that “ranchers and residents in the conservative, overwhelmingly white countryside view the protests with a mix of frustration and fear, reflecting the deep cultural divides and racial attitudes in Indian country.” It noted that Sheriff’s officers were escorting the local school bus, and quoted Morton County Commissioner Bruce Strinden as suggesting that the Native “protesters” might “set fire” to ranchers’ hay reserves. One rancher told a TV reporter that he “had confrontations with protesters.”
After Governor Jack Dalrymple declared a “state of emergency” along the DAPL route, the State Patrol set up a roadblock on State Highway 1806 that initially prevented access to the camp and reservation to all but local residents. The checkpoint was later transformed into a National Guard “traffic information point” that warns drivers of possible marchers on the road. The concrete, war zone-style checkpoint isolated the camp from Native supporters, but also had the–perhaps calculated–effect of preventing non-Native North Dakotans from joining or even seeing the camp.
Keeping communities divided involves not only driving wedges between them, but keeping them unequal, and preventing them from seeing a common future together. I experienced the Camp as a “liberated zone,” a community of thousands that fed itself, danced and sang together, and celebrated every time another tribe arrived. It reminded me of the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering, and included veterans of earlier alliances. If non-Native landowners visit the spiritual camp, they could also sense its peaceful and positive expressions.
But the Native and white neighbors do not have to visibly united to prevail, because the Indigenous “water protectors” are already fighting for the common good. Identity politics, also called “particularism,” emphasizes differences between human beings, such as race and culture. Unity politics, also called “universalism,” emphasizes the similarities between people, such as economic equality or environmental protection. Most white Americans usually assume that particularism stands in the way of universalism, and that we should set aside our differences to unite around common ground.
Yet in the movements that I have experienced and studied, the stronger that Indigenous nations assert their cultural and political distinctiveness, the stronger is the bridge and alliance they ultimately build with their rural white neighbors. A victory for Native sovereignty and treaty rights can also safeguard the natural resources that non-Native communities use, so it is in their interest to stop fighting over the resources and join with tribes to protect them, and begin to decolonize the land.
Federal agencies have “paused” construction work only on 3 percent of the pipeline route, on both sides of the Missouri, so bulldozing and arrests continue elsewhere. Whatever the ultimate outcome in the Dakota Access fight, the historic stand at Standing Rock has not only created ripple effects throughout Indian Country, but has deeply affected Native/non-Native relations in North Dakota. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II observed, “I have to live here when everybody’s gone,” a statement echoed by County Commissioner Strinden when he said, “When this is all over, we’re still friends and neighbors.”
Photos by Zoltán Grossman.