An earlier version of this piece appeared on Transformative Spaces.
The public witnessed a new level of escalation on Thursday in the Native struggle at Standing Rock, as police swept through an encampment in the direct path of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). The resulting standoff with the National Guard, and police officers from various states, led to 117 arrests. Advancing authorities attacked Water Protectors with flash grenades, bean bag launchers, pepper spray and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). There were also numerous reports of police beating Water Protectors, and reports of live ammunition being used.
Such developments were incredibly disturbing, both to those present and to Natives who were actively watching from a distance, but the raid itself was not unexpected. In fact, there was a great deal of suspicion that the police would close in the day before, which led me to reach out to a number of my friends on the front lines Wednesday. Amid our conversations about their feelings and recent experiences at the camps, I asked my friends if there was anything they wanted shared in writing. What follows is grounded in the substance of those conversations. These ideas are obviously not representative of all Native perspectives on the subject, because our convictions are as diverse as that of any peoples. But it’s a perspective we thought was worthy of expression.
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A Shared Reflection
It is crucial that people recognize that Standing Rock is part of an ongoing struggle against colonial violence. The Dakota Access pipeline (#NoDAPL) is a front of struggle in a long-erased war against Native peoples — a war that has been active since first contact, and waged without interruption. Our efforts to survive the conditions of this anti-Native society have gone largely unnoticed because white supremacy is the law of the land, and because we, as Native people, have been pushed beyond the limits of public consciousness.
The fact that we are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other group speaks to the fact that Native erasure is ubiquitous, both culturally and literally, but pushed from public view. Our struggles intersect with numerous others, but are perpetrated with different motives and intentions. Anti-Blackness, for example, is a demonstration of power, whereas the violence against us is a matter of pragmatism. The struggle at Standing Rock is an effort to prevent the construction of a deadly, destructive mechanism, created by greed-driven people with no regard for our lives.
It has always been this way. We die, and have died, for the sake of expansion and white wealth, and for the maintenance of both.
The harms committed against us have long been relegated to the history books. This erasure has occurred for the sake of both white supremacy and US mythology, such as American exceptionalism. It has also been perpetuated to sustain the comfort of those who benefit from harms committed against us. Our struggles have been kept both out of sight and out of mind — easily forgotten by those who aren’t directly impacted.
It should be clear to everyone that we are not simply here in those rare moments when others bear witness.
To reiterate what should be obvious: We are not simply here when you see us.
We have always been here, fighting for our lives, surviving colonization, and that reality has rarely been acknowledged. Even people who believe in freedom frequently overlook our issues, as well as the intersections of their issues with our own.
It matters that more of the world is bearing witness in this historic moment. However, we feel the need to point out that the dialogue around #NoDAPL has become increasingly centered on climate change. Yes, there is an undeniable connectivity between this front of struggle and the larger fight to combat planetary warming. We fully recognize that all of humanity is at risk of extinction, whether they realize it or not. But intersectionality does not mean focusing exclusively on the intersections of our respective work. It sometimes means taking a journey well outside the bounds of those intersections.
In discussing #NoDAPL, too few people have started from a place of naming that we, as Indigenous people, have a right to defend our water and our lives, simply because we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our communities. When “climate justice,” in a very broad sense, becomes the center of conversation, our fronts of struggle are often reduced to a staging ground for the messaging of NGOs.
Yes, everyone should be talking about climate change, but you should also be talking about the fact that Native communities deserve to survive, because our lives are worth defending in their own right — not simply because “this affects us all.”
So when you talk about Standing Rock, please begin by acknowledging that this pipeline was redirected from an area where it was most likely to impact the residents of Bismarck, North Dakota. When Bismarck’s population — which is over 90 percent white — objected to the risks the pipeline posed to their drinking water, their concerns were accommodated, and the pipeline route was shifted into treaty lands. Please inform people of these facts, and remind them that our people are still struggling to survive the violence of colonization on many fronts. People should not simply engage with stories related to our struggles when they see a concrete connection to their own issues — or a jumping off point to discuss their own issues. Our friends, allies and accomplices should be fighting alongside us because they value our humanity and right to live, in addition to whatever else they believe in.
Every Native at Standing Rock — every Native on this continent — has survived the genocide of 100 million of our people. That means that every Indigenous child born is a victory against colonialism, but we are all also born into a fight for our very existence. We need that to be named and centered.
This message is not a condemnation. It’s a fundamentally reasonable ask.
We are asking that you help ensure that dialogue around this issue begins with and centers a discussion of anti-Native violence and policies, no matter what other connections you might ultimately make, because those discussions simply don’t happen in this country. There obviously aren’t enough people talking about climate change, but there are even fewer people — and let’s be real, far fewer people — discussing the various forms of violence that Indigenous people are up against, and even fewer acting in solidarity with us. And while such discussions have always been deserved, we are living in a moment when Native Water Protectors and Water Warriors have more than earned both acknowledgement and solidarity.
If you have been with us in this fight, we appreciate you. But we are reaching out, right now, in these brave days for our people, to ask that you keep the aforementioned truths front and center as you discuss #NoDAPL. This moment is, first and foremost, about Native liberation, Native self-determination and Native survival.