Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context

img_0879by Nick Estes

Little has been written about the historical relationship between the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the longer histories of Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) resistance against the trespass of settlers, dams, and pipelines across the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. This is a short analysis of the historical and political context of the #NoDAPL movement and the transformative possibilities of the current struggle.

Thousands have camped along the banks of the Missouri River at Cannon Ball in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which promises to carry half a million barrels of heavy crude oil a day across four states, under the Missouri River twice, and under the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico for global export. Camp Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior Camp, and Sacred Stone Camp, the various Native-led groups standing in…

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Standing Together: On the Brink of History

We are currently witnessing the largest collaboration of North American Indigenous nations in a generation, coming together to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux to protect water and land resources against yet more oil pipeline expansions in North Dakota. However, when I say we are witnessing, I mean those of us who follow the relevant social media accounts, Facebook pages, or have friends and family who are there, at the blockade. What is happening in North Dakota is a movement of historic proportions, a display of Indigenous unity not seen since the Red Power era of the 1960’s and 70’s, and yet to the larger public, this event is invisible, unreported, and unnoticed, much like Indigenous people themselves for the past century or so.

I was originally planning to write a blog about national monuments and the erasure of American Indians through commemoration, and I may still do so, but current events have taken over my personal news feed to such an extent that I felt compelled to write about this. In 1964, Herb Blatchford described the fish-in protests of the Pacific Northwest as the “largest intertribal gathering since the Little Big Horn.” Clyde Warrior described it as a “the beginning of a new era in American Indian history” when “American Indians would no longer sit on the sidelines.” That event kick-started a movement that led to Alcatraz in 1969, Wounded Knee in 1973, and the passing of the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975. Self-determination was a massive shift in federal Indian policy away from termination and assimilation that is still (mostly, when the Supreme Court is not busy undermining it) in effect today. A new era indeed.

Current events feel that significant, as if a major point in history is happening again, right now. Back then the issue at stake was the right to expect treaty promises to be upheld. Now it is the right to expect access to pure, uncontaminated, and water. It is inspiring to watch video links of tribal coaches bringing people into the campground, to see photographs of people filling up their cars with supplies before travelling to the campground. To read statement after statement from Indigenous nations offering support to the Standing Rock Sioux. To see video of horses in full regalia being ridden at the front-line of the blockade. And so much more. In 1964, Blatchford, Warrior, and other Red Power leaders such as Mel Thom, Hank Adams, Billy Frank Jr. made local news, international news, and even an appearance on the Today Show for a few of them, bolstered as their fight was by public support from Marlon Brando, one of the most famous actors in the world at that time. Even then though, there was no major national news coverage, and even now, that support has been historically erased and replaced by his public support for the American Indian Movement at the Oscars in 1973. Moving back to the present however, and rather ironically, another Little Big Horn reference has been made. I apologize in advance that I cannot remember exactly who said it, or whether I saw it on Facebook or Twitter, but in reaction to the alliance of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho at this time, in this era, it was noted – to paraphrase – that the last time these three nations came together, they kicked Custer’s ass. Such is the sense that history is being made. Again.

Pipelines leak. A lot. And this has motivated this current collaboration of indigenous peoples. The sheer scale of collaborations between citizens of so many nations, many traditionally enemies, and formal letters of support from tribal governments, is unprecedented in the modern era. On a numbers scale, there are probably as many people – it has been noted that many are not warriors, activists, protestors (protectors is much more apt) but just people. Concerned Indigenous people standing up for clean, unpolluted water – gathered at the pipeline as there were at the 1964 fish-ins.

So, we currently have over 1000 American Indians blockading a pipeline construction site in North Dakota, and almost no major media coverage. Despite the country’s obsession with oil. So far, I have seen only a story on NBC news’ website, but no television coverage beyond Democracy Now. Likewise, no major newspaper coverage beyond Indian Country Today and The Guardian. In a ‘news’ cycle perpetually looping on Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s latest faux par, and Ryan Lochte’s bathroom shenanigans, it seems there is no space to cover an Indigenous movement to protect the land, the water, and the planet. Not that this is especially surprising. In January, when global leaders gathered in Paris to discuss climate change, they, and the media, ignored the thousands of Indigenous people, from all over the planet who were demanding access to the talks and the ability to share their knowledge, and thousands of years’ worth of experience in sustainability. Despite the fact that 80% of world’s biodiversity is found on Indigenous lands, which accounts for 10% (legally recognized) of the global landmass, Indigenous voices and concerns are too often ignored when it comes to solving current climate issue, or trying to prevent future problems such as pipeline leaks. The media were quick enough to congratulate themselves for covering the Flint water crisis after thousands of homes were supplied with contaminated water, but are slow to cover this attempt to stop such future contamination taking place. Maybe human misery makes better headlines, and so the media would rather wait until after the water has been contaminated, which will eventually happen.

Pipelines leak.  A lot. And river cleanups are a lengthy and expensive process. According to reports, the pipeline under discussion was deliberately moved south away from urban areas to avoid potential leakage issues. It was this decision that has brought the pipeline route so close to the Standing Rock Sioux and their reservation. Which to some observers, makes this simply an “Indian issue” which is something that can be conveniently ignored. As it was when the Navajo had their rivers poisoned by the EPA, of all organizations. And that speaks again to erasure, which I will cover more in the other blog.

But this is also the crux of ignoring the current clarion call of America’s Indigenous nations, who are also beginning to receive support from Indigenous peoples from other continents. This water that they are trying to protect, is not just theirs. This water is for all of us. As a popular saying goes, and again I’m paraphrasing, “everybody loves the Indian who talks about the land and the water, but they hate the Indian who talks about the genocide and removal.” It’s about time we started listening to those who do both.  Instead of romanticizing and eulogizing about the indigenous relationship to the land, we should recognize that this romanticized relationship was science then and is science now. Indigenous people are our global conscience. They didn’t ask to be, our incessant desire for land, expansion, subjugation and plunder has created this role for them. And I’m sure they would much prefer it if we were capable of nurturing the world without them having to remind us all the time. But, now that they are, we need to listen.

Pipelines leak. A lot. And the leaked oil gets into our land, and our water. Without land, we cannot grow, or graze, food. Without water we cannot grow, or graze, food. Or plants, for oxygen. And without land, or water, or food, or oxygen, we die. Or become ever more dependent on those who do have land, and water, and food, and oxygen. So we need to take notice, and bear witness to what is hopefully the beginning of a new cycle. Of Indigenous voices being heard. Of Indigenous people being recognized, as people, as experts, as equals.  We need to stand together with the Indigenous peoples of the world. We need to bear witness to history being made, as the black snake of Lakota prophecy is beaten back, and the 7th Generation speaks up for us all.  We need to start listening, before water is like oil – inaccessible for everyday people at the sources, and only accessible from a few corporate monoliths who have complete power over supply, demand, and (inexorably ever-rising) cost.

Ethical Research, or Lessons I Have Learned

I will begin by pointing out that this is as much a way of clarifying my thoughts for my own benefit as it is to open a discussion about ethical research and Native peoples for anyone else.
During the entire research & writing process of my biography of Clyde Warrior, from Masters thesis, to dissertation, to book, I kept as my guiding principle, Donald Fixico’s ideal in “Ethics in Writing American Indian History” that all ethical researchers of American Indian peoples should keep cultural relevancy as the foremost issue in mind. Specifically he argues that “introspective analysis of how Indians perceive history with regard to tribal language, values, kinship relations, infrastructure, societal norms, tribal beliefs, and worldview” should be the prominent concern of any ethical writing of American Indian history. I have to admit that it was this theoretical framework of ethical research, more than the institutional instructions of the IRB forms and exams I had to wade through as a graduate student, that “kept me honest” in how I wrote Clyde Warrior’s life. And also how I researched him, always making sure that I took a small ‘gift’ of sage to my interviews to thank the source for their stories.
The reason Fixico’s words struck me so profoundly was that once I applied this research framework to Warrior’s life I saw how completely culture, language, and worldview informed his relationship with the dominant western culture around him, at a level that signaled his activism as being so much more than purely political theatre. Hence the book earning the title Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power. It also made me stop and think about how much we historians just leave ‘that stuff” to the anthropologists, rather than incorporate it into our telling of history. Rather naively though, I figured that once the book was written, with Warrior’s culture and worldview as prominent throughout as he himself was, this ethical research/scholarship responsibility would be over until my next project. I know Warrior will remain with me forever more, the lessons he taught me through my research and writing will forever inform my teaching and future research, and the friendships I made through my research will always remain intact, but the actual physical relationship with the project was now over, bar a few promotional appearances or conference papers. Or so I thought.
It was during a visit to Ponca City in May that I was quickly disabused of that little notion. Having been invited to be honored by the Poncas, and especially the Gives Water clan, for writing the book, I was feeling quite proud of myself. Until I met one of Warrior’s aunts. She had been ill during the majority of my research period so I’d never gotten the chance to talk to her before. She reminded me that although I had accomplished something special in writing Warrior’s story, I had also taken from the Ponca in the process – memories, emotions, cherished stories. Rather than memorializing them for time immemorial, I had borrowed them, and needed to maintain the reciprocal balance – even after the book was published. Having already decided to discuss the creation of small scholarship in Warrior’s name for future Ponca college students, however, I felt satisfied that this requirement was still being met, although her words did make me think about the research process in a new light.
And then in August something happened which made me realize that this ethical responsibility to the research and its contents will remain with me for the rest of my days, asking to be honored in odd and unexpected ways. That what I had written was not just a biography of Clyde Warrior but also a promise to him to try to maintain as much integrity in my work as he had shown in his life. And also how wonderfully social media can be in helping to keep that promise. (And I cannot help but keep wondering how much more of a storm he would have been able to brew up if social media had been available in his day.) Anyway, I received an email from one of the press officers at University of Oklahoma Press asking me to telephone a lady who’d heard about my book and wanted to mail me a photograph of Clyde Warrior that her husband had taken at Ponca Powwow in the mid-1960s. I had to call her as she did not use computers, and after a brief and very sweet conversation about how much they had admired Warrior as a dancer (there’s that culture thing again) she agreed to send me the picture. Once the picture arrived, it was obvious that neither of the dancers featured was actually Clyde Warrior. A quick scan and post to Facebook later revealed that the men featured were Elmer Brown and Rudy Newmoon/Newman. A bit more pushing and I found contact info for Elmer Brown’s niece, who now has a copy of the picture to share with her mom, Elmer’s only living relative. I’m still hoping to do the same for relatives of Rudy.
And so how does any of this relate to Fixico’s words in my opening paragraph? In short, events following the publication of the book have taught me that the ethical approach lies not just in the writing, but also in maintaining the relationships and responsibility of that writing long after the fact. It is not just enough to recognize cultural motifs in order to ensure that the written telling follows correct protocol. As the author I need to remain as faithful to the ethical spirit of the story I have told as I was to the telling of it in the first place. As academics, once we finish these projects our primary concern is quite often about how the scholarly journal reviews will treat the book and our writing. These small moments reiterated to me, however, that our concern should always be how would the subject of our scholarship react to our telling of their story? And how have their remaining friends and relatives received it? And how are we representing the legacy of that story in our own actions? (I now understand a little more why writing the distance past is a preferred option of many scholars). I am sure that going forward that I will make many mistakes, but I can also say that Clyde Warrior taught me many more invaluable lessons than made it onto the pages of his biography. And I hope to keep the cycle of reciprocity going forward by heeding those lessons in my future projects.