In Standing Rock and Beyond, A New Era of Indigenous Activism Arises

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Over the past two years, the unique challenges facing indigenous people in North America have finally gotten some media attention, much of it due to the successful fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline and the ongoing protests against the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The DAPL, if completed, would transport oil from the Bakken Shale formation, mostly located in North Dakota, through 4 states before arriving in Illinois, where most of it would go on to the east coast for export.

“Mni Wiconi” or, “Water is Life” is the slogan that has come ringing out of the Great Plains as the Standing Rock Sioux (Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota) have been joined by representatives of over 200 tribes from North America and further afield to protest the project.

Those gathered in the protest camps, including allies in the environmental movement, worry that a pipeline traveling under the Missouri River would be a disaster waiting to happen. For their part, the tribes argue that the risk of a rupture is too great and that, besides providing food and drinking water, the river itself is central to their spiritual beliefs.

Without waiting for a court decision regarding the pipeline, Dakota Access LLC started work near the smaller Cannonball River on September 3rd, clearing the topsoil off a newly discovered archaeological site just outside of the Standing Rock Reservation. In doing so, they damaged burial and other historic sites leading the protesters to engage in civil disobedience to stop them.

“We’re days away from getting a resolution on the legal issues, and they came in on a holiday weekend and destroyed the site,” Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the tribe said at the time.

This led to a violent confrontation between the peaceful protesters and private security forces employed by Dakota Access, who attacked them with pepper spray and dogs. By the end of confrontation, 12 protesters had been maced and 6 were bitten, including a pregnant woman.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time the protesters were met with force, a few weeks later on September 28th, as many as 21 were arrested during a prayer service by heavily armed police deployed in military vehicles.

The protesters, who call themselves water protectors, have used a variety of tactics in their ongoing activism. Besides the encampments themselves, native youth revived the relay race tradition, last seen during the heyday of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 60s and early 70s, to bring a petition from Standing Rock to Washington, DC. They have also targeted those putting up the money for the project at protests in various cities.

“We are up against the usual suspects. I’m talking Citibank. I’m talking Wells Fargo. I’m talking JPMorgan Chase,” Chase Iron Eyes an attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux, told a crowd of protesters in the US capital before those assembled made their way to a nearby TD Bank Branch, a Canadian institution among the 17 who have given loans to the company.

The US Army Corps of Engineers had issued a fast track permit for the pipeline on July 25th, drawing the ire of the Standing Rock Reservation’s leadership, who claimed they weren’t consulted. Although a federal judge denied the tribe’s appeal on September 9th, a short time later that same day the departments of Justice, the Interior and the Army, in a rare action, issued a joint statement stopping construction pending a review by the Army Corps of Engineers of their earlier decisions.

The statement read in part, “This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

Although it would have been easy to declare victory and go home, the water protectors and many of their allies have vowed to stay through North Dakota’s brutally cold winter, knowing that, with a federal election on the horizon, the Obama administration’s decision could be overruled by his successor. It also appears the company will not give up on the project, perhaps modifying their plans just enough to get around the federal injunction.

As proof of the continuing threat, it was recently reported that the nearby Cannonball Ranch, which contains more burial grounds, was sold to Dakota Access.

A Struggle That Crosses Borders

Even with recent victories against pipeline projects in both Canada and the United States, the struggle of indigenous people to preserve their lands and cultures continues in many places out of the media spotlight. Many of these ongoing battles also concern water.

In Wisconsin, the Menominee tribe opposes what’s called the Back Forty Project, which “would open up a 750 foot gash next to the Menominee River, the largest drainage system in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” to get at gold, silver ,copper and zinc underground. While the extraction would take place off of their reservation, the Menominee make the same argument made by the Standing Rock Sioux: the river is vital to their way of life.

Perhaps more alarming from the perspective of indigenous land rights in the longer term is a bill drafted by two Republican congressmen from Utah, Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, which, if passed, “would see 18 million acres of public lands in Eastern Utah downgraded from protected lands and turned into oil and gas drilling zones that are exempted from environmental  protections.” This would effectively roll back treaty obligations to the Ute people who live on some of this land, by at least hundred years. As is typical in these cases, tribal leaders weren’t consulted about the legislation that will be voted on in several weeks time..

Legislation like this is nothing new to indigenous people throughout the Americas who have had their lands taken from them first for settlement and later for resource extraction repeatedly over the years. In Canada’s north, the Dene people are still feeling the effects of uranium mining decades after operations ended, their water polluted and health problems associated with the mines still taking a toll on the people who live there.

Saving Cultures, Saving the Future

The revival of protest as a form of empowerment for native people has been happening alongside a movement in many places to ensure the survival of their languages, one of the keys to unlocking their long oppressed cultures for the next generation. Usually led by indigenous people themselves, many of these initiatives are ongoing throughout the Americas.

One example of this is a project taking place on Moose Factory Island at the southern end of James Bay in the Canadian province of Ontario. The unique dialect of Cree spoken there has been recorded in three dictionaries, including an English to Cree edition to be published next year. Considering that there are only about 150 fluent speakers left in a community of almost 4000, without such an initiative it’s unlikely the language would survive much longer.

One of the most promising avenues for preserving language is actually  from our own time. A number of videogames have been produced or are in development that can be used as both teaching tools and entertainment. One such game, as reported on by Alli Joseph on the web-site Salon, is Navajo Toddler, intended for children aged from 2 to 9.

The game teaches basic Navajo vocabulary for foods, body parts and numbers. Looking at images on a smartphone or tablet, “children could learn basic words for each category, and audio of the word in Navajo would play simultaneously.”

Beyond Standing Rock, and with the help of social media, a new movement that encompasses many issues vital to indigenous communities is growing. One expression of this was a treaty signed by more than 50 tribes on October 2nd to protect the grizzly bear that is revered by many native groups across North America. The treaty is the first of its kind in many years, showing a new solidarity between various groups across borders..

As a delegate of the Sarayaku people from the Ecuadorian Amazon recently told a reporter at Standing Rock, “The world needs us right now. The statistics say we are 4 percent of the population, but we are protecting more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity,” With climate change and the loss of biodiversity taking a toll on all of our communities, many of us are becoming aware that the struggles of indigenous people are increasingly our own.

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