Standing Rock has not only been the latest site of struggle against the infringement of rights and environmental exploitation, but we can also glean invaluable insights into the transformative natures of power and protest. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, there was a significant confrontation between the protesters and the police when the protesters attempted to remove the barricades preventing public and emergency transport across Backwater Bridge. When the protesters reportedly set fires nearby, the Morton County police responded with crowd suppression using water cannons, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and tear gas. The police stated that the tactics were appropriate against the “very aggressive” protesters. The county sheriff said in a press conference that the water cannons were only used to put out fires and repel aggressive protesters. He further stated that the water was “sprayed more as a mist” and served to “help everybody keep safe.” The video evidence would indicate otherwise, especially as the water cannons were used in subfreezing temperatures reaching 25 degrees Fahrenheit that night. At those temperatures, the water left protesters at dangerous risk of frostbite. Dozens of protesters were also injured as a result. The incident has some senators calling for an official investigation into the police’s potentially excessive use of force.
The police continued to treat the protest as a whole in perspective of a riot, when the few confrontations have not necessarily warranted the excessive security. The protest has been primarily nonviolent and peaceful, especially as we consider it in context of the several months since it started in April. Protest tactics have mainly been mass sittings in silence and peaceful marches. On the other hand, the North Dakota governor activated 100 National Guard back in September, with the justification that it would help in response to the possibility of violence from the protesters. Aside from the very few confrontations, there is no real support to the hypervigilant logic behind the actions of the state government and local police. The governor even attempted to dismantle the protest by ordering them to evacuate the area due to the harsh weather, with the implicit threat that they would be arrested and otherwise receive no emergency services if they stayed.
In light of all this tension, our government representatives have to truly understand the motivations and the histories of trauma that continue to affect tribes to this day. We forget about the countless treaties and hollow promises made by the U.S. government with the tribes, showing an utter lack of respect for their integrity as self-determinant nations of their own right. We forget about the abuses at the Indian boarding schools, the cultural genocide as the United States stole Native lands, labor, lives, and languages. We forget how the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of Native families to travel long and harsh distances across the other side of the country, leaving their rightful homes behind and being relocated into government-run reservations. It’s a very real part of their everydayness for so many Native peoples even now. This power to forget these realities from the collective consciousness is privileged only to the elite few in the dominant society, as evidenced in part how the mass media only focused on the past few weeks of this months-long protest as soon as the presidential election concluded.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is one of the more recent attempts at infringing tribal rights and Native community well-being. Sioux representatives at Standing Rock have reported that several cultural and sacred sites have already been destroyed as a result of the pipeline construction. The pipeline also poses an environmental risk to their primary water supply. All of which has been done without adequate consultation with the local tribes; a historical pattern that continues to repeat itself. The government and the involved energy companies have repeatedly explained that the risk is marginal, but it evades the point about tribal sovereignty and their ability to determine what is best for them. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already decided to reroute the pipeline away from the water sources of major cities for safety concerns, but had remained fixed on constructing it near the Sioux Reservation’s water source. There is a strong indicator of unequal treatment to be observed here.
Standing Rock is far from alone in its struggle. Poor communities of color have long been placed in environmentally precarious situations not of their own control. What’s worse is that it makes perfect “logical” sense, even if it might be morally questionable. Corporations are built on the principle of making profit through the path of least resistance. In the case of these communities, they effectively represent the path of least resistance as they do not have the political power to match against national interests. The government is party to these injustices as well, either by enforcing corporate power or providing little to no support for its own communities. It is why we all too often see the tragic results of environmental injustice in places like Flint, Michigan, and California’s Eastern Coachella Valley. The consequences echo across generations to come, leaving these communities even more vulnerable to the higher powers of state and company.
What we also need to remember in the face of injustice is the power that these communities can have working together in solidarity. What started out as a spirit camp of mostly members from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in April has now transformed with the influx from the hundreds to the thousands of supporters coming from all over the country to join the protest. We have veterans, people of all genders and nationalities, clergy and politicians, environmental activists and celebrities, and members of other tribes organizing their power into a collective force toward the same mission of justice. It is perhaps largely due to the presence of such diverse and vocal solidarity that the protest was able to last for months and now has led to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finally halt the pipeline construction and reroute it elsewhere. While it remains a rare victory for the Sioux and their allies, the struggle is far from over as the Corps conducts further analysis and environmental assessments to determine alternative routes. Standing Rock is likely not the last community to face this struggle, but the victory gives hope that meaningful change and real justice can be won against a national history of exploitation and inequality.