News of the Standing Rock protests are finally reaching our increasingly isolationist island from across the pond. Frankly, it is surprising that it has taken so long. The British usually love to tut about the state of American society – violent, gun-toting, and excessive. When it comes to indigenous peoples, however, the international community often turns the other way.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and Native American protesters from across North America have been occupying camps around Cannon Ball, North Dakota, since April. This is in a bid to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 3.7-billion-dollar project carrying crude oil from Bakken Oil Field, North Dakota, across four states to Patoka, Illinois. Protesters, calling themselves Water Protectors, argue that the pipeline poses a threat to their water supply from the Missouri River. It also cuts through sacred sites, with construction has already disrupting burial grounds. The Water Protectors have staged an unarmed, peaceful protest, hosting prayer circles and sweat lodges.
The response has not been peaceful. Protesters have experienced routine harassment by police, which has escalated at many points to outright violence. Over 400 protesters have been arrested, and detained in conditions currently under investigation by the UN for human rights abuses. Police, equipped with riot gear and tanks, have employed tear gas, mace, rubber bullets and tasers against protesters. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples squarely condemned both DAPL and police responses in a statement in September. While the project is currently halted, there is no guarantee that the Standing Rock Sioux’s concerns will be addressed if and when construction restarts.
While Europeans romanticize the pristine, open spaces of North America, and fret over melting ice caps and stranded polar bears, the people who live there are often erased in environmentalist discourse. These are the people, however, who are at the front lines of environmental degradation. While climate change, at this point, is primarily an abstract concern for the inhabitants of southern North America and Western Europe, it is a reality for the Inupiat, an indigenous group in Alaska. Whale hunters report that the ice is getting thinner every year, making it much more difficult to bring whales in from the open water. Inupiat have been hunting whales for subsistence for millennia, and three whales can feed an entire village. The same goes for the protection of wildlife. Inuit in Arctic Canada played a large role in the protection of Lancaster Sound, a proposed marine conservation area and marine mammal migration route – marine mammals on which Inuit depend for food.
There is thus a tangible benefit for the international supporters of #NoDAPL. Protesters are fighting not only for halt of the project and for the protection of the Missouri River, but against the extraction of fossil fuels in general. Their bravery, if successful, will go a long way towards protecting our shared environment. Global indigenous peoples are often the best protectors of their land, and by extension, our shared Earth – both because the stakes of environmental activism are thus much higher for indigenous peoples, and by virtue of their often deep connection with the ecosystems surrounding them.It is insulting, however, to support Standing Rock on an environmental basis alone. Despite having lived in North and South Dakota for hundreds of years, Standing Rock Sioux have little, if any, control over the majority of their ancestral land. 40% of the reservation’s population lives below the federal poverty line. Unemployment has been reported at 86%. Many homes on Standing Rock reservation do not even have electricity or running water. In light of the police violence surrounding the protests, and the real danger involved for protesters, it is incredibly presumptuous to see the Standing Rock protests as simply as a bid to protect the Earth for all of our sakes. Standing Rock and other indigenous protests can and must be seen in the greater context of colonialism and racism in North America. They represent legitimate bids on the parts of indigenous peoples, statistically at the wrong end of widening inequality, to reclaim control over land that has been stolen from them. Reclaiming sovereignty of land is often an important step for indigenous peoples to reclaim sovereignty over their destinies.
While it is fortunate that the goals of Standing Rock protesters align with those of environmentalists worldwide, these should not be the only conditions under which indigenous protests garner national and international attention. Indigenous sovereignty is an end in itself – not just another means for non-indigenous people to get what they want on the backs of North America’s Native American population. So if you care about the fate of polar bears, there is no excuse not to care about Standing Rock. But even without the environment in the balance, indigenous sovereignty is a cause worth fighting for.