Indigenous Activists at Standing Rock Told a Deep, True Story

Indigenous Activists at Standing Rock Told a Deep, True Story

Indigenous Activists at Standing Rock Told a Deep, True Story

And that’s why they won at least a temporary victory.


All organizing is story-telling, and the story that got told at Standing Rock was so powerful that ultimately the Obama White House had little choice but to go along.

The decision by the Army Corps of Engineers not to grant the permits necessary for sending the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Missouri River is a tribute to truly remarkable efforts by Indigenous organizers, from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth. It’s also a tribute to the incredible power of civil disobedience, a tool I tried to describe in last week’s print edition of The Nation.

But my analysis pales next to the actual story from the Oceti Sakowin encampment. There, the last few months have unfolded with almost eerie grace, and the textbook on nonviolent action has been revised and illustrated in the process. The highlights include:

  • Remarkable unity. The politics of Indian country is historically fractious, at least on occasion. But this time representatives of more than 200 tribes came together in common purpose on the banks of the Cannonball River. Their flags flew along the dirt road that bisected the camp, and that spirit of unity was palpable. It extended to Indigenous people around the world—yesterday morning, for instance, came word that the Sami people of Norway had helped force that country’s biggest bank to withdraw from financing the project.
  • Remarkable discipline. The Morton County sheriff’s department and other “public safety” agencies devoted themselves to the task of goading the water protectors into violence. They fired beanbag pellets and rubber bullets and concussion grenades, not to mention “sonic cannons” and water cannons and canisters of pepper spray. They were met with prayer, and with strict nonviolence. In the camp, elders made sure that no one went too far with their protests. All of that was essential, because any bad image would have been splashed across the nation’s press, breaking the spell that the activists were casting
  • Remarkable images. Instead, the battle of photos broke decisively the other way. Amy Goodman and her crew from Democracy Now! were on hand the late summer day when a security crew from Energy Transfer Partners unleashed German shepherds on unarmed Native Americans. The pictures were uncannily close to the images that emerged from, say, Birmingham in 1963 at the height of the civil-rights movement. Those pictures helped the world set this fight in context. And the beautiful art that was churned out at the camp workshop almost from day one helped too.
  • Remarkable solidarity. Though the camp at the Cannonball was big—sometimes one of the six or seven biggest cities in North Dakota—only a tiny fraction of the supporters of this cause ever made it there. Yesterday it was veterans flooding in, and the day before that clergy, all of which was crucial. But just as important was the involvement of people around the world, who started figuring out their own actions, closing out accounts in the banks that backed the pipeline or sitting in at Army Corps offices. No one outside the camp tried to lead; everyone did their best to follow. There was little overt choreography, and much spontaneous cooperation.

Taken together, all of that told an irresistible story, of the many and small and courageous against the militarized power of the state. (The local sheriff’s office was driving what were essentially tanks; they constantly bulked up in body armor and balaclavas.) And it played out against the larger story that all Americans know, the story of shame that is the treatment of this continent’s original inhabitants.

The question now is whether similar tactics will be of use against Donald Trump. The answer, in the short term, is maybe and maybe not. Obama did his best to tie the hands of his successor; had they merely rejected the pipeline outright, he would have had a fresh start, but instead there’s an environmental impact review underway now, and with that comes certain legal constraints. Still, it’s entirely possible that Trump will simply sweep all that aside.

If he does, he will take a hit to his popularity—a great many people, even among his ranks, understand that we owe a debt to Native Americans that can’t really be repaid. He will earn the unending enmity of every tribe in the country, and that will haunt his presidency in at least a small way. His racism will be proved. And he will seem the miniature marionette of the mighty oil industry, never a good look.

But if he does approve the pipeline, and the Keystone pipeline, and a dozen other bad things, it’s still not a sign to abandon the fight. Because the real target of activists is always the zeitgeist. Trump rode one zeitgeist wave to power, but the next one, if we can make it build, may wash him back to Mar-a-Lago. Those waves don’t come from “power”—power reckoned that way is almost always in the hands of the wealthy. They come instead from the power of story. No one has ever told a tale truer or deeper than the Standing Rock Sioux.

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