Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline began in October 2014. Young warriors of the Standing Rock Sioux established the Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016. Since then, native and non-native supporters have joined in non-violent resistance under the leadership of tribal elders.
And suddenly, as thousands of US veterans arrived in North Dakota, Obama blinked, and kicked the can further down the road. The people have won an important victory in the struggle for native rights and against climate change.
The most important victory is learning how to win.
The lessons flow fast and furious from Standing Rock and our teachers are Sitting Bull’s people. We have learned that violence has become one of the governments preferred methods of dealing with serious social problems and political challenges at home and abroad. Democrats and Republicans have created a vast militarized penal system — the domestic equivalent of the US military — that they intend to use against anyone who stands in their way.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard was founder of Sacred Stone Camp.
“Now they are tying to build a pipeline outside my door, my son is buried on the hill. Who wants a pipeline next to your son’s grave. We talk about racial discrimination, sexual discrimination. You talk about political power: corporations owning America. I am seeing it all, it’s all happening right here.1
Violence becomes necessary when the ideological and cultural tools that the elites use to co-opt or crush political challenges fail to work any longer. The resistance of native people has lifted the veil for all of us, exposing the existing order for what it truly is.
The empire, with its relentless and insatiable drive for profit and power is on full display. The Dakota Access Pipeline is, after all, a project of finance capital and the fossil fuel industry; the cold-blooded heart of the corporate power.
Hostilities aimed at native people and the conquest of land and resources we associate with the old frontier is not just our past but is an on-going part of today’s global empire.
Lauren Howland, one of the young leaders, puts it this way:
Just like Custer did, the government did here. Morton county came with their guns. They came with weapons, they came with violence. And just put it on a prayerful and peaceful people. It’s complete genocide and I don’t know why it’s even happening in 2016. Everybody says we are moving forward let’s not look back, but how can we not look back when it’s still happening. How can we recover when it’s still being done.”2
The courageous confrontation over physical space and natural resources challenged the ideological defenses of the elites. All the establishment claims of progress and growth, of cherishing diversity, of democracy achieved, of American Exceptionalism wore thin.
No wonder the corporate media came late to the story only to twist and turn. The Republican Party is the only major party in the world to deny climate change. The Democrats make nice speeches and sign empty agreements but still make war for oil and waste billions in taxpayer subsidies funding the very corporations threatening our planet. Obama saw the need for concession and retreat. Will Trump?
Native resistance has revealed our true character but also shown us how to remake ourselves. Like other great social movements before it, Standing Rock is transformative. Activism and engagement turns one thing into another thing.
Protestors have become protectors. Protestors are against something. Protectors preserve and defend what is good, meaningful and essential. Let us learn that fundamental social change takes shape around affirmations of the greatest good.
It is easy to critique the social order and really difficult to become the authors of a new history. But that new history is being made at Standing Rock today. Its power flows from a remarkable fusion of the spiritual, political and scientific. This is the stuff great social movements and cultural revolutions are made of.
As Standing Rock historian, Jon Eagle Sr. tells us:
The protest, the demonstrations, the camp actually stem from a prayer. What we didn’t know at that time was that… that prayer was going to go all the way around the world.
In a world hungry for spiritual sustenance, the fusion of politics and the sacred has already touched millions. Like most white people, I know little of native beliefs. But the straightforward reverence for nature — a theme common to many indigenous cultures — is a universal truth that appeals to the whole person and to people around the whole world.
For Eagle, Standing Rock’s determination is deeply rooted. “We know all the forces of nature are in this fight with us,” he said. The planet itself is on the water protector’s side and provides what Martin Luther King, in his day, called “cosmic companionship.” The protectors walk with mother nature in confidence that their cause and purpose is just and true.
And now our best science confirms our highest spirituality and steadfast political resistance. The scientific community may differ on just how soon there will be hell to pay for our addiction to fossil fuel but most agree the time for dramatic action is now. That action is Standing Rock and the many Standing Rocks to come.
Four Arrows, also know as Don Trent Jacobs, an American Indian scholar and co-founder of the Northern Arizona Chapter of Veterans for Peace, weaves together the threads of spirituality, political action and scientific knowledge.
“The last healthy land masses on our planet are not coincidentally those occupied by Indigenous Peoples. That they are on the front lines in standing against oil and mining operations threatening to destroy waterways should not be surprising. The Indigenous worldview, one that guided humans to live in relative ecological harmony, sees this place as sacred…At this crossing point in American history, at the threshold of a mass extinction, the Standing Rock protest is much more than symbolic…”
The transformative turn made by Standing Rock is highlighted by the self-deployment of thousand of military veterans. The protest at Standing Rock is the largest demonstration of dissident veterans since the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and other soldier and veteran groups took on the US war machine decades ago.
Veteran activism would seem to hinge on a stunning insight drawn from both their war experience and witnessing the illegitimate use of force against unarmed prayerful demonstrators trying to protect water.
The political and economic forces of the political “center” — the corporations, the militarized police forces and the politicians — now constitute a threat to the very people the veterans have sworn to defend and the Constitution they have sworn to uphold. Armed with this knowledge, the veterans will continue to be a political force to be reckoned with.
We Can Make and Remake History
“We know our ancestors are in this fight with us,” Jon Eagle tell us. And, white people, our ancestors are with us too. Our actions of support and solidarity for Standing Rock can give the bloody story of the frontier and empire a different outcome. We can honor our ancestors best by redeeming them with our own actions. It begins with respect for native people, learning from their example and making change in our own communities.
This battle may be won for now but the long war against climate change and the system that drives it demands vision, organizing and perseverance. We will be standing on the shoulders of Standing Rock for many years to come.
We should be guided by these words:
1 Video is embedded in this Guardian article.