How to Co-opt an Indigenous Struggle

Arrested Cheyenne
Cheyenne trying to return to the Black Hills from an Oklahoma Reservation, 1913. Courtesy: University of California Libraries.

The big fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota by a now-estimated 300-odd indigenous nations and tribes and allies can be viewed from many perspectives. Perhaps the least helpful or accurate interpretation is one that seeks to explain the contest through the lens of Western environmentalism.

The Washington Post attempted that trick a couple weeks back, under the headline, “The big fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, explained.” A trio of academics affiliated with the University of Washington manage to turn the entire struggle on its head by proposing the trans-national, inter-tribal eruption on the prairie as a product of the familiar Western environmental network of career organizers.

It opens:

Last week, the federal government temporarily blocked construction of the 1,134 miles Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which was supposed to carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Dakotas to Illinois. The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations claimed, with the support of environmentalist groups, that the pipeline would damage their environment and cultural sites. This decision is the result of a new kind of environmental activism that treats energy pipelines as a chokepoint for activities that contribute to global warming, and builds alliances with other groups to stop them.

We have to ask right off the bat, what “decision” are they talking about leading to a “new kind of environmental activism”?

Are they proposing a decision of the feds to block construction. That doesn’t match.

Instead, the statement of fact, that indigenous and “environmental” groups are working together, seems to be at the nexus of some decision being implied. But is this a decision of the tribes or of the environmental NGOs?

The question isn’t even asked, it’s assumed. Agency is placed solidly on the side of the Washington/New York/San Fran environmentalists.

Standing Rock, the largest indigenous gathering in 100 years, is nothing but a product of mainstream environmental strategy, we’re told. After determining that decades of fighting for tighter emission regulations, fuel-efficiency standards, prevention of new petro-development have failed, these NRDCs, Sierra Clubs, what have you, wisely developed a new “pipeline politics” approach and went shopping for some Indians.

Dolšak, Prakash, and Allen continue:

This “pipeline politics” does not ask governments to enact new regulations. Instead, it leverages the existing regulatory framework. Environmentalists have built coalitions with actors that are more interested in local issues than in global climate change. These actors fear that transportation of fossil fuels might contaminate their water resources, infringe on their fishing rights, or desecrate their sacred lands. Native American nations are an especially attractive ally, because they often have treaty rights over land and water use that the U.S. government is obliged to take account of.

This explains the fight that is happening right now in North Dakota. It also explains why environmental groups have struck up alliances with Native American nations and tribal groups to disrupt the transportation of oil and coal elsewhere.

Mount Rushmore
This is Indian land. Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, South Dakota. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But here’s the thing. The Lakota and Dakota people at Standing Rock, like so many other native peoples of the U.S. and beyond, have been fighting without outside ‘green’ support, for a long time. They have been fighting for native sovereignty promised by so many treaties and national law.

It is at heart a demand for local, indigenous empowerment. For justice. The Lakota and Dakota people are not new to advocating for their rights.

Federal violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 robbed the Sioux, among which the Lakota and Dakota number, of the Black Hills. Despite an offer for payment for that theft more than a century later, the people refuse this payment—in spite of a poverty rate that is double the rest of the nation. They’ve had to fight laws that prevent them from prosecuting non-native men who enter reservations to rape Sioux women (twice as likely to be victims of violence, attacks perpetrated 8 out of 10 times by non-natives)

In recent years, the residents of Standing Rock have been forced to fight environmental fights because that’s what came their way. First there was the failed Keystone XL pipeline; now the black snake returns while appropriating their name, the Dakota Access.

Flipping the channel to activist/attorney Stanley Cohen writing at CounterPunch, we are reminded that Standing Rock is not first-and-foremost an environmental struggle. It is a land struggle. And one deserving of all the support the mostly-Anglo environmentalists are offering and then some.

Writes Cohen:

Standing Rock is not “just” about the impact, one way or another, of a so-called development project upon Native land. It’s about the arrogance and greed of power and the trappings of illusion. We call Indian people sovereign; indeed the Constitution refers to Tribes as sovereign nations… but it’s all a grand, perverse lie. We romanticize Indians as so much a part of our glorious history and yet deny them their fundamental right to determine their own present and future. We hold public sessions and ask them for their input on decisions which influence their land, communities and people but then do whatever suits the political and economic whim of the moment. It’s called concurrent jurisdiction.

Indians need nothing from the US government but to honor age old treaties and to be left alone to determine their own priorities and develop their own communities based upon age old traditions and beliefs… whether they comport with our view of their world or not. Every day in Indian communities across this continent, Tribes are free to make decisions about their unique needs, practices and communities until it rubs up against those of the outside world.   At that point concurrent federal jurisdiction kicks in and controls what does or does not happen in what’s supposed to be sovereign land.

Supporting Standing Rock can also mean standing for a habitable planet. But to argue this a struggle driven by mainstream environmentalism is a grave insult that threatens to strands us back in our historic Settler-Native roles, the outcome of which can only be further colonialist oppression.