The Meaning of Armored Vehicles Rolling Toward Standing Rock
Wednesday, 05 October 2016 00:00
By Jenni Monet, YES! Magazine | News Analysis
When opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline galvanized the support of
hundreds of US tribes, it became an unprecedented show of Indian Country
unity and resolve.
Now, it's a global indigenous movement.
Members of tribal communities from around the world have joined in
activism led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A Sami group from Norway
was the latest to arrive on Friday. This resistance campaign, many say,
has emerged as part of a greater global crisis -- a united struggle in
which indigenous lands, resources, and people are perpetually threatened
by corporations and governments often using military force. Integral to
this shared narrative is the routine ignoring of treaties.
In their continued struggle, the Lakota Sioux are advancing an
Indigenous agenda that calls for governments to acknowledge the unique
and inherent rights of First Peoples.
While Indigenous Peoples reflect only about 5 percent of the world's
population, they represent roughly 15 percent of the global poor. With
the exception of majority populations in places like Bolivia and
Guatemala, Indigenous Peoples are typically the minority in their
But they have land. And their tribal territories are among the
healthiest ecosystems on the planet -- and under constant threat from
mining, logging, and dam and oil development.
"There is a tremendous awareness from Indigenous Peoples regarding
what's happening at Standing Rock," said Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of
the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program at Columbia University. "The
Native Americans there are struggling and are connected to the whole
world and a solidarity of rights."
Lack of sovereignty is the biggest problem confronting Indigenous
Peoples worldwide. And the fact that Indigenous Peoples are having a
moment in the ancestral territory of the Great Sioux Nation is both
symbolic and historically relevant.
"Wounded Knee! This is where our movement all started," said
Stamatopoulou. The human rights expert became the first chief of the
secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
She recounted the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation about 330 miles south of Standing Rock.
The intense 71-day standoff led by the American Indian Movement (AIM)
was a call to end internal corruption on the reservation and to expose
the US government's failure to uphold its treaty obligations. AIM
activists took their case to the United Nations, but the UN failed to
observe the Oglala Sioux as sovereign. According to Stamatopoulou, this
rejection began a decades-long process by Indigenous Peoples worldwide
to demand recognition of their rights as self-determined nations within
Today on the Dakota prairie, the images captured from the ongoing
occupation near Standing Rock are not unlike scenes depicted from
Wounded Knee more than 40 years ago.
Although construction of the Dakota Access pipeline is at a partial
legal impasse, tension keeps building. An increased militarized response
to the activism has dominated the demonstrations. Both sides have
accused the other of using coercive measures. Law enforcement claim
prayer protesters are armed.
What's reflected is a power struggle over resource extraction and energy
projects most often linked to developing countries.
Last Wednesday, armored vehicles rolled onto the North Dakota prairie in
response to a group of people gathered to protest the pipeline. At one
point, police in riot gear aimed their guns at the demonstrators. Morton
County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier defended the action, alleging a protester
on horseback had charged at an officer. The tension, streamed live on
Facebook, has since been viewed more than a million times. Twenty-one
people were arrested that day, and, according to the sheriff's
department, the total number of arrests has reached nearly 100 since the
protests first began.
Progress of the global Indigenous rights movement has been celebrated,
but slow. Details behind the dangers linked to defending lands and
natural resources are only starting to enter American news feeds.
According to a recent study by the nonprofit Global Witness, nearly
two-thirds of the 185 activists murdered last year -- a rate of roughly
three deaths a week -- were Indigenous activists. The study also found
that among the deadliest places in which to defend the Earth are the
Philippines, Colombia, and Brazil.
In Honduras, prominent environmentalist Berta Cáceres was murdered last
March. The 44-year-old mother and nonprofit organizer was shot dead in
her home. Her last days were marked with danger and threats: give up the
fight against the Agua Zarca Dam, or else.
"For those of us who are in the struggle, it's seen as a crime to fight
for Indigenous rights, to defend territory, to demand any sort of
justice," explained Cáceres back in January.
I had spent time with Cáceres weeks before her assassination. She
introduced me to the Lenca community that had been fighting for years to
protect the Gualcarque River from multinational dam development.
The battle was one Cáceres referred to simply as "the struggle."
"So then the struggle... well, that brings repression and that brings
threats, and I think that affects every element of our daily lives," she
In early September, images of Cáceres started turning up at the center
of the Sacred Stone Camp, the main site where hundreds of people have
gathered since April to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline.
In recent weeks, Indigenous Peoples from around the world have journeyed
to the windswept plains of North Dakota to stake flags in the ground
along with those of tribal nations from across the US
A delegation from the Sarayaku tribe in the Ecuadoran Amazon arrived at
the encampment bearing gifts. Tribal leader Franco Viteri offered
Standing Rock's tribal chairman, Dave Archambault II, a traditional
headdress that he wore during talks held inside a teepee.
"We are here to globalize the resistance to oil," Viteri said.
The Sarayaku have fought and won against oil development on their own
ancestral lands before. The visitors said their journey to Standing Rock
was meant to lend strength to the overall Indigenous movement.
"The world needs us right now," said Sarayaku delegate Nina Gualinga.
"The statistics say we are 4 percent of the population, but we are
protecting more than 80 percent of the world's biodiversity."
Community organizer Alice Mathew, an Indigenous woman from Malaysia, was
among the first to amplify Standing Rock's struggle on an international
scale. At a September 7 town hall meeting in Laos, she dedicated her
one exchange with President Obama to ask him directly about the Dakota
"I wanted to do something -- like in solidarity for Standing Rock,"
Mathew said in a Skype interview from Indonesia.
She said the protests near the reservation reminded her of a situation
near her home community of Kota Kinabalu on the Malaysian island of
Borneo. There, the Indigenous Dusun people are fighting the Kaiduan Dam.
The development would provide water and power to nearby cities while
displacing as many as 2,000 Dusun from their six villages. Just as the
Lakota Sioux have claimed they weren't properly consulted about the
pipeline, the Dusun say they also weren't adequately informed about the
dam. Meanwhile, they're insisting that an environmental assessment take
place, a step advocates of Standing Rock have called for as well.
"Their needs are being put last," said Mathew. "It's like all the
development of all the people are at the expense of Indigenous People's
It's why Mathew said she chose to ask President Obama how he would
ensure that drinking water is protected for Standing Rock. Until that
point, Obama had been silent on the issue.
"I'd have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this
one," replied the president.
Two days later, it appeared that the president had consulted with his
staff. On September 9, the Obama Administration intervened in a federal
court ruling. A section of pipeline construction along the Missouri
River was paused.
According to Dakota Access, the $3.8 billion project is more than 60
percent complete. Meanwhile, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues
its suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers for permitting the
project in the first place. Among the tribe's complaints is that the
pipeline could environmentally damage ancestral lands. While the
pipeline does not cross the reservation, it would burrow 92 feet below
Standing Rock's primary water supply, the Missouri River, which sits
less than a mile north of the tribal boundary. Additionally, the tribe
claims that ceremonial prayer sites and burial grounds have already been
On September 20, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe took its fight to stop
construction of the pipeline to the United Nations Human Rights Council
in Geneva, Switzerland.
Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II addressed the 49-member council in
traditional headdress and a charcoal gray suit. A beaded Lakota
medallion hung from his neck. In his two-minute testimony, Archambault
asked the human rights body to join Standing Rock in stopping the
pipeline in its path.
"The oil companies have failed, and the government of the United States,
have failed to respect our sovereign rights," Archambault read from his
The chairman spoke during the UNHRC's regular session on Indigenous
rights. The forum featured testimony from more than two dozen
representatives from around the world -- places like the Philippines,
Ukraine, Sudan, and Brazil.
There was a unifying theme: direct encroachment on their indigenous
lands and lives by corporations and governments.
"To see tribes from all over the world who are having the same
experiences -- it was powerful to see that we aren't alone in our
struggle," Archambault said.
With its appearance at the United Nations, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
is appealing to rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The human rights document is a culmination
of Indigenous rights and advocacy more than 25 years in the making. A
cornerstone to the UNDRIP is the government obligation of "free prior
and informed consent." Reference to this consultation process is
repeated several times in the UNDRIP and is at the center of grievances
made by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Of course, consultation and consent are different ideas.
And while the US government understands that meaningful consultations
must take place with tribal leaders, the State Department points out
there is no implication that "the agreement of those leaders" must
happen before such actions as energy development can occur.
In this way, for all its empowering language about rights for Indigenous
Peoples, governments have for some time brushed off the UNDRIP as
nothing more than a symbolic or aspirational idea. Whatever action stems
from the human rights agenda is not legally binding.
So while action at the UN may not solve Standing Rock's legal case or
even prompt the Obama Administration to take direct action to
permanently stop the Dakota Access pipeline, there is agreement that the
more this global stage is used to assert Indigenous rights, the better
Indigenous Peoples are for it.
It's an important source of influence and context, according to Chairman
Archambault. "If it's working with the administration, with Congress,
with other nations, we have to continue to look at different approaches
to reach our end goal," Archambault said.
"We're doing everything we can to heighten awareness."
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