Political Interlude: Standing Rock, Malheur, and the Long Shadow of Colonialism

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Even amid the flurry of efforts to promote my first book, even amid the roar of the election season and its various outrages, Standing Rock has been on my heart and mind. Standing Rock, a shorthand term for the largest Native American act of resistance since Wounded Knee, and one of the largest climate actions in history.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, which many have termed the “sequel” to the Keystone XL, is a 1,172-mile conduit slated to carry crude oil from North Dakota to southern Illinois–directly under the Missouri River, and across the watersheds the Standing Rock Sioux tribe uses for drinking water.

Permits were filed for the pipeline and alternative routes considered–including one that would have taken the pipeline much closer to Bismarck. That route was abandoned because of concerns for its citizens’ health and well-being, and–in a turn of events that will surprise no one of even passing acquaintance with the term “environmental racism”–the route deemed acceptable for the pipeline ran through the home of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Earlier this year, the tribe brought suit against Energy Transfer Partners, claiming that the pipeline could threaten their sole water source, and that they were not properly consulted before the pipeline was approved.

The claim that the pipeline could pollute the tribe’s source of drinking water–and that of 17 million other people–is not even one that the legal system seems to take seriously, as far as I can tell, despite recent spills by similar pipelines in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania–the latter in watersheds that will directly impact one of the most ecologically fragile rivers in the country, the Susquehanna.

The claim that the pipeline would impact sacred sites, however, is one that comes with some real legal teeth, and in early September, the tribe submitted documents that certified that the pipeline will pass through and likely destroy Native burial sites–including a large stone feature that depicted the constellation Iyokaptan Tanka (the Big Dipper), a sign that a major leader, likely a highly respected chief, was buried nearby.

These newly discovered finds may no longer even actually exist, because less than 24 hours after evidence of the new sacred sites were provided to the court, Dakota Access began construction on those same exact sites. It’s an act that some have called–justifiably, I think–a hate crime.

Not surprisingly, thousands of Native Americans from tribes all over the country responded to the call to join the “water protectors” in the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux. They gathered at one of the most controversial sections of the proposed pipeline’s path to stage a 24/7 protest, and the response by local law enforcement was not pretty: In early September, private security forces and attack dogs were brought in, and a tribe spokesman told the AP that six people were bitten, including a child.

Ever since, my Facebook feed has been blowing up with news of Standing Rock. This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that I’m a graduate of Prescott College (“for the Liberal Arts and the Environment”) and the environment has been one of my main areas of focus as a writer, through both nonfiction and fiction, for the last 15 years.

My old friend Heather Coleman joined a group of native activists in making the trip from New Orleans to North Dakota to “stand with Standing Rock,” as have journalists like Amy Goodman and Deia Schlosberg–both of whom have been charged with felonies by local law enforcement officials, in a blatant violation of their First Amendment rights.

Other activists, from the Pacific Northwest, all of them over 50, staged a shutdown of all of the pipelines currently bringing crude oil over the US–Canadian border, in an act of solidarity with Standing Rock. And last week, in a page straight out of my own novel, Hot Season, someone–or some group–appears to have set fire to $2 million worth of Energy Transfer’s construction equipment.

Many would decry this as a violent act, out of keeping with the spirit of this peaceful protest, which has largely consisted of prayer vigils. But when every legal means of resistance has been tried and has failed–and when the fate of future generations hangs in the balance, in a way that even the U. S. Army and NASA are taking steps to prepare for–I find it unsurprising that some individuals would resort to illegal means.

Actor and activist Robert Redford points out that the Dakota Access Pipeline itself is fully legal, having gained all the appropriate permits through the Army Corps of Engineers. “But if this is legal,” he says, “one must seriously question the laws of the land. They are laws that prioritize the profits of energy companies over the rights of people who actually have to live on the land, drink its water, and eat its food.”

Now, just yesterday, we’ve received word that the Bundy brothers–a group of armed white men who occupied Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife refuge last year by force–have been found not guilty of “conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their jobs,” which is apparently the strongest charge that could be leveled at these self-styled “patriots,” who have refused to pay the $20 million they owe the federal government in back taxes for the right to graze cattle on public lands.

In this extreme conjunction of historical events, I believe, lies an unpopular truth of this country: While we purport to love freedom and support the rights of the individual to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” that freedom has always been for the few at the expense of the many, and those few, for the most part, are, and always have been, white males with capital.

The Bundy brothers occupied public lands to protest an infringement on their perceived right to profit from our shared natural resources. The Standing Rock Sioux are occupying private land along the pipeline route to protest an infringement of what most of us, in this day and age, would deem a real right: the right to water. The right to live.

Dakota Access’s private security forces–and law enforcement officials, across state lines, highly militarized–have responded with a fervor that can’t help but signal real rage, to the point of using pepper gas, rubber bullets, and tasers, and even shooting protesters’  horses. It’s the rage of powerful white males defending their perceived right to personal profit via our shared natural resources.

In both cases, the men with capital are the ones being given a pass. Because that’s the way it has always been in this country–just look at Donald Trump, a white man born to privilege who advocates violence against people of color, sexual assault against women, has been sued more times than imaginable (and whose three debate performances make George W. Bush look downright eloquent).

This is what white privilege looks like. This is what entitlement by the moneyed elite looks like. This is, quite simply, colonialism, and at this point in history, it’s killing us.

Bill McKibben notes that colonialism is “the reason that Native Americans live confined to bleak reservations in vast stretches of the country that no one thought were good for much of anything else” in the first place. He goes on to say that “those areas—ironically enough—now turn out to be essential for the production or transportation of the last great stocks of hydrocarbons, the ones whose combustion scientists tell us will take us over the edge of global warming.”

On that account, I can’t help but feel that Van Jones is the one who has spoken most clearly by asking, “What did you expect when you dug up so much death?”

It’s not surprising that those white, property-owning males at the top of our current economic order are incensed at the prospect of change. But this is no longer an ideological debate, about how we should treat those people who stand in the way of profit, about the way we treat our shared natural resources. It is now a matter of life and death, for our children and for this planet.

Today, reports that thousands of American bison have been sighted at a Dakota Access protest site went viral–and while the images that have accompanied this report appear to be inaccurate, reports of this appearance by those on the ground there apparently are not.

Friends, let us gather courage in this time of reckoning. Let us stand together to resist what Van Jones termed the “death economy” of late capitalism–which is no more than the long shadow of colonialism.

Yes, this is a moment of reckoning for us as a nation, an opportunity to take a long, hard look at what got us where we are. But let us not forget the other America–the one that has risen up again and again to resist oppression by the moneyed male elite. These are the grassroots movements for women’s suffrage, for the forty-hour work week–for civil rights, and for LGBTQ rights.

Once again, that America is rising, and as an matter of both faith and necessity, I believe we will succeed.

Breaking news on Standing Rock: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2016/10/27/manning-desecration-mace-and-police-snipers-rifles-dapl-front-lines-166245

A history of the protest: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/09/dakota-access-pipeline-protest-timeline-sioux-standing-rock-jill-stein

More on the Malheur occupation: http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.5/the-darkness-at-the-heart-of-malheur?utm_source=wcn1&utm_medium=email

More info on Hot Season: http://susandefreitas.com/books/

“Hot Season, Susan DeFreitas’s finely wrought debut novel, explores the charged terrain where the youthful search for identity meets environmental activism and the romantic, illicit lure of direct action.”
—Cari Luna, author of The Revolution of Every Day

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