It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, we introduce you to some of them. Today’s interview is the tenth in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
“Standing Rock is everywhere right now,” says Judith LeBlanc of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, talking about how on Thursday, February 2, hundreds of people marched in downtown Seattle in support of the Seattle City government resolution to divest from Wells Fargo. In this interview, LeBlanc, the director of the Native Organizers Alliance, shares her thoughts on the current state of organizing in Standing Rock.
Sarah Jaffe: What is going on at Standing Rock?
Judith LeBlanc: Standing Rock is everywhere and it is a beautiful thing because water gives us life and water has become — because of what has happened at Standing Rock — a symbol for all that is sacred and important for humanity and for Mother Earth. We have an organized approach to moving the battle for Standing Rock to the other reservations of the Oceti Sakowin and to spread the organizing all across the country, because tens of thousands of people have gone through the Oceti Sakowin camp and have become a part of this magic moment in Indian country. The Oceti Sakowin elders who came together for the first time since the Battle of the Little Bighorn extinguished the fire that had been burning to guide the prayers of the camp, to guide the way the camp existed. They now are planning to visit each of the territories of the Oceti Sakowin to fortify the resistance to potential takeovers of our land and the infringement on our sovereignty.
Every social movement going into new stages is never smooth or even. In the last few days, some of those in the camp who want to remain in the area built another camp outside of the Oceti Sakowin camp a little ways down the road. There were many people arrested as a result.
One of the difficulties that we face in Indian Country is that the pipeline for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is one major issue, but there are other many, many major issues that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is working on all at once. The median income at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is a little over $13,000. There are key issues of health care and economic development and education. In many ways, I think the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has really been showing how difficult and how important it is to build unity in support of protecting our larger rights — Indian Country-wide right to protect our sovereignty — and that is what the fight in stopping the pipeline was about. Because when the Bismarck folks said “No” to the pipeline, their “No” stuck. When the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said “No,” the Energy Transfer Partners said, “Well, anyway …” and acted as if they could build this pipeline.
We have run up against a very difficult situation with the Trump administration being elected to office. One of the senators from North Dakota, very pro-pipeline, has become the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate. We are up against a situation where it is very hard to see how the pipeline will be stopped, unless we continue to put the pressure where it needs to be, on the 17 banks that have invested, [and] continue to pressure the Trump administration to not violate the law and proceed with the environmental impact study that was mandated under the Obama administration. It is a tough fight in the next days ahead. It will be determined by whether or not the government violates the will of the people who have been in solidarity with Standing Rock and the 17,000,000 people along the shores of the river.
What has it been like this winter? There have been people camped out all the way through, right?
I like to think about Standing Rock, what it was like on the ground there September 1 when it was warm. I think about it at sunset. It was a very golden kind of light where thousands of Indian people had gathered in solidarity. We created a 21st-century Indian city. We had our own kitchen serving three hot meals a day, coffee all day long, and a school and a radio station, and the feeling of prayers and people power being the most amazing medicine that our people could experience because of all of the trauma, all of the deep generational problems that [have] come with the policies of the US government since colonial times.
People began to prepare in October for the winter, because North Dakota winters, you don’t play with them. Collectively, people began to prepare for winter starting in October and early November, fortifying the different places where people were sleeping, yurts, insulating the teepees, redistributing the kitchen so that it could be in different sectors of the camp. But as we moved into December, when the big blizzard hit, it became clear that people’s lives were in danger. There was a call for people to protect themselves by taking the struggle home, to go home and to continue to support the legal fight.
Many, many people followed that directive, because it is just too tough. Others stayed and really have dug in and therefore the dismantling of the camp right now is a complicated business. We have to use backhoes and teams to remove the structures that were set up because it is on a flood plain. The floods are going to be very, very bad this year because of the amount of snow. There is great danger for the people who are camped there. Back in the day, when our people were there without down, without wool socks, it is really hard to imagine how amazing our people were to be able to not only survive, but to continue to thrive and grow as a people under such severe weather conditions.
Trump and his people have already made noises about trying to sell off more native people’s lands. How can people respond to that if they are just going to try to privatize everything?
Sovereignty is the bottom line. In Indian Country, we are preparing now for a mobilization to Washington. The time is now to plant all of our nations’ flags in DC to signal to both the Trump administration and Congress that we are here to stay in this country as sovereign nations, that we are ready to fight for sovereignty.
We are nations that have not only a legal but a moral responsibility to protect our land, our air, our water for all of humanity. Sovereignty is also a way to protect the communities and the states and the rivers that affect all of us.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is calling on people — all people, Indians and non-Indians — to come to DC, March 6-10, where we will establish a prayer camp on the National Mall and we will spend our days doing actions, flooding Capitol Hill, and then, marching on the White House on March 10. We are working to bring together the other 300 tribes that stood with Standing Rock. Many of them derive significant revenue streams from fossil fuels, but they stood with Standing Rock because it is a matter of tribal sovereignty. We have the right to decide for our land, our water and air, how our people are affected by these greedy corporations who will stop at nothing to maximize their profits.
All over the country fossil fuel corporations have come onto our land, paid us money, taken their profits and run, leaving generations of disease and death in their wake. We are inviting all of these tribes to march on the White House to say, “President Trump, you meet with us, you deal with us as sovereign nations.” The Indian people who come from all over the country, as we did flock to Standing Rock Reservation, will flock to Capitol Hill and lay it on the line with the members of Congress.
In this session of Congress, there are many issues that affect our sovereignty: the attack on Obamacare is an attack on the right to health care for Indian people. Legally, we have been guaranteed, from birth to death, quality healthcare and we have not been able to achieve that. If Obamacare is destroyed, it will destroy some steps forward that we took under the Indian Health Improvement Act, which was incorporated into Obamacare. We are going to make a statement, just as the people did at the airports on protecting the rights of immigrants and as we did during the Women’s March. President Trump, we are on our way.
There was another trip during the Keystone XL fight, where there was also a prayer camp set up in DC. Correct?
Correct. Many of the veterans that organized those events and orchestrated that victory to stop the pipeline are the lead on this.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the role of these divestment campaigns targeting the banks and the financial institutions that are funding the pipeline and how they connect to things like Wall Street deregulation that Trump has called for.
This is a very important strategy in order to get at the systemic nature of the role that fossil fuels play in the economy and in creating the huge threat to the existence of our planet. If you want to go to the roots, the economic and structural roots of a problem, you have to dig into the role of financialization and the banks. This divestment movement has given a handle for many who wouldn’t come to Oceti Sakowin camp, who need to do work in their own communities to make the links between the problems we face and the role that banks and the economic system play in the broader crisis.
In other countries, there is incredible mobilization that has resulted in some of the banks in other countries divesting from Energy Transfer Partners. The divestment strategy has also been a way for us in this moment to build global awareness of the threats that exist to the existence of our planet.
No matter how strong capitalism seems to be, it is inherently full of contradictions and therefore masses of people, when organized, even if not [in] the majority, can have an impact. We have organized this alliance, joined a coalition that involved many, many groups — faith groups, as well as divestment groups and environmental groups like 350.org — in doing a series of actions in the last few days to pressure the 17 banks [that] are invested in Energy Transfer Partners, to meet with the tribe. To divest, but to do so on the basis of meeting with the tribes and understanding what the issues are and the impact the pipeline can have. We have also had tremendous numbers of people … who closed their personal accounts that were in some of the 17 banks.
I think the divestment strategy and the pressure that it is putting on Energy Transfer Partners is very important in shifting those around the Trump administration to think about the bottom line. At this point, the pipeline is losing money. It is not a good business investment.
I think it has begun to dawn on some of the investors, especially the banks outside of the country, that even if the pipeline was moved away from the current path, that the resistance would continue. It wasn’t the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe saying, “Not in my backyard.” They were saying, “Not in anyone’s backyard.” Pipelines break.
It is a classic capitalist situation. They overproduce vehicles and ways that oil should be transferred. Truth is, they don’t need this pipeline. It is not a necessity. We are hoping to convince the banks and therefore the people of Wall Street who have some semblance of business sense to pull out of this.
You spent a lot of time working with United for Peace and Justice, the big umbrella movement against the wars during the Bush years. Now that we are, again, in a moment with a right-wing president who looks like he might start a war any day now, can you talk about some lessons from that movement?
I think the Iraq anti-war movement had a huge impact on changing public opinion. Some say, “Well, you didn’t stop the war” but we did gain political momentum that became the driving force behind people pushing for the election of a president who had committed to a date for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
But, the truth is, that we were so busy mobilizing against the full spectrum of the Bush agenda that we did not pay enough attention to organizing. We focused on trying to build unity across sectors and to maintain a coalition effort that was focused on ending the war, but did not pay enough attention to how grassroots folks continue to be engaged in between mobilizations.
We are in a totally different place now. In fact, the first two weeks of the Trump administration have shown that we are at a level where not only are people willing to mobilize, but people are making the connections from their own self-interest to people way beyond their own immediate communities. That is what was powerful about the Women’s March and the demonstrations at the airports. I think it is because of the incredible grassroots organizing and work that has been done during the eight years [of] the Obama administration. There’s a broader cross section of groups and infrastructure out there that is willing to support this grassroots upsurge by delving deeper into political education and helping people to develop themes that will sustain them.
I think the Standing Rock movement has laid the basis for people to understand that we need organizing at the community level that is led with love and open hearts and led by values; that we are not on the defensive. We are on the offensive. We understand that we have to reach out to people who maybe didn’t vote and those who maybe voted for Trump, because there already is the beginning of buyer’s remorse. People were swayed by the values-led campaign that Trump did and now we need to organize and lead with movements that are value-centered, that are rooted in love of humanity.
That is what you saw at the airports. That was a beautiful thing. My heart soared like an eagle to understand that even through hate and the racist agitation that has become the norm in political discourse, many white people understood that they have a personal stake and responsibility to stand on the side of Muslims and people of color who were being attacked and detained. That solidarity is the norm, not the exception.
The Native people, we have a special role to play. Our culture, our experiences for many people are a source of inspiration. No matter what the impact of the initial colonization was, no matter all of the attempts to sideline and to erase us from this country, we not only have survived, but we have thrived.
How can people keep up with you?
Native Organizers Alliance is putting together a very broad cohort of native trainers that can support tribes and native non-profits and social-movement activists at the local level. We are going to be working with Oceti Sakowin elders [from] South Dakota to Missouri to protect the water and to empower tribal governments to lead the water protection that needs to happen, when the EPA could be gutted. We are also working with organizers on the Navajo Reservation to develop a Colorado River protection project, which would involve all of the states along the Colorado River, starting with the tribes and the activists who have been working for generations on the uranium contamination of the water there and land.
We are also conducting our annual National Native Community Organizing Training in August, which is a six-day training. We have done it for six years. Hundreds of people have come through the training and many of our alumni were playing important roles at the Oceti Sakowin camps. Our curriculum is rooted in our inter-tribal cultures. Community organizing is not an idea that a few white guys in Chicago came up with. It is as old as dirt. Our communities have always been premised on the idea of collective economies, collective resolutions to problems. We are using our history and experiences to develop curriculums that build and strengthen those traditions.
We are also collaborating on an array of voter protection and civil rights issues, because Indian Country had the largest number of Indian candidates in US history run in 2015. We have an array of elected officials in states that are controlled by the right wing. We will be doing a lot of work to help them develop an inside/outside strategy.
Note: This interview has been edited for concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.