As a telenovela-like script of sex-tainted scandal rivets the mainstream news in the days before the incendiary 2016 U.S. presidential election, serious coverage of many matters decisive for the future of this country and the world has apparently been relegated to another day.
Yet far from the sensationalist media circus, defining issues of race and class, human and civil rights, police militarization and constitutional guarantees, corporate and civic power, and the fossil fuel economy and climate change, are all being played out on a little patch of land in North Dakota called Standing Rock.
There, as the winter approaches on the Great Plains of North America, the Indigenous Lakota people of the Standing Rock Reservation and their allies are redoubling a watershed battle, literally and figuratively, to stop Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a project tagged at $3.7 billion designed to transport at least 470,000 barrels of shale oil every day from North Dakota along a route paralleling the Missouri River to Illinois.
Energy Transfer Partners contends the project will avert potentially dangerous train and truck shipments, while respecting the environment and local landowners. Unconvinced, opponents say the pipeline will desecrate sacred lands and threaten pollution of Standing Rock’s water as well as those of other communities downstream- Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
As 2016 enters its final weeks, the Standing Rock movement continues sparking the greatest outpouring of Native American activism and solidarity since the Red Power days of the late 1960s and 1970s. Hundreds of Indigenous nations from Canada, the United States, Latin America and beyond are backing Standing Rock with resolutions, demonstrations, material resources and a physical presence. Thousands have made the trek to the pipeline resistance encampments. New Mexico for one has emerged as a vital link in a long and growing chain of support.
“I think Standing Rock has just become part of our Indigenous collective, in our national consciousness,” Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Dine (Navajo) professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico (UNM) told Frontera NorteSur. “It’s people on the ground who are supporting (Standing Rock) Chairman Archambault.”
The week surrounding the October 27 North Dakota National Guard-police assault on anti-DAPL water protectors triggered a burst of activism in Albuquerque. On multiple occasions, demonstrators gathered on Central Avenue in front of UNM, drawing supportive honks from passing motorists. At one demonstration placards variously read “Honor Our Treaties,” “Celebrate Resistance not Conquest,” “Free Peltier” and “Long Live Larry Casuse,” in honor to a historic UNM Native student leader who was killed by police in a 1973 confrontation in Gallup, New Mexico.
Amid corresponding chants, a little girl scurried up and down the sidewalk with a sign proclaiming: “Water is Life. Can’t Drink Oil. Can’t Eat Money.” Denetdale said the government’s October 27 raid flew in the face of national and international covenants. “It was a violation of international human rights standards, U.S. constitutional rights and treaty rights with Indigenous nations,” she insisted.
The government raid was directed at a camp of water and land protectors, as the Standing Rock movement defines its participants. The land where the showdown occurred is disputed between Energy Transfer Partners, which claims legal ownership, and the Standing Rock movement, which says it rightfully belongs to the Lakota people under the 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty.
Equipped with the rudiments of war, the police-military action was reminiscent of the the federal siege of traditional Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement (AIM) occupiers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.
The difference this time was that the Standing Rock movement was unarmed and confronted by a force wielding sound cannons, armored vehicles, helicopters, aerial support, automatic rifles, bean bags, Tasers, concussion grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray.
According to Native journalist Brenda Norrell’s Censored News, the casualty toll included two movement medics hit and injured by bean bags, two horses similarly hit (one of which was later euthanized because of the gravity of its injuries) and more than 140 people arrested, some of whom had water poured on them and were held in dog kennels with numbers written on their arms “as was done by Nazis in concentration camps.”
Hope Alvarado, a 20-year-old UNM student who works with the Red Nation and the UNM Kiva Club, the university’s Native American student organization, summarized the law enforcement raid as “really upsetting.” On a recent visit to Standing Rock, Alvarado told Frontera NorteSur that she saw a whole new way of protesting through ceremonials and singing.
During her visit to Standing Rock, Alvarado said she and her group were pestered and watched by two suspected white federal agents who claimed to be missionaries but took a lot of photos before being shooed away.
For Alvarado, a young woman of Dine, Mescalero Apache and Comanche heritage, Standing Rock is not a distant cause: the movement is deeply threaded into the collective and personal lives of her ancestors and contemporaries. At one time or another, all the branches of Alvarado’s family tree have suffered forced displacement.
The New Mexico activist said her great-great grandmother on the Dine side survived the Long Walk, the U.S. army’s forcible relocation of thousands of Dine to a concentration camp at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, in 1864. “It may be oral history but it’s the closet factual history I have,” Alvarado said, adding that she did not even see a reference to the Long Walk in a book until she was 19.
More than a century after the Long Walk, Alvarado’s Dine relatives, including her great grandmother, now celebrating 104 years of life, confronted another involuntary relocation when the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 93-531 in 1974, mandating the removal of thousands of Dine from energy rich lands that were apportioned to the Hopi tribe. The modern relocation dispersed close-knit communities and created hardships for relatives who were homeless for years before receiving new replacement houses, Alvarado said.
What’s more, the UNM student finds many similarities between Standing Rock and developments closer to home. For instance, she cited a proposal to run a pipeline in the proximity of Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, where the ruins of a thriving, pre-Spanish colonial civilization of cultural significance to Southwestern tribes stand. Alvarado described Chaco Canyon as “the world’s trading center.”
Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chaco Canyon maintained trade connections with the Paquime civilization of present-day Chihuahua state in northern Mexico and formed part of a larger exchange network extending into Mesoamerica centuries before the Spanish conquistadores used the Camino Real to link Santa Fe with Mexico City, according to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian.
“That’s not okay to any of the Pueblos, or the Dine,” Alvarado said of the scheme for a Chaco Canyon pipeline. “This protest is about mobilizing people for Standing Rock but also for here,” she affirmed. “Standing Rock people will be coming here to support.” Ironically, on the very same day that North Dakota officials moved against the Standing Rock encampment, tribal and U.S. officials met at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque for a federal consultation on infrastructure decision-making.
Not missing a beat, members of the UNM Kiva Club, Red Nation and AIM showed up and spoke out against the DAPL before they were escorted out of the building, according to Alvarado. Both Denetdale and Alvarado voiced displeasure at what they said was the silence or smirking among officials at the meeting, including a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In September, the Obama Administration ordered the federal agency to not authorize DAPL construction on its land until a look at the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws was undertaken. The administration’s order, however, did not apply to Energy Transfer Partners and construction proceeded on non-Corps land.
“I was very upset and distraught that the government could want respectful consultation when that was going on at Standing Rock,” Denetdale said. “It was unreal.”
In perhaps another bit of ironic timing, the White House issued an October 31 proclamation commemorating November as National Native American Heritage Month, 2016, with November 25-the day after Thanksgiving-recognized as Native American Heritage Day. Lauding Native Americans for shaping U.S. history, President Obama vowed to renew “our commitment to our nation-to-nation relationships” on the path to a better future.
“Over our long shared history, there have been too many unfortunate chapters of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice,” Obama said. “We must acknowledge that history while recognizing that the future is still ours to write.”
The President ran down a list of federal actions related to Native Americans, including support for more representation of Indigenous peoples at the United Nations and “further implementation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” but did not specifically mention Standing Rock.
At the grassroots, where the Standing Rock struggle only keeps getting bigger, the story is different. In an op-ed published in the New York Times and on Commondreams.org, prominent white climate activist Bill McKibben called on the movement against fossil fuels to give the struggle for Standing Rock the same priority as the battles over the Keystone pipeline and Artic Drilling, targeting the financing and permitting mechanisms of the DAPL.
“What’s happening along the Missouri is of historic consequences..,” McKibben wrote. “Native Americans have carried on the fight, but they deserve backup from everyone with a conscience; other activists should join the protest at bank headquarters, Army Corps offices and other sites of entrenched power…”
On November 1, pro-Standing Rock demonstrators rallied in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal before marching banks linked to the DAPL, including JP Morgan and Bank of America, CNN and Telesur reported. Ferrying people and supplies are other important ways Standing Rock sympathizers are advancing the movement. An October 29 benefit at Albuquerque’s El Chante: Casa de Cultura featured poetry, music, artwork, and homemade Navajo tacos to enthuse the troops.
Standing Rock was “asking everybody to organize and come up,” said benefit organizer Lynnette Haozous, a young Chiricahua Apache from San Carlos, Arizona. “They are saying we need more people. That’s an urgent message in the last week considering the events.” In September, Haozous herself made the journey, volunteering at a new school that’s part of a new community of nations and peoples. “It was one of the most powerful moments, the kids in that school,” Haozous told Frontera NorteSur. “It’s a school of Indigenous knowledge. They’re teaching them healing through plants, the history of Indigenous peoples that includes treaty rights. That’s basically to start off our warriors young.”
Reaffirming a threatened tradition, the school taught children the Round Dance and accompanying songs. “That’s kind of a lost art form these days, so we want to make sure we teach that to the kids so they can keep it going,” Haozous added. Attendees at the Albuquerque benefit also signed a petition urging freedom for AIM activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned since 1976 for the murders of two FBI agents supporters say he did not commit.
Scheduled for Human Rights Week (December 4-10) in Washington D.C., a series of events sponsored by the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, Indigenous Rights Center and Amnesty International-USA will recast the spotlight on Peltier’s case in a last-ditch effort to convince President Obama to grant the elderly, ailing prisoner executive clemency.
Although the issues at stake in Standing Rock go back centuries, movement organizing is buzzing along with an unmistakable 21st century flavor. In an age of digital social media, the Standing Rock protectors and their supporters communicate in real time through such formats as Facebook and Twitter. Christina Rodriguez, a member of the Albuquerque-based youth media and social justice project Generation Justice, said the group’s live postings and interviews with people on the ground in Standing Rock have been garnering ample attention in recent days. “I feel the live streams from North Dakota and around the nation are the medium,” Rodriguez said.
Haozous and other New Mexico activists say they plan in the coming days and weeks to organize more caravans of people and supplies to Standing Rock, stage a November 20 benefit at UNM sponsored by the Kiva Club, and return to the streets to raise public awareness about the events unfolding in North Dakota.