Lessons and Unlearning on Resistance and Regeneration in Standing Rock

By Leah Atwood, Director of Programs and Partnerships

As many already know, but perhaps not enough, Standing Rock is not about white people’s experiences or an opportunity to promote the work of organizations in the nonprofit sphere. So I will try not to do that. Instead, I aim to share what I learned that can be useful to amplify awareness and action. Standing Rock is about a more recent and visible movement to protect sacred land and water, led by many courageous native peoples who have spent hundreds of years doing exactly this. Over 300 tribes have gathered around the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to stop Sunoco Logistics and Energy Transfer Partners from desecrating ancestral lands and drilling under the Missouri River to transport oil in the Dakota Access Pipeline. To learn more about Standing Rock from the people on the frontline and how to best support it, I recommend researching the many indigenous voices writing, speaking and sharing their perspectives, some of which can be found at the Oceti Sakowin website, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Standing Rock Youth’s Rezpect Our Water.

Now that the Obama administration has delayed the construction by denying the easement and winter has intensified, many people have moved on to other things. I am continuously surprised when I hear that the fight is over and the protectors accomplished their goal. Although the denial succeeded in slowing the process and acknowledging the protectors, it can also serve as a temporary stall tactic to distract and fragment organizers. We need to stay engaged.

When I went to Standing Rock in November with a group of over 25 dedicated and well-organized Bay Area comrades, uplifted by our community to bring supplies and help winterize, I saw the seven principles of the Lakota: prayer, respect, honesty, compassion, wisdom, generosity and humility reflected and exemplified in daily events, from the sunrise ceremonies to the direct actions led in prayer to the meal sharing. I was shaken at a core level – humbled and invigorated by the courage and dedication despite ongoing human rights abuses. These included being shot at close range with rubber bullets, being beaten, attacked by dogs, pepper-sprayed and doused by water cannons in freezing temperatures. It was a small glimpse into the ongoing struggle of native communities protecting the earth in the face of persisting colonization and violence. I saw and felt the power of the prayerful actions affecting hearts and minds- during one of the ceremonies at Turtle Island, three of the 20 police officers took off their masks and lowered their heads during the prayer. There was and is so much to learn. Our group worked to contribute by collecting donations to bring supplies, constructing lodging and two 10-person tents with heating stoves to provide warm space for native elders and veterans, participating in ceremony, direct actions and more. I left feeling no matter how much we contributed, we gained more than we could ever bring.

Sadly, I also saw well-intentioned non-Native folks, who came without adequately preparing for the conditions or understanding how to enter in a respectful way and ended up burdening the camp. What I saw ranged from not bringing enough supplies , to inserting opinions on actions, to not respecting ceremonial spaces. One night at 11pm , even though the daily orientation meetings clearly explained the intention to honor native cultures( including refraining from playing music) one nearby campsite burst out in boisterous song- Bohemian Rhapsody . I listened to three bellowing verses in disbelief before reluctantly crawling out of my sleeping bagto say something . As I unzipped my tent I heard someone else address the situation first. After being told why, the group realized it was inappropriate and disrespectful, and agreed to attend the orientation in the morning. I realized I had hesitated too long- this was a exemplary moment where it was the responsibility of white accomplices to intervene and support the unlearning, compassionately and as quickly as possible.

My hope as a white person is that I can be of service by listening to indigenous leadership and increase the engagement of non-native folks to support these voices and actions that have been violently silenced for centuries. I aspire to help build momentum by activating the people I am in relationship with to support #NoDAPL by writing letters, making calls, showing up to actions, boycotting banks and corporations funding DAPL, staying updated on Standing Rock’s ongoing needs, and to get involved in local native struggles. If you’re in the Bay Area, there are many ongoing efforts including actions to protect the Ohlone Shellmound in Emeryville and the urban indigenous and women-led Sogorea Te Land Trust; I joined their land-tax program. I also recently learned about Rupa Marya’s tireless work helping organize a Mni Wiconi integrative community health clinic with Lakota health leaders which is seeking support.

Coming back to how this newsletter started- when oppression is law, resistance and regeneration is our responsibility. Although we have entered a time of more visible oppression, we know the systemic forces that perpetuate the colonialist, imperialist, white supremacist, neoliberal, extractive patriarchy have been at work for a long time and it’s going to take a groundswell of organizing to build a social movement that can effectively dismantle and shift mainstream values to planet-people-power before profit-power. Fortunately, we have many examples of models already working to follow from the Global South and around the world, including that of Standing Rock. May we better learn from, listen to, and amplify this work for indigenous sovereignty, justice, peace and resilience.

Here is to a 2017 that brings more peace, joy and justice to all.