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Quick Thoughts: Elyse Semerdjian on Standing Rock

[A person protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline holds a sign reading [A person protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline holds a sign reading "We can't drink oil! #NoDAPL": taken by Pax Ahimsa Gethen and uploaded from Wikimedia Commons]

[On 4 December 2016, the operators of the North Dakota Access Pipeline were informed they no longer had permission to pursue construction plans under Lake Oahe, the main water source of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The announcement crowned many months of activism led by the inhabitants of Standing Rock, and which garnered growing support and solidarity across the United States and indeed worldwide. Jadaliyya turned to Elyse Semerdjian, currently a visiting fellow at Cornell University, to explain the background, development and implications of this standoff.]

Jadaliyya (J): What precipitated the current crisis at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and what is the status of the contested lands in North Dakota?  

Elyse Semerdjian (ES):  The 1,170 mile long North Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) was planned with the intent of burying a segment under Lake Oahe, the major water supply for the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In Spring 2016, the Mni Wiconi movement, taking its name from a Lakota phrase that means “Water is Life,” emerged to resist the planned route. Water is at the center of the #NoDAPL protest—the pipeline is slated to run under the Missouri River and transport up to 570,000 gallons of fracked crude oil per day when completed.

The planned pipeline also renewed territorial disputes because the state of North Dakota claims the construction is on federal land, while the tribe claims that it belongs to them pursuant to a 1851 treaty. The water protectors have simultaneously argued that a segment of the pipeline’s path passes through a sacred tribal burial site. While the original 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty has been documented in maps, it is noteworthy that media coverage has treated these claims as mere assertions rather than facts grounded in historical documents. The New York Times uses this tentative language while their own maps demonstrate the disputed territory was granted to the Sioux by treaty. I view this as indicative of the ongoing problem of journalists neglecting to fact check authorities. 

Since Spring 2016, the “water protectors” have protested in the town of Canon Ball, North Dakota, less than one mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Using the non-violent tactic of prayer as resistance, they began with a few hundred protesters but quickly snowballed into an encampment of 11,000 protesters from all over the world, including indigenous groups from as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand.

(J): How have Native American communities mobilized to defend their rights, and have they been receiving support from other communities?

(ES): I have been observing the appeals to support Standing Rock via social media over the last three months. When the Morton County Sherriff’s Department began violently attacking the protesters, 1.4 million people “checked in” via Facebook in Canonball, North Dakota, in order to give the impression that they were physically present at the protest site. While the action was ridiculed by many, it was taken with the belief that social media was being used to track activists—something the Morton County Sheriff denied—and that checking in would somehow divert attention from protestors on the ground. From another perspective, it was amazing to witness acts of solidarity and empathy from everyday Americans who were following the events and sought to help in some small way from afar. In addition to small acts of solidarity, social media was used to circulate resources for donations, gofundme sites, and legal charities were created to support arrested protesters. 

Other forms of spiritual resistance were issued when indigenous Maori New Zealanders who traveled to Standing Rock to support protesters performed the haka, an empowering traditional war cry and a conjuring of a tribe’s pride and strength prior to battle, which they performed in front of the militarized police (the national guard was deployed along with local and state police forces). Those Maori who remained home sent video haka ceremonies to empower their indigenous brothers and sisters. Environmental activist Bill McKibben and public intellectual Cornel West visited the site, while celebrities like Shailene Woodley, Jane Fonda, and Mark Ruffalo brought publicity to the protests, and Patricia Arquette used her public standing to fundraise for and install composting toilets to help with sanitation. The camp was also visited by artists, intellectuals, and everyday citizen activists who sought to express solidarity with the protesters and offer assistance by way of support work.

(J): How have the government and security forces responded to the mobilization around Standing Rock?

(ES): Because history is not without irony, around Thanksgiving events heated up at Standing Rock. The militarized police forces—other state and local police forces and the National Guard organized to assist Morton County in subduing the protesters—intensified their attacks against the encampment. Simultaneously, the police claimed that the protesters were using slingshots and throwing rocks, bottles, and bags of urine and feces at them to instigate a violent response. In their attempts to dismantle the expanding encampment, the police deployed weapons against the protestors including the shocking use of water canons in freezing temperatures, a form of torture considering it can induce frostbite and hypothermia. Along with water canons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades hit protesters in the head, eyes, hands, legs, and genitals, prompting a letter of condemnation from the ACLU. In one case Sophia Wilansky, 21 was struck with an explosive device; her father noted, "The force of the explosion blew the bone out of her arm and all of the arteries and all of the muscle that supports her arm. It just blew out.”  It remains uncertain whether Wilansky’s arm will require amputation.

The authorities also cut off access to the site and ordered suppliers in nearby towns not to sell goods to the campers whose actions have cost the pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners, eight million dollars in delays. After the late November Thanksgiving protests, the US federal government ordered the protesters out by 5 December, asserting the authorities would create a “free speech zone” for protesters to dissent at an alternative location.

Last week, a veteran’s group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock dispatched 4,000 indigenous and non-Indian vets to protect the encampment. It is too early to know at this point how significant this deployment was in the stand-off between the government and protestors, but the prospect of police firing on veterans, as they did on protesters, would have certainly cost the police dearly in the court of public opinion which was already swaying in the direction of the “water protectors.”

Finally, on 4 December, just one day before the deadline to dismantle the camp, the Army issued a statement noting it would not grant DAPL’s operators easement for construction, in effect halting the pipeline while promising to reroute its path in light of the protests. The #NoDAPL protestors have declared victory as of this morning.

I am cautiously optimistic about this outcome, because if we consider the broader shared ecology, moving the pipeline will endanger yet another impoverished community in North Dakota. It does not address the larger question of environmental degradation and threat to life posed by our addiction to fossil fuels, which are often masked with nationalist rhetoric about “energy independence,” meaning non-Arab oil. I am nevertheless optimistic about the success Standing Rock offers as a model for other efforts that are well underway, including the long-standing effort to crush the Keystone XL Pipeline that threatens to unleash as much carbon into the atmosphere as the Saudi fields have since its oil boom.  NASA scientist Jim Hansen has argued that the release of carbon from the oil sands in Canada, the target of Keystone XL, would be “game over” for the planet. Canadian First Nations tribes have been at the forefront of efforts to block Keystone XL, but Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, viewed as a progressive in American circles, only last week regressively approved pipeline expansion.

(J): How do these events fit into the broader pattern of relations between the US government and corporate interests, and Native American communities?

(ES): It was perhaps the images of protesters struck with rubber bullets that conjured memories for me of the first intifada where these technologies of violent suppression were innovated. The broader patterns in the global management of dissent are not lost on those of us who have seen them so clearly in the Palestinian case and in the counter-revolutionary tactics used by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East since the Arab Spring.

As for American Indians, as so many protesters pointed out at Standing Rock, they have been resisting colonization for five hundred years and statistics show that Native Americans are disproportionately targeted by police violence. More importantly, as the relevant maps show, treaties have been a basis for negotiating away the land rather than securing it. While so many tribes are simultaneously proud of the sovereignty they gained through these treaties—something that must be acknowledged, since this sovereignty is crucial to the survival of indigenous peoples—post-treaty land and resource loss has also been part of the ongoing experience of colonialization.

I have been thinking about the connection between settler colonialism and environmental contamination for a while now because where I live and work in eastern Washington state something similar happened.  Like Standing Rock, the Treaty of 1855, signed just feet from my campus, Whitman College, relegated the regional tribes in the Oregon Territory to reservations.  Land holdings shrank over time as government expropriation and privatization of land was used to chip away at previously guaranteed sovereign Indian territories.  The treaty also gave the tribes rights to a piece of territory the federal government later expropriated to build the Hanford Nuclear reactor used to build the nuclear bomb that incinerated Nagasaki in 1945. Today, the Hanford Reservation (yes, that is what it’s called) is a “superfund site,” the term used by the US government to describe land that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and slated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for cleanup because it poses a danger to human health and/or the environment.  

The contamination at Hanford has a continuing, invisible impact on indigenous peoples who continue to hunt and forage for sacred “first foods”—wild game, herbs, and roots—collected along the Columbia River basin, an area contaminated  with the billions of gallons of radioactive waste dumped into its banks and the river itself by the federal government.   The tribes have also had a more recent experience in 1999 when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians of Pendleton, Oregon were confronted with natural gas pipeline explosions on their lands. Two pipelines are buried beneath tribal lands. Neither was originally negotiated with the tribe and the pipelines form a lasting legacy of the infringement on their sovereignty.  These are not random occurrences but part of a world view that sees the land as empty wasteland precisely because it is occupied by indigenous people. This is why the DAPL was rerouted to Standing Rock after an earlier proposal routing it near the town of Bismark was rejected, in part, to protect water sources.  The standoff at Standing Rock raises the question, which communities are deserving of clean land and water and which communities are not?

In the 1880s, the Sioux found themselves in the middle of a gold rush which impinged on their access to the land. Perhaps we can think of the DAPL oil pipeline construction as the gold rush of the twenty-first century, as stubborn corporations try to extract the last of that non-renewable resource in order to cash in before it’s gone. What hasn’t been factored in as a cost of doing business is the pollution that comes with corporate greed. All of that operates as another government subsidy to corporations—since the EPA is staffed with representatives of the nation’s most polluting corporations, the penalties remain light relative to profitability. Pollution is underwritten as “free,” yet we know it is not “free” to communities who have to live in a toxic environment and live shorter, less full lives as a result. This is why the Standing Rock water protectors are an inspiration to so many communities who live with toxic or combustible water and live on polluted land. They pay the corporate subsidy with their health.

In future, when we write the history of what is happening at Standing Rock, it is certain that we will need to consider it (1) globally, in view of the ways that the Standing Rock encampment echoed some of the non-violent principles and strategies of Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, and Gezi Park but also innovated on those strategies by bringing spirituality front and center; (2) tactically, and examine the strengths and limitations of non-violent protest against militarized police forces; (3) environmentally, and recognize the leadership role indigenous politics is currently playing within the environmental movement, which has often been liberal and white. What does indigenous political activism mean for the future of environmental activism and the potential for intersectional approaches to global problems?  What ongoing colonial practices are at work with the appropriation of natural resources more broadly within the US (including uses of eminent domain and privatization to expropriate land and water)?  (4) holistically; in light of the disproportionate impact of pollution on the national and global poor, how should we be working to collapse racial and geographical distinctions, such as between urban and rural, in order to further advance environmental activism?

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