David J. Silverman is a professor of history.
More than 200 indigenous communities have lent their support to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to the extension of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry an estimated 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day through historic burial grounds, other sacred spaces and sources of drinking water just outside the tribe’s reservation. The visuals of this movement are a striking testimony to the modernity and diversity of Native America. Flags from dozens of tribes line the encampment demonstrators have erected alongside the pipeline construction site. There are people from every walk of life, of all kinds of dress, complexions and hairstyles, just like the Indian country itself. Cars and trucks arrive to deliver supporters from hundreds, even thousands of miles away, while Lakota men circle the camp on horses and Tlingits and Haidas from the Alaskan panhandle canoe in the adjacent Cannonball River. This is a mobilization of modern indigenous people unlike any we’ve seen since at least the Red Power protests of the early 1970s. It might very well be unprecedented.
There is an opportune moment here for GW students and the greater public to confront one of the most stubborn, sinister and widely held prejudices in American life: the insistence that North American Indians are relics of the past. This perspective insists that the only “authentic” Natives are those stuck in some mythical, static Stone Age existence. A double bind results in which indigenous people are destined to disappear either out of refusal to adjust to their circumstances or by losing their Native identity as they change with their times. How then should we understand modern indigenous people defending their particular rights as Indians, not as a means of clinging to the past, but in pursuit of a better future?
For all their diversity, two common causes bind together the indigenous demonstrators. For one, they are committed to tribal sovereignty and the sanctity of their nation to nation relationships with the United States and Canada. Native peoples and their governments have rights recognized by treaty. Though indigenous people living in reservation communities vote in state and national elections, pay federal and some state taxes, are subject to federal law and, it must be emphasized, serve in the American military at a greater rate than any other segment of the population, the tribe is the primary government on the reservation. As the National Congress of American Indians explains, “The essence of tribal sovereignty is the ability to govern and to protect and enhance the health, safety and welfare of tribal citizens within tribal territory.” That is precisely what the leaders of the Standing Rock reservation are doing in opposing the pipeline. Their support from so much of the rest of Native America extends from that principle.
Combatting environmental racism also binds the people together. Ever since the beginning of the reservation period, Indian people have seen white Americans strip their reservations of their most valuable, often sacred, resources, only to be replaced with toxic waste from off-reservation places that has poisoned the land, the water and the people. One can see a similar pattern in American cities too, where oil refineries and superfund sites cluster in communities of poor people of color. This dark legacy is all the more painful because many indigenous people claim a special, sanctified role to care for mother earth and teach the rest of the world to do the same. The people supporting Standing Rock call themselves protectors, not protestors, because they are fighting for their basic rights to clean drinking water, a world free of the pollution of fossil fuels and indigenous self-determination.
Indigenous people have united behind Standing Rock because they recognize that their collective future, as modern Native Americans, depends on their strident defense of tribal sovereignty, natural resources and cultural heritage. In taking a stand for basic human dignity and environmental justice against the forces of corporate greed and racism, they fight for us all.