One week after the election, when the world felt thick with despair, I spoke on the phone to LaDonna Allard. It was a jolt. Allard is the co-founder of the Sacred Stone Camp, on the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation in North Dakota, where water protectors have been gathered since April to block Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access pipeline. I was writing an article about how the Trump administration might bolster the pipeline and undercut the movement blossoming in her backyard. Was she worried?
“No,” she spat, like a sillier question had never been posed. This was a radical departure from the foreboding I had encountered in everyone else for a week. “We’ve been fighting the US government since they stepped onto our country,” she said. “We’ve never had a voice, but we’ve always been protecting our resources and standing up for our water. Nothing changes.”
This was a reminder that, while the election ushered in a new political order, much of what awaits us—the attacks on civil liberties, the repression of political dissent, and the rollback of legal and regulatory protections for ordinary people against corporations—is old for communities like Standing Rock. What can we learn from their struggle? Bombarded for months with tear gas, sound cannons, rubber bullets, and water hoses (often in freezing temperatures, no less), the camp at Standing Rock grew from around 10 in April to thousands by fall. They transformed what might have otherwise been a remote, invisible, rural struggle into national headline news.
The camp has been called the largest gathering of Native Americans in recent history, mobilizing many who had never before been part of a political movement, and drawing urban supporters nationwide—native and non-native—to their cause. In December, the Obama administration finally succumbed to the pressure, denying Energy Transfer the permit to drill under the Missouri River near the reservation. This had been the tribe’s main concern: The crossing threatened their water supply, and that of many others.
The political landscape is about to change: The Trump administration has promised to target native reservations for their oil and gas reserves, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, and push through a range of new pipelines, including Keystone XL. This will undoubtedly make the work of indigenous and environmental activists more difficult. And at a time when climate scientists say that limiting global temperature increases to internationally agreed-upon levels will require keeping all remaining oil reserves in the ground, this is also a hard shove toward climate disaster. But whatever the fate of the pipeline or the movement, it would be a mistake not to count Standing Rock’s achievements as victories.
In the wake of the election, liberals and leftists have been debating whether racial divisions fractured the working class and handed victory over to a racist demagogue. But I’m more interested in another question: What is there to learn, for our next four years, from a struggle rooted in native leadership and native rights, which also fought to protect the environment on behalf of all Americans? What can be gleaned from a movement that won at virtually the same moment that progressives lost?