by Kelly Hayes
On April 1, 2016, a movement began in Standing Rock, North Dakota. It began in prayer, as Natives encamped in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline’s first proposed route would have crossed the Missouri River in the vicinity of Bismarck, North Dakota. In addition to being North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck also has the distinction of being over 90 percent white. When the residents of the state’s capital spoke out against the pipeline — citing the potential contamination of their drinking water, a new route was proposed and accepted by state and federal officials: one that would shift the risks of the project away from the near lily-white city of Bismarck to treaty lands, endangering the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux.
This kind of environmental racism is, of course, a cultural norm in the United States, in both Brown and Black communities. And since Indigenous people are largely invisibilized under white supremacy, making our lands prime targets for the extraction industry, and our lives a low level PR concern.
So what makes what’s happening in Standing Rock so different?
For starters, what’s happening is being seen.
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A resistance born of the spirituality, love and fierce determination of Native youth, who scraped together whatever meager resources they could to begin the Sacred Stone protest camp, has blossomed into a convergence of more than 200 Indigenous nations.
I first visited the Sacred Stone camp in June, when a young organizer invited me to facilitate a workshop. The space was familial in nature, with scattered teepees and tents, a kitchen area, and a central community space, centered around a fire pit. With a population of about 50, the camp’s only refrigeration was a large cooler, sunken into a trench in the canopied kitchen area. Meals were cooked over the fire pit. Rez dog puppies ran loose, cuddled by campers and fattened by table scraps.
When I ran a direct action workshop, entire families participated, discussing and rehearsing tactics of civil disobedience. The youngest child present was nine years old. At one point, I looked to his mother to gauge her comfort level with his participation. “He needs to know,” she told me.
When I returned to Standing Rock in late August, the situation on the ground had both escalated and transformed. Thousands of Natives had converged, from all around the country, with many exhausting their bank accounts and gas tanks to get to the frontlines. There were now multiple camps, accommodating more than 2,000 Natives, who call themselves Water Protectors, rather than “protesters.”
Despite being ignored by the mainstream media, Standing Rock had become the largest Native convergence in more than a century, and the escalation of direct action was in full swing. Just days before my return, a group of Native women had led a bold charge onto a DAPL work site, bringing construction work to a halt.
As a queer woman, I was heartened to see so many powerful Native femmes at the camps, organizing, skill sharing and culture building. While femmes, two-spirit and non-binary people have at times spoken of feeling silenced at the camps, some organizers are working hard to create safer spaces that nurture a transformative analysis. For four days, I did what I could to contribute, skill sharing around direct action and supporting the work of local leadership, before returning home again.
Two weeks after I left, a now infamous moment of aggression against the Water Protectors made international headlines. On September 3, only a day after the Standing Rock Sioux had filed court papers, identifying sacred sites the tribe argued should be protected from pipeline construction, the company brought in bulldozers to raze the very land named in court documents. In an act of community heroism, both individuals and entire families stepped onto the sacred site in an attempt to halt construction. Pipeline security workers responded to this act of peaceful resistance by letting dogs loose on the Water Protectors, and attacking them with pepper spray.
The historical implications of such an attack are, of course, quite drastic. From the war-dogs that were unleashed on the Taíno people — the first Natives to be exploited, raped and annihilated by colonizers — to the police dogs sicced on demonstrators during the Civil Rights movement, the unleashing of attack animals against Brown and Black people has a visceral impact for a great many people.
But as horrifying as the attacks may have been, both to those who experienced them, and those who witnessed them from afar, Native resistance was not deterred, and continued to escalate the following week. Protectors have lashed themselves to bulldozers, gathered in prayer in construction areas, marched, held space and carried out inspiring artful actions in the face of brutal repression.
There have been at least 58 arrests thus far at the #NoDAPL protests, with arrest warrants pending against both journalist Amy Goodman and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
On Friday, a federal judge denied a tribal motion to halt pipeline construction, but social media outrage about the ruling was quickly followed by a barrage of misleading headlines that claimed the Obama administration had stepped in to put a stop to the pipeline. In truth, the joint statement issued by Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior only restricts construction in the Lake Oahe area — and requests that the company voluntarily cease construction elsewhere. In spite of the statement’s general flimsiness, it was lauded by Democrats around the country as an act of heroism by a progressive president — rather than the strategic act of erasure that it was.
By Monday, Natives say the company had already disregarded the government’s request, and another lockdown action quickly ensued.
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) September 13, 2016
With two Water Protectors locked to construction equipment, and a crowd of supporters present, 100 police dressed in riot gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles descended upon the scene. An independent media livestream, running live on Facebook, was cut off as the officers advanced on the Water Protectors. There were approximately 20 arrests, including two journalists.
So for anyone who’s paying attention, it hasn’t taken long for the illusion of victory to fall apart, but will #NoDAPL hold onto the headlines? As cities around the country join a national call to action, and thousands of Natives continue to hold space in harsh conditions, solidarity couldn’t be more crucial. Because in this moment, when Indigenous people are converging, rising, locking arms and finally being seen, we need the world to keep watching.
Want more from Kelly? Read her work in BGD’s newest collection, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom.
Kelly Hayes is a queer Indigenous direct action trainer and a cofounder of the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She is community relations associate and a contributing writer at Truthout and her photography is featured in the “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Kelly‘s analysis of state violence and movement work can also be found in the anthology,Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? and the blog Transformative Spaces.