Every protest contains a contradiction: people stand up — through speech, demonstration, violent or nonviolent action — and urge the state to change. They break the rules in order to convince the rule-makers that they need to change the rules, which is itself a kind of state-approved process. However, at Standing Rock in North Dakota, Indians from all over North America have been protesting for seven months in some ways never before seen.
Protest in this case is related to process. The Dakota Access Pipeline — a nearly 1,200-mile-long pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to Illinois — has been in the works for some time. Part of the process was for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that approved the pipeline, to consult with tribes about how the pipeline would affect their reservations and treaty lands, sacred sites and cultural areas.
According to documents filed in federal court, the Corps did just that numerous times. In response, officials adjusted the pipeline route. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe chose not to fully engage with pipeline officials until late in the process. When it did, a tribal official declared that the tribe objected to “any kind of oil pipeline construction through our ancestral lands.”
Here is where the tribe’s legal battle against the pipeline and the protest diverge. The Standing Rock Sioux sought an injunction on the basis of federal laws protecting the tribe’s interest in preserving sacred sites. The protest, called the Mni Wiconi, or “water is life,” demonstration, is primarily over the danger the pipeline poses to drinking water for everyone.
The legal and ethical argument is about tribal sovereignty and the protection of natural resources.
There is nothing new about such issues. However, what is novel is that the tribe and the outside protesters are working together. The Standing Rock reservation set up a protest camp and made a stand with the protesters. By September, more than 300 tribes — including my tribe, the Ojibwe — were physically represented at the protest camp, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers.
What also makes this Indian protest different from others is its manner and its reach. The protesters refer to themselves as “water protectors.” Theirs is a nonviolent protest that is speaking broadly, in such a way that non-Indians can see that these environmental and policy concerns affect them, too.
There is no “leader,” no titular head. The protest doesn’t have a face or a personality as much as it has faces and personalities. Many of the water protectors have day jobs — as lawyers, environmental activists, filmmakers and even drone pilots. An overwhelming number of them are women.
This all stands in contrast to the American Indian Movement, which flourished in the early 1970s, culminating in the takeover of the Wounded Knee trading post on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the shootout with federal agents nearby. That movement had few specific aims, a violent tendency and little non-Indian support.
The Standing Rock protesters are making the argument that the pipeline threatens not just tribal land and resources but American land and resources. The protesters are making a stand on behalf of all Americans for better decisions for our energy future. This is their sacrifice and this is their new Thanksgiving gift.
A non-Indian friend asked me recently, in response to protests about Indian mascots for sports teams, where is our Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? And what do we want exactly?
I said that we don’t have a Dr. King. I grew up on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Indian reservation in Minnesota, in a household where we listened to Dr. King’s speeches on records, and this always struck me as a gap. But maybe it’s not.
Maybe we don’t have one because we both don’t need and can’t have a singular leader like Dr. King was. We Indians are a plurality. There are more than 500 tribes in the United States and we all have different cultures, histories, landscapes and ways of organizing politically. We are united by the legacy, and current practices, of colonialism. But we have always been more than what the government has tried, and failed, to do to — and that is to mainstream us.
Like African-Americans, we have fought for and won some of our civil rights. But we have always fought for something quite different from that, too. We have fought for the recognition that we are American and Indian, and that as Indians we belong to sovereign nations and have treaty rights that have always been our rights.
We do not have, like the African-American civil rights movement, a single institution like slavery to define our struggle, and a hard date when that was to have ended. But the protest at Standing Rock does have something Dr. King possessed, and that is dignity in the face of dire opposition. We also have the same kind of ecclesiastical calling, a call from God or the spirits, to not only ennoble ourselves through protest but to ennoble the democratic republic that seeks to diminish us.
There is something inside the protest to ponder. And it is grave. We have seen water protectors maced, arrested and fired upon with rubber bullets. David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, wrote in The New York Times that this is proof that government, once again, is against us. That it is once again cowboys versus Indians.
There is, of course, a history of conflict. There is also a history of the federal government’s taking the side of big business against the rights and interests of its citizens. This is ever more clear in the violent backlash against protesters in recent days.
But to say that the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline is another iteration of that old western story is to repeat the mistakes of past protests and movements. We situate ourselves in a position of powerlessness.
It absolves us of our own complicity in how the world of power around us has been shaped. It absolves our tribal leaders of their reluctance to show up for meetings and to fight diligently and thanklessly in the trenches of numb process.
It also absolves all of us — Indians and other Americans — for the greatest sin of all: We made the government that is doing this to us. And that’s where the civil rights movement, where Dr. King, becomes more relevant. We have to show up to get up.
Cynicism isn’t a politics. Neither is irony. The civil rights movement got results not just because activists marched in the street but also because activists marched into classrooms, county board meetings, law schools and the voting booth.
We have to participate in shaping our government and thereby shape its processes — including how, where and why pipelines are planned, approved and built.