Many celebrated the decision of three government agencies this past Friday, in opposition to the ruling of a federal judge, that Dakota Access cease building the Bakken Pipeline until reviews could be made of the Army Corps’ construction plans.
In an effort to block the pipeline’s path, the largest gathering of Native people in the US in decades has been occurring near the Standing Rock reservation since April 1st. Only recently has their resistance been receiving attention outside of indigenous activist circles. This is due in large part to escalation in the militant tactics of Lakota protectors — who have chained themselves to bulldozers and broken the ranks of corporate security to interrupt the desecration of sacred sites, halting construction on multiple occasions long before the official statement from the DOJ.
Native organizers have reminded us over the weekend that this is not the end of the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. As powers attempt to slow momentum and direct attention away from the project’s completion, it becomes all the more crucial that oppressed communities maintain our focus on the Native protectors still risking their lives to secure clean water and sovereign right to their own land. We must continue to follow their lead, and demand the pipeline’s construction be terminated, not paused.
A true revolution is in the works in North Dakota, and while it is being led by Native communities, it has radical implications for all oppressed people as we continue to learn how to fight back against the interlocking bodies undoing our communities and denying us our most basic resources. Since this struggle is ongoing, here are four crucial lessons non-Native people can learn from Native organizing as it continues:
Anti-colonialism Is the Core of Environmental Justice.
The rhetoric of the white, liberal leaders of the mainstream environmental movement has long asserted that fighting the destruction of the natural world is the only true uniting political issue. Racism, class division, gender and sexual expression are divisive, it is claimed, because they do not affect all people equally. We all live on the same planet, share the same natural resources, and so protecting the environment should take precedent over other, less universal problems.
The underlying implication of such beliefs is that legacies of slavery, colonialism and capitalism aren’t as important or immediate as the environmental crisis we face as a planet. Yet what Standing Rock teaches us is that a movement for environmental justice which fails to prioritize all of these neither understands who actually faces that crisis, nor can it effectively rely on their perspectives in combating it.
That environmental injustice impacts all communities equally has never been true. This realization is an important opportunity for solidarity between Black, Brown and Native communities, for examples abound across all of them: Hurricane Katrina; the water crisis in Flint; the continued use of Puerto Rico as a dumping ground for the US’ toxic waste; and food deserts that leave poor people of color with nothing to eat but the tainted byproducts of failed agribusiness ventures. Class, race, gender and culture are the best predictors of who will have to suffer the damage of (un)natural disasters when they occur, and who will have the resources to bounce back from them, or avoid them altogether.
Believing that environmental crises can be treated as a higher priority doesn’t just fail to grasp the nature of those crises, and whom they threaten. It ignores the fact that it is the same historical systems of domination — colonialism, imperialism, slavery, militarism — that have also led to the blight of late capitalism, and the imminent destruction of our planet. Not only does this stop us from tackling environmental justice through a more potently nuanced lens, it shuts out the voices of those most impacted by environmental violence — poor people, working people, Black people, women, Native people — the very voices needed to effectively end environmental terror.
There is a reason indigenous communities are leading this current charge. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most coordinated responses to climate change in decades is also a militant response to settler colonialism. The most radical shifts are made possible when the most marginalized voices are centered. We must all learn to listen to Native voices if we are to effectively combat climate change and protect natural resources.
Visibility Has Unique Connotations for Native Struggle.
Native organizer Kelly Hayes speaks brilliantly to the differences between media coverage of police violence against Black and Native communities. Whereas the murders of Black people by the state are regularly made into spectacle, with violent images and disturbing footage relentlessly circulated, there is often no such coverage or discussion of Native murders by police — even though they happen at a proportionally higher rate. Hayes argues this is because the historical reasons for state violence against these two communities remain unchanged: The lynchings of Black people must be held up as examples, a tactic designed to intimidate Black communities into staying in their place. The lynchings of Natives cannot be held up in the same way, because Natives are supposed to disappear. In order for the state to claim access to their land, indigenous people must evaporate into national memory, cease to exist beyond historical caricatures. Both are genocide, but with different end goals — the political and economic subjugation of one community, and the complete erasure of the other.
This history has been exemplified by the media blackout over the Standing Rock demonstrations. As beautiful marches and shutdowns have transpired, so have violent responses from police and Dakota Access, virtually none of which have been covered by mainstream media. After a tribal member was perilously cut out from a blockade with a non-percision saw — an act that could have resulted in grave personal injury miles from any hospital — Hayes wrote a public statement reminding all non-Native allies that whenever we stop paying attention to the struggles of Native communities, even for a moment, Native people die. While many of us are fighting to heal from violence without seeing it turned into a racist media circus, Native people are fighting to be included in a narrative of state suppression that purposefully leaves them out.
In the same way that we are tired of the state violence in Black and Brown communities being used to shame and demoralize us, we must also refuse to allow the erasure of state violence against Native communities to disappear and silence them. Keeping our eyes on Standing Rock is about making sure our people fighting there are not lost beneath the false promises of the federal government, and that the demands of Native people continue to be lifted up after the pipeline has been stopped.
Police Abolition Is Environmental Justice.
Last weekend, when Dakota Access sent its own private security to sic dogs and spray teargas on Native protectors, social media posts exposed the violence while corporate networks were silent. Even more telling, live streams and other on-the-ground documentation showed local police standing by to guard the pipeline, doing nothing as at least six protectors — one of them a pregnant woman — were bitten by dogs.
A week earlier, as the Standing Rock encampment began to grow in numbers, North Dakota’s director of homeland security was called in to remove state-owned water tanks from the site, in hopes of squelching the rebellion. Just this past Thursday, the National Guard was activated in North Dakota in anticipation of the response to Friday’s court ruling. From it’s inception, the #NoDAPL struggle has been a case study in not only how the police and military exist to defend the state from poor and Native communities, but also to protect corporate property, even as it ushers in environmental catastrophe.
Police and prisons don’t only exist to shield the property of the wealthy, but to maintain the deep imbalances resulting from the amassing of that property. This includes imbalances in the natural world — ones made more extreme by projects like the Bakken pipeline. If the current order is climate change, pollution, and the privatizing of natural resources, then the police system works to keep those evils in place just as much as mass incarceration, poverty and the criminalizing of oppressed people fighting for their survival.
Police abolition is environmental justice. When we defund prisons and police departments, we can start to fund sustainable farming, clean water and green spaces in our neighborhoods instead. When we say we want stolen resources returned, we mean corporate profits must be given back to oppressed communities, stolen land given back to indigenous people. Ending disparities in public funding is also about ending corporate-sponsored violence against our communities and the planet. Abolishing the police is good for the earth.
We Don’t Need to Travel in Order to Be in Solidarity.
The swelling awareness of the standoff between the Lakota and Dakota Access has led to an outpouring of support, primarily from other Native tribes and communities. Over 2,000 indigenous people representing over 100 nations have shown up to the site to block the pipeline with the Lakota Sioux, and for the first time since the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, all seven of the council fires of the Océti Sakówin (or Great Sioux Nation) are camped together at Standing Rock.
Simultaneously, powerful solidarity actions have sprung up around the US, linking #NoDAPL with indigenous struggles across the country, including those of displaced Palestinians and other immigrant communities. The Black Lives Matter network released a public statement in allegiance with Standing Rock, and last week a faction of about fifty Black organizers traveled to the encampment to stand in solidarity.
While the increasing numbers at Standing Rock have been crucial for generating national attention, #NoDAPL is a reminder that no matter where we are fighting in the US, we are fighting on stolen land. We do not have to travel to be in solidarity with Native people. The need to protect Native land and resources exist in every city, in every community in this hemisphere.
Perhaps the greatest form of solidarity is adopting environmental justice frameworks into the work we are already doing in our own cities and neighborhoods, remembering that every time we fight for clean water, green space, sustainably grown food, we are following the example of Native protectors, and actively struggling for indigenous resources.
Remembering whose land we stand on, whose resources we must defend and are defending, who our common enemies are — even when the manifestations of our oppression are starkly different — is the next step for Native and non-Native solidarity, and struggles for environmental justice rooted in anti-colonialism and the abolition of capitalism. Naming Natives as the victims of state violence, of environmental injustice, undoes empire’s attempts to make us believe we are alone in this fight, and that our indigenous family isn’t still here fighting alongside us.
Native Power, Trans Power, Queer Power, Black Power. All power to the people.
Special thanks to Kelly Hayes.