By Natalie Shanklin and Ramya Vijayagopal
After months of protesting at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, members of the Sioux tribe and their allies won a victory Dec. 4, when the United States Army Corp of Engineers announced it would seek alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The decision ruled that the pipeline would no longer be constructed just upstream from the reservation, where it could pollute the drinking water and cross burial grounds. Though President-elect Donald Trump could reverse this decision, the victory represents the power of grassroots blockades, especially when able to garner support on an international scale. (To see a timeline of the events at Standing Rock, click here.)
Members of the Ithaca College community have voiced their support for protesters at Standing Rock. IC Progressives organized an educational event Nov. 30 about taking environmental and indigenous rights action. Around 60 people attended.
The event featured a panel moderated by IC Progressives Chairwoman Catherine Proulx and was made up of Victor Lopez-Carmen and Summer Lewis, both seniors and Native American tribe members, senior and environmental activist Joshua Enderle and history professor Michael Smith. They each offered their own insights, touching on the environmental, historical, political and indigenous rights aspects of the Standing Rock issue.
Following Smith’s presentation on the history of Standing Rock and the environmental injustice toward Native American peoples and poor communities of color, much of the conversation focused on the intersectionality of the issue and how to support the protesters both on site and from afar.
Lopez-Carmen said he is frustrated by supporters focusing solely on the environmental aspect of the issue rather than its impact on indigenous people.
“One of the tendencies that I see that’s pretty problematic is that people like to focus almost entirely on the environmental side without recognizing colonialism,” he said. “You’re on Native American land that was taken unjustly. Colonialism is the reason why this environmental degradation is occurring. Instead of focusing on the environmental issues, instead of asking, ‘How is this going to impact environment?’ — no, why is this happening and why is it happening to Native Americans?”
Lopez-Carmen also said he has seen that many white supporters have gone to Standing Rock for a cultural experience rather than an activist one.
“It’s very strange to me that they would want to go there to have a cultural experience, because we’ve been having this experience for five hundred years, fighting for our lands, and it’s not really our culture,” he said. “When we developed our culture we didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to put our lives on the line to fight white people for our land.’ I don’t know what culture they’re experiencing.”
Lopez-Carmen and Lewis said this mentality leads white supporters to feel like saviors of indigenous peoples.
“You’re not just going there to stop a pipeline that could pollute the water,” Lewis said. “You’re going there to help a people who has time and time again been oppressed by the exact same entity that is trying to oppress them right now. And it’s about aiding them. It’s not about saving them.”
Faith Meckley, an environmental activist and former Ithaca College student, protested at Standing Rock for about a week before the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision. She wrote of her experience in an Instagram post.
“Imagine a place where people from many backgrounds come together and get along and are open to learning about each other. A place that is indigenous centered and where white people do not take over and control, but instead listen and serve the greater good of the camp. A place where everyone works their fair share, and if you have a need, it is met. … That place is Standing Rock.”
Standing Rock has drawn many people like Meckley from around the country. This networking aspect of grassroots environmental movements has become increasingly common across the globe, according to Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything. Klein defines this phenomenon, which she says is “deeply rooted in specific geographies but networked globally as never before,” as Blockadia, a term originally coined by protesters fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas in 2011–12, which was rejected by President Barack Obama in 2015.
Klein argues that Blockadia is more than just an environmental movement, but rather a movement that reaches the root of environmental issues, which she says is global capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels and extraction of nonrenewable resources that pollute the planet.
“Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen,” Klein wrote in her book. “And perhaps this phenomenon shouldn’t even be referred to as an environmental movement at all, since it is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival—the health of the water, air, and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes in progress.”
Movements similar to the one in Standing Rock have taken place around the world. In a forest area in Greece, local communities protested. A Canadian mining company’s plan to clear out trees and construct a gold and copper mine. A farming village in Romania stood up against Chevron’s plans to launch the country’s first shale gas exploration well. Blockades like these have popped up in Nigeria, Ecuador, India, China, Canada and France among other nations. According to Klein, these localized movements, begun largely by community members being directly impacted by corporate projects, are communicating with each other. For instance, communities in France attempting to protest hydraulic fracturing got into contact with French-speaking activists in Quebec who had already successfully won a moratorium against the practice.
“One battle doesn’t rob from another but rather causes battles to multiply, with each act of courage, and each victory, inspiring others to strengthen their resolve,” Klein wrote.
Klein places an emphasis on the importance of indigenous communities when it comes to these networked environmental movements. She describes a demonstration that took place in 2012 in the Indian Reserve Community of Bella, Bella, British Columbia against a pipeline construction project similar to that in Standing Rock. She says that native peoples’ deep connections with their land provides perhaps the most convincing argument against harmful corporate projects.
“When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip,” Klein wrote. “And though this kind of a connection to a place is surely strongest in Indigenous communities where the ties to the land go back thousands of years, it is in fact Blockadia’s defining feature.”
Environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben also said in an opinion piece in The Guardian that indigenous populations have been crucial to the global climate movement and provide hope for the future.
“Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia,” McKibben wrote. “If we manage to slow down the fossil fuel juggernaut before it boils the planet, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth will deserve a great share of the credit. … In the Dakotas it’s been particularly special: they’ve managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist. Persist, perhaps, even in the face of the new Trump administration.”