Standing Up to Protect WaterStanding Rock is Pushing Against A Long History of Environmental Racism

The Sacred Stone Camp. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).

Armed with batons and weapons, dressed in riot gear, and flanked by military tanks, local police, the North Dakota National Guard, and a private security team moved on Standing Rock water protectors on October 23. Over 141 people were arrested on minor changes, and bulldozers then razed the camp, which has been a home since August to people determined to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “We call on the state of North Dakota to oversee the actions of local law enforcement to, first and foremost, ensure everyone’s safety,” Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement. “If harm comes to any who come here to stand in solidarity with us, it is on their watch.”

The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have been working to stop the pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken Region under the Missouri River and cross unceded treaty territory of the Oceti Sakowin, for many reasons. A major concern is that an oil spill along the pipeline would endanger the Missouri River’s water supply. On top of that, the pipeline construction route has already desecrated ancient burial grounds and sacred sites and threatens to do more damage.

But the movement isn’t about just one issue or one action; it’s part of a long history of resistance to colonialism and environmental racism.

Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons).

In a joint press conference with Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, on October 28, Archambault said, “The oil industry—this is a powerful conglomerate. We are up against some powerful, powerful forces. And what do we have? Who are we? Standing up for water. All we have is support. All we have is unity. All we have are prayers. And that’s strong.”

Frazier added that he has requested peacekeeping troops from the United Nations. “The question that kept coming to my mind is, who is protecting our people? …I cannot believe the inhumane treatment of our people by the state.”

Frazier also highlighted the fact that men and women who were praying in a sweat lodge were pulled out at gunpoint and arrested. “How would America feel if I went into their church, booted them out, arrested them, charged them for riot, for felony?”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has formally requested an investigation by the Department of Justice into law enforcement abuses, which they state include unlawful arrests, strip searches, violent security dog attacks, pepper spray, and intimidation.

As many water protectors have pointed out, the racialized undertones of the police and National Guard response to the water protectors can’t be ignored. That reality was underscored by the fact that the same day that nonviolent Standing Rock activists were arrested for camping on their own unceded treaty lands, Ammon Bundy and six other people who had staged an armed occupation of federal land in Eastern Oregon in January were acquitted by a jury. The armed group forcefully occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for over a month—when the confrontation ended, officials found more than 30 guns, 16,636 live rounds, and nearly 1,700 spent casings. But it’s the Native-led protest at Standing Rock that faced bulldozers, rubber bullets, and mace.

As the Morton County Sheriff’s office continues to cast Standing Rock activists as criminals, it’s important to remember the ways in which the U.S. government, as a settler colonial state, constructs criminality along racial lines—both historically and in the present. For instance, Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), in her forthcoming article in Theory and Event, and referenced in the NYC Stands With Standing Rock Collective’s #Standing Rock Syllabus,  “Criminal Empire: The Making of the Savage in a Lawless Land,” writes:

“The imposition of colonial law, facilitated by casting Indigenous men and women as savage peoples in need of civilization and constructing Indigenous lands as lawless spaces absent legal order, made it possible for the United States and Canada to reduce Indigenous political authority, domesticating Indigenous nations within the settler state, shifting and expanding the boundaries of both settler law and the nation itself by judicially proclaiming their own criminal behaviors as lawful.”

Over the weekend, over 1 million people checked in to Standing Rock on Facebook in a show of online support, hoping to foil police attempts to profile Standing Rock water protectors by watching social media. Yet as the struggle continues, those of us who can’t be present at Standing Rock must ask ourselves: What does solidarity look like? In a 2014 article in Briarpatch magazine, “Decolonizing together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of Decolonization,” author and social justice activist Harsha Walia writes,

“In opposing the colonialism of the state and settler society, non-natives must recognize our own role in perpetuating colonialism within our solidarity efforts. We can actively counter this by theorizing about and discussing the nuanced issues of solidarity, leadership, strategy and analysis—not in abstraction, but within our real and informed and sustained relationships with Indigenous peoples.”

It also means organizing local actions at Army Corps offices and banks that invest in  the Dakota Access Pipeline, and organizing in support of struggles for indigenous sovereignty in our own regions. For example, on November 15, one week after the election, there is a day of action to call on the incoming leadership and the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. It means donating to Standing Rock’s camp fund or legal fund, if we can, and divesting both personally and collectively from the banks that are invested in the pipeline. And it requires us to engage in a continual practice of self-education. For instance, the NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective has put together an extensive syllabus of materials on settler colonialism, extractive capitalism, the police state, and the history of the Sioux Nation.

Meanwhile, the legal struggle initiated by the tribe continues. Early in September, the Department of Justice, Department of the Army, and Department of the Interior issued a joint statement announcing they will halt any additional permitting and will reconsider their past permits for the project. They also asked Energy Transfer Partners to voluntarily cease construction while legal proceedings continue. On October 10, they repeated their request for a voluntary cessation of construction, a request Energy Transfer Partners have rejected as they continue to pursue construction toward the Missouri River.

Wrapping up his comments at the October 28 press conference, Archambault said, “We should all be focused on what can we do to protect water. If we don’t do that, life is no more. Our tribe—our people—believe water is sacred. Water is not a resource, it’s a relative. And it’s worth protecting.”

by Vivian Underhill
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Vivian Underhill is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on environmental and queer issues. Follow her at

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