The Guardian – Martin Lukacs
A historic growing movement for Indigenous rights is a key to protecting land and water and preventing climate chaos
Native American ‘water protectors’ celebrate that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied an easement for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline, inside of the Oceti Sakowin camp, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
As Indigenous peoples faced off against armed police and tanks near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Dakota, theirs wasn’t just a battle over a pipeline. It was a battle over a story that could define the future of America.
The Obama administration’s decision yesterday to refuse the Dakota Access pipeline permission to complete its construction has now shaken up that story. Its old version was that Indigenous peoples have always been in the way of progress, their interests a nuisance or threat, their treaties a discardable artifact. In that story, the American heroes forged on these high plains of the west were never the Indians: they were the gold-diggers or gamblers, the cowboys or cavalry.
But over the past months, it became impossible to watch peaceful Indigenous people and supporters attacked by snarling dogs, maced, and shot with rubber bullets and water cannons in freezing conditions, and still see in them a threat. It was impossible to look upon these young Indigenous men and women, in jingle dresses or on horseback, and not observe the courage that America desperately needs. It was impossible to listen to the cry of their slogan and not hear a rallying vision for all of us: Water is Life.
Along the snowy banks of the Missouri river, a new story is being painfully birthed. It tells us that frontiers must at some point close. That endless taking must become care-taking. And that Indigenous rights, cast aside for too long, are a key to protecting land and water and preventing climate chaos. America is waking up to new heroes.
This is not high-minded romanticism. It is hard-bitten reality. All over the world, there are massive pools of fossil fuels—and the infrastructure to rip and ship it—concentrated in the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. This rush for extreme energy on their lands was never a new crisis for them—it was only the latest stage in a very old colonial pillage.
The latest climate science has warned not just that we can’t afford to build this particular Dakota Access Pipeline: we can no longer build any new fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere.
Almost everywhere these fossil fuel projects have emerged, Indigenous peoples have been their first and fiercest opponents: the Cheyenne stopping coal in Montana, the Lummi defeating an export terminal in Washington, and throughout my country of Canada, Indigenous peoples standing in the way of mines and tar sands pipelines. Forget all those supposedly progressive heads of state who have touted the Paris climate accord but effectively undermined it with their actions: real climate leaders, those keeping carbon in the ground, are doing so directly on the land.
It’s no wonder then that Indigenous peoples continue being pitted against the rest of us. Those with a deep stake in the prevailing economic order cannot have it otherwise. That is how to understand why the local Morton County sheriff would label Indigenous water protectors “evil instigators”—a slur running like a scar through American history.
The Lakota, like other Indigenous peoples, have always had to be depicted as the “evil instigators.” How else could they be “hunted like wolves,” as one US general commanded in 1865; how else could the government violate the treaties that guaranteed them a huge tract of the plains, include the path taken by the proposed Dakota access pipeline. Their lands—seized for gold, parcelled for cattle grazing, flooded for dams—have shrunk and shrunk. That is why they are poor and America has become rich.
That history squats on the present, explaining the continuing brutality toward them. Attempts by the North Dakota state to police them into submission, and then to deny emergency fire and ambulance services and to prevent delivery of supplies and food to the camp, are part of this lineage. Evicting Indigenous peoples from their lands or starving them out: in truth, the Indian wars never ended.
But brave activism has shown that an unbroken history of ugliness and violence is never a guarantee of the future. It turns out treaty rights were never a specimen of the past. They were always living and sacred obligations. In ways clear to more and more people, they have also become the most powerful non-violent weapon for a habitable planet. Which means that honouring the treaty and land rights of Indigenous peoples is now not only a long-overdue moral and legal duty: a stable climate depends on it.
And unlike other progressive gains, these treaty rights can’t be so easily dismantled. It’s a lesson that Canadians learned thanks to the Indigenous movement Idle No More, which stirred in the winter of 2012 near the end of a dark decade under the right-wing government of Stephen Harper. As Indigenous peoples round-danced in malls and took over public squares and highways they showed that while government can shred a generation of environmental regulations, it is much harder to tear up constitutional Indigenous rights that are the supreme law of the land—especially ones that Indigenous peoples will fiercely defend on the ground. That is something to remember as Donald Trump and his coterie of climate change-denying corporate lobbyists enter the White House, ready to lift any barriers to fossil fuel extraction.
These Indigenous rights will, however, never gain their true and full clout without the power of a durable mass movement behind them. The dirt road in the centre of the water protectors camp displaying the flags of an unprecedented coalition of Indigenous nations is one necessary part of any future equation: the unparalleled support among non-Indigenous peoples is the other. The latter must now grow into the kind of power that can turn these rights into economic and political realities that are impossible to ignore.
One promising such gesture of solidarity in early November was the astonishing 1.4 million people who symbolically signed into Standing Rock on Facebook. What if just a fraction of these people were willing to travel to an Indigenous blockade not only virtually, but in real life? What if land and water protection camps sprung up all over the continent, shutting down toxic projects while helping build and bring attention to the solar panels and windmills that must power America’s energy future?
Alongside continuing divestment campaigns against the banks invested in the pipeline and continent-wide solidarity protests, which will continue through December, this is what can permanently turn the tide. So too the building of surprising but all-too-necessary alliances: like the thousands of American war veterans who joined the Standing Rock camp this weekend to act as human shields between the water protectors and the police and army. The veterans said they operated not under a chain of command but a “chain of responsibility”—a beautiful phrase evoking an ever-widening circle of human and ecological concern and connection. The story is indeed changing: even the cavalry are defecting, themselves becoming water protectors.
With the White House soon to be taken over by Trump, the Dakota Access pipeline company may yet be approved next year. Even the environmental review now mandated may still end up green-lighting the current pipeline route. There is a great fight ahead. But a sense of hope and possibility loomed large at the water protectors camp, where celebrations with song and fireworks continued late into Sunday.
“This is one of those days when we are turning the corner,” Standing Rock Tribal Councilman Cody Two Bears said. “Not just as Indigenous peoples, but as the world. If we continue to move forward in this way, nothing can prevent us from doing what is necessary.”
According to the older story many of us know best, the routing of Indians was an inevitable step to civilizational advance. In the new story being told, their vision and prospects are no longer just their own—they are shared by many of us as well as a delicate planet. This time, if they lose, we all do.
This time, Indians are winning.
- Twitter: @Martin_Lukacs