January 2017 Spotlight On: Race

Occupation as Resistance: The Dakota Access Pipeline and American Indian Activism

When the water protectors (or, if you support the Dakota Access Pipeline, protesters, rioters, and troublemakers) formed the Sacred Stone Camp in April, they faced an insurmountable challenge: a semi-built, big corporation and bank backed, stakeholder supported “black snake” (or, if you support Dakota Access, pipeline) that was slowly creeping underneath their land and near their water source.

by Amber Cohen

When the water protectors (or, if you support the Dakota Access Pipeline, protesters, rioters, and troublemakers) formed the Sacred Stone Camp in April, they faced an insurmountable challenge: a semi-built, big corporation and bank backed, stakeholder supported “black snake” (or, if you support Dakota Access, pipeline) that was slowly creeping underneath their land and near their water source. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has stayed on the land since April, and continues to camp there. They have been joined by the members of 566 tribes and many non-tribal members as well. The occupation has grown so large that a new camp had been founded: the Oceti Sakowin camp, which provides a medic council, kitchen staff, and administrative support.

“…this type of physical activism is not unique in the history of Native Americans. In the dawning era of an administration that calls for resistance, we must learn from the long, violent, and pained injustice Native Americans have endured, and how their activism showed that resistance is a bodily act.”

Within the camp, the group Red Warrior Camp provides non-violent direct action training and works on solidarity actions offsite. But this type of physical activism is not unique in the history of Native Americans. In the dawning era of an administration that calls for resistance, we must learn from the long, violent, and pained injustice Native Americans have endured, and how their activism showed that resistance is a bodily act.

A Short History of Native American Activism

I divide the history of American Indian activism into three eras: pre-American Indian Movement (mid-1800s to 1960), America Indian Movement (1960-2000), and Idle No More and Keystone Pipeline (2000-2016). The history described here shows the slow conglomeration of separate, even rival, cultural groups coming together for a common goal: self-sovereignty.

Pre-American Indian Movement (1800s-1960)

One of the earliest instances of encampment activism occurred in the late 1800s when more than 10,000 members of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes camped at the Little Bighorn River in Montana to resist displacement by the U.S. Army. In June 1876, American soldiers attacked the camp. While the tribes won the Battle of Little Bighorn, fourteen years later, the infamous Wounded Knee massacre resulted in a major loss of native rights. Wounded Knee was a response to the General Allotment, or Dawes, Act, a fight against non-Native settlement and forced relocations to reservations that ended in death, displacement, and removal.

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2015 participants in the annual Big Foot Ride from Standing Rock to Wounded Knee commemorating the Wounded Knee Massacre. Courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.

After the occupation at Wounded Knee, native activism turned from physical resistance to the courts. The Sioux filed the Black Hills Claim in the 1890s to help protect their rights over the land. In 1908, Winters v. U.S. ruled that American Indians on reservation lands retained their water rights, thus protecting water from developers and pollution. The 1930s began the self-determination era, with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act that allowed the right to self-government, to tribal courts, and freedom of religion, as well as the 1938 Indian Mineral Leasing Act in which tribes could lease reservation lands to increase revenue and control their resources (Cobb and Fowler 2014). In the 50s and early 60s, however, when Congress passed laws that threatened self-determination and self-sovereignty, bodily politics returned as a strategy.

American Indian Movement (1960s-2000)

Two major events led to occupation as a renewed strategy. In 1953, the House Concurrent Resolution 108 changed federal policy from supporting self-sovereignty to termination. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps began massive dam projects like the Kinzua Dam in Alleghany River and the Pick-Slovan plan for the Missouri River. These dams broke treaties with the tribes on those lands and flooded reservations (Cobb and Fowler 2014, xv). These events led to the American Indian Movement.

This era, called “Red Power,” connected tribal members from urban and rural areas to occupy different places, such as Mount Rushmore, Plymouth Rock, and the Menominee Reservation. In 1969, the Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island for nineteen months. In 1972, 500 members of the movement went to Washington, D.C. and took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs for six days. In 1973, the seventy-two-hour standoff at Wounded Knee began, in which the U.S. Army attempted to remove protestors. The event ended with a shoot-out at Pine Ridge Reservation and the imprisonment of protestor Leonard Peltier (Cobb and Fowler 2014, Josephy 2015).

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Standing Rock protesters fly an American Indian Movement flag, 2016. Courtesy of Native News Online.

The last major event of this period was the 1978 “Longest Walk” in which several hundred American Indians walked to Washington as a dramatization of the forced removal of their ancestors from their homelands. The march was successful in bringing attention to the movement and confronting the issues ongoing in American Indian communities and to fight for treaty rights (Cobb and Fowler 2014, Josephy 2015). The successes of the 1960s and 1970s occurred because of an emphasis on physical activist strategies such as occupation.

Idle No More Movement and the Keystone Pipeline

The #IdleNoMore movement began in November 2012 in Canada to advocate for First Nations in the light of multiple failures by the Canadian government. Four women founded the movement: Sylvia McAdam (Cree), Nina Wilson (Nakota and Plains Cree), Jessica Gordon (Cree and Anishinaabe) and Sheelah McLean (non-Native). Coming together to fight Bill C-48 and C-45 in Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, the name “idle no more” came from the idea that if they were silent, they would let the government win (Fitzgerald 2015, 111). Types of tactics taken under #IdleNoMore included blockades, teach-ins, national days of action, rallies, protests, a hunger strike, flash mobs, and alternative media strategies in the face of a media blackout (Coulthard 2014, Fitzgerald 2015).

“…if Native American resistance is an old story, that’s because the systemic violation of indigenous land rights is an old story. And if history is any precedent, the resistance won’t end at Standing Rock,” (Donnella 2016).

The blockade tactic stemmed from the occupation tactics of Wounded Knee and the American Indian Movement. Coulthard (2014) remarked, “if history has shown us anything, it is this: if you want those in power to respond swiftly to indigenous peoples’ political efforts, start by placing native bodies between settlers and their money,” (36).

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Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, one of four founders of the Idle No More movement, protesting at Standing Rock. Courtesy of Meadow Lake Now.

Water protectors at Sacred Stone camp used this tactic as their major strategy: occupation. Thus, “if Native American resistance is an old story, that’s because the systemic violation of indigenous land rights is an old story. And if history is any precedent, the resistance won’t end at Standing Rock,” (Donnella 2016).

Conclusion: Encampment, Land, and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Understanding the social and historical context for the encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline requires an understanding of the importance of place in indigenous cultures. Tribal creation stories generally tell of how the people of their nation were created on their current land; thus this land is the center of their worldview. The relationship was symbiotic: land gave life to the people, and the people kept that attachment alive to sustain life (Josephy 2015, 30). Thus “each particular landscape, each geographic formation has its unique attendant stories,” (Fitzgerald 2015, 16). American Indians hold “place” as having the highest possible meaning in their worldview and their understanding of the world around them starts with this reference point (Grande 2004). One question asked in many native languages instead of “where do you live?” or “who are you?” is “what is your place?” This question invokes the importance of place in the American Indian lifeworld. “Knowing one’s place within the land’s story is part of being at home in Indian Country or on Indian land,” Fitzgerald stated, “and this knowledge forms the essence of the land narrative framework,” (25).

“One question asked in many native languages instead of “where do you live?” or “who are you?” is “what is your place?” This question invokes the importance of place in the American Indian lifeworld.”

On December 4th, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers released a statement halting the construction of the pipeline by refusing to allow an easement to dig under the Missouri River. Media picked up on the story of cheering water protectors, of fireworks lighting up the sky at Sacred Stone Camp, of cautious optimism. And while the water protectors have reached a major victory, the future remains uncertain. President Donald Trump issued an executive order to restart construction. All allies need to join our native brothers and sisters and use our bodies to block this policy. Resistance has always been a bodily experience. Politics needs to be physical. For Native Americans, it always has been.

cohen-bio-picAmber Cohen is a second-year masters student in applied anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interest involves the intersection of politics and heritage. She currently works as an editorial assistant for the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Practicing Anthropology journal and as a field researcher for a ethnographic resource study on subsistence fishing in the Washington, D.C. metro area (where she lives). She can be contacted here.

Works Cited

Cobb, Daniel M. and Loretta Fowler. 2007. Beyond Red Power: American Indian Politics and Activism Since 1900. School for Advanced Research Global Indigenous Politics Series. School for Advanced Research Press. Sante Fe.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. “#IdleNoMore in Historical Context.” The Winter We Danced. Winnipeg: ARP Books.

Donnella, Leah. “The Standing Rock Resistance is Unprecedented. (It’s also centuries old). NPR. Code Switch. November 22. Web. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/11/22/502068751/the-standing-rock-resistance-is-unprecedented-it-s-also-centuries-old

Fitzgerald, Stephanie. 2015. Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press

Grande, Sandy. 2004. Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Josephy, Jr, Alvin. 2015. The Longest Trail: Writings on the American Indian History, Culture, and Politics. Edited by Marc Jaffe and Rich Wandschneider. New York: Penguin Random House.

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