Two years after the movement in Standing Rock, questions remain. Where did the movement succeed? Why did it fail? What could have been done differently? Was defeat inevitable? Can we win next time? Through analyzing the struggle, the successes and failures of the movement can be summed up so that successes can be replicated while we avoid repeating the same mistakes.
A little over two years ago, the Sacred Fire at Oceti Sakowin was extinguished after almost a year of open, direct resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The Sacred fire was lit in April of 2016 to mark to beginning of the encampment to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The conflict at Standing Rock was a form of this ongoing struggle for self-determination and political power in the face of continual land grabs, and oppression. At these grounds was a gathering of over three hundred Native nations, the largest gathering since the Sun Dance ceremony of 1876; this prior gathering ended in the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Protest Camp at Standing Rock was eventually cleared and its occupants evicted with an executive order signed by Donald Trump. The deprivation of the land and environmental resources of the Sioux is a part of U.S. ruling class’s efforts to consolidate its domestic energy production. The uprising of Standing Rock was part of the backlash to the U.S.’s strategy of energy development. Many of the participants of this struggle called themselves, “Water Protectors, not protesters,” harkening to the threat to the local water table. The resistance of the Lakota nation served as a beacon, inspiring thousands in the U.S. and internationally. I visited as part of a small group of would be volunteers in November 2016.
The need to develop “Energy Independence” is a crucial aspect of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class’ overall strategy to prevent their global decline. The intensifying inter-imperialist competition with China and Russia is already beginning to challenge the existing international dominance of the United States and its imperialist allies. The strategy of developing domestic energy infrastructure and achieving some sort of “Energy Independence” aims at out-competing and outmaneuvering rival imperialist powers on a series of fronts. Having greater energy independence makes U.S companies and the military less vulnerable to a disruption of energy production and transportation. When the U.S. relied heavily on oil imports from the Middle East, it was vulnerable economically and military to supply disruptions.
By developing domestic energy production, the ruling class in this country aims to secure their interests and protect against attacks from their rivals. This strategy also aims at weakening Russia’s influence in Europe by redirecting Middle Eastern oil and gas to the European market. It has also been crucial for the “Pivot to the Pacific,” initiated by Barack Obama, which aimed to free up U.S. military resources from conflicts in the Middle East and redeploy them in the Pacific to counter the rise of China.
The nature of indigenous reservations makes them unique sites for U.S. internal energy development. As the United States developed, it created native reservations, at the literal periphery of the larger economy. Reservations are generally located far from large population centers as well as centers of commodity production. Native people also have a contradictory relationship with the U.S. state: Indigenous nations are technically sovereign according to U.S. law, and therefore supposedly in control of their own internal affairs.
However, they lack the ability and political power to develop economically in a way that serves the people. Large corporate interests often look at indigenous nations and reservations as much easier targets for exploitation due to their political, social, and economic isolation. The DAPL itself provides an example of how this plays out: The initial plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline was much closer to the city of Bismarck but as public support quickly turned against the pipeline, Dakota Access rerouted the proposed pipeline through Lakota territory.
The Dakota Access Pipeline now passes through territory ceded to the Lakota Nation in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). The pipeline is a part of the Bakken pipeline project, planned by Dakota Access, LLC which is a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistics Partners LP. Energy Transfer Partners announced the pipeline project on June 25, 2014. Since completion, the pipeline has transported crude oil and natural gas from the Bakken Oil FIelds of northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois; crossing North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois and the Missouri River. The pipeline has been commercially operational since June 1st, 2017.
At its peak, 10,000 people gathered at Oceti Sakowin to protest against the DAPL.
At that time of our arrival—before the pipeline had been completed—the population of the camp had grown to almost ten thousand people. I approached Oceti Sakowin as part of a group on the night of November 20th. It was that same night that reports started coming in about a violent clash between the Water Protectors and private and state security forces.
A small group of Water Protectors had begun to gather by the highway early that evening. They had joined together in order to remove an obstruction from the 1806 Highway. The debris itself was actually made of the charred remains of several vehicles, previously owned by Energy Transfer Partners that had been targeted and burned by more radical activists within the encampment.
The wrecked cars had been moved onto the highway by Dakota Access personnel, cutting off the shortest route to Bismarck from the camp. This situation had increased tension between the community of Standing Rock and the protest encampment, because emergency vehicles and commuters had to take a much longer route around the obstruction.
As the debris was being removed from the highway, security forces converged on the location and attempted to clear the crowd. Initially a small group of people had taken it upon themselves to remove the debris, but the commotion attracted even more people from the nearby campsite. In mere minutes, hundreds of people began to gather around the confrontation. The influx of people created intense confusion among the protestors. The police and security forces escalated the situation as they violently clashed with the people.
The police continued trying to clear the crowd. State forces used a high pressure water cannon to disperse the crowd in the freezing temperatures that did not exceed 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Some said that in the freezing weather conditions, water cannons amounted to a lethal weapon. It was also reported that tear gas was mixed in the water, causing irritation and pain, as well as inducing shock in the below freezing temperatures.
This brutal force was accompanied by police firing rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and tear gas canisters into the crowd. One concussion grenade blew up on a woman and destroyed her arm. She was rushed to the hospital, and doctors were able to save the arm but it never regained its function.
During confrontation at Standing Rock, police routinely used military vehciles, concussion grenades, tear gas, and water cannons to attack the protestors.
Roughly 200 people were injured in the confrontation. This was one of many violent attacks by state and private security forces. A previous incident on September 3rd, involved private security using trained attack dogs and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of demonstrators that had gathered around what would be the drill pad on a Sioux cultural site that Dakota Access planned to use to tunnel underneath the Cannonball River. Thirty-six people were injured in that attack by these repressive forces.1
The group that I was a part of entered the area at 11pm on the night of the confrontation. The conflict would continue for another seven hours. In all the chaos, we decided to keep our distance from the camp that first night. We passed the night in Bismarck, one hour north of the camp and returned the following morning. Arriving on the morning of the confrontation felt more like walking into a beehive than a campsite. I entered as part of a column of newcomers streaming into the encampment.
Fresh looking people got out of their vehicles, unloaded gear and supplies, and pitched tents. There was an obvious difference between the newcomers and the folks already in camp. The atmosphere was tense inside the encampment. I saw people huddled around fires or carrying supplies from campsite to campsite. Signs adorned the doors of porta-potties and common areas reading, “Need to talk? Recognize the signs of traumatic stress.”
Within Oceti Sakowin, individual campsites were initially named after the different native nations who had set up at the site. I saw nation after nation staking down posts at different camp sites; Arapaho, Chumash, Paiute, Apache, Tupi. I encountered a Maori man, who had travelled with several comrades from New Zealand in order to perform a Haka (an ancient Maori dance) for the Elders of the Standing Rock band. Sites were not limited to ethnic distinctions but geographical, sexual, and cultural identities; “Queer camp,” “West Coast camp,” “Camp El Salvador.” I saw a wooden sign leaning against teepee that read, “Deaf Camp,” a camp composed of people that cannot hear.
The different encampments had the effect of stratifying the people across varying social/cultural identities. This setup reflected the lack of central organization within the encampment. There was a “Camp California,” populated with people affiliated with different Native Californian tribes, but shortly down the road there was an unrelated “Camp Bay Area” populated mainly with liberal activists.
*A Seattle rally in solidarity with Standing Rock. Similar rallies took place all across the country.(
Campsites had been set up as more people had moved into the area in a disorganized fashion. This gave areas of Oceti the appearance of a fairground, with colorful signage dotting wide areas of ground. Bulletin boards around the camp were filled with postings about meetings around camp. I followed one posting to a training on direct action and civil disobedience facilitated by volunteers from several nonprofit organizations.
I spent the next few days asking around for information. The encampment lacked central organization or any semblance of a “plan.” The atmosphere was buzzing with activity. Cars, people, dogs, ATVs and flatbed trucks pulsed across its crisscrossed network of dirt foot paths and roads. Dwellings sprawled across the valley, hugging the foothills and creeping towards the frozen bank of the Cannonball River. However, without any centralized plan, it seemed more like frantic and directionless activity than a concerted effort capable of stopping the pipeline.
The occupants of the encampment were drawn from many other struggles in the U.S. One man’s words stood out to me, “We fought the oil companies over in Philadelphia and we lost. I came to Standing Rock to win.” I got this impression when I spoke to people, that what was going on was important. It permeated the attitudes of people there. People had the sense that the struggle at Standing Rock was somehow different, that it had significance for so many struggles and that people flocked toward this place as a source of hope. That with so much attention being focused on that place, people were asking, very seriously, “Maybe we can win?”
And by traveling there from so far away, many were asking other questions, “What does this mean for my future?” The conflict at Standing Rock was very significant to such a broad section of people. This speaks to the need for mass resistance be connected to larger issues and surrounding struggles.
This solidarity is vital to the longevity of any resistance and it shouldn’t be confined to liberal notions of ‘allyship.’ Allyship is based on the idea that folks that have some kind of ‘privilege’ owe it to those being directly oppressed to ‘donate’ their time or resources to them. A good ‘ally’ will donate their time and resources and listen, uncritically to established channels of leadership claiming to represent all of those being oppressed.
There is a need to work to struggle against the various forms of oppression in our society, and for oppressed people to be forefront of this struggle. However, the idea of allyship is quick to uncritically accept the existing leaders of oppressed groups as the legitimate representatives of those groups, when in fact, many of these leaders do not serve the people they claim to represent. This is particularly clear in the indigenous communities in this country, when many official tribal leaders work hand-in-glove with the U.S. state and big corporations.
Some at Standing Rock pointed out that given that the police and security forces were so willing to break the law when attacking protestors, it was unlikely that a lawsuit alone would be able to stop the pipeline.
In order to advance the struggle for the interests of the people we need to struggle not only against the U.S. government and the corporate interests that it serves, but also against the opportunist leadership —including amongst oppressed groups—which aims to capitulate in the struggle. Unfortunately, this point was not clear to most people at the camp.
As my stay progressed it became obvious that among the serious participants, there were many conflicting ideas and attitudes about how to advance the struggle. Much of my early conversations with people focused on the most recent attack by police. I met a young man from Standing Rock who expressed his frustration with many of the attitudes in camp, “I’m angry too! But some of these people, are just unsafe when they go out, north of camp and try to agitate. I know we have to stop the pipeline, but we have the legal process. If we just wait until January 1st, it won’t be profitable for them to continue.”
The man was referring to a contract that Dakota Access had which was supposedly set to expire in 2017; however, this view failed to account for reality that this pipeline was about more than just short-term profit. It was an essential component of the U.S. imperialists’ strategy to develop domestic domestic energy production. Even if Dakota Access lost some profitability by being delayed, there were still large economic and political incentives for the company to press on.
An older Standing Rock native was more pessimistic about the odds of an easy victory, “This whole thing is fucking illegal, every part of it. You know it, I know it, the media knows it, everyone is talking about it, because it’s all fucking illegal. You think they care? How many times have they been fined? Do they even have permits to do any of this construction? No! But here we all are, who is gonna stop ‘em? The police, they just kick our fucking asses, shoot old ladies in the face with rubber bullets, throw tear gas at little kids. You think they just gonna fucking give up come January 1st?”
His opinion represented a lot of the frustration that propelled the establishment of the protest camp in April 2016. What may seem like cynicism, was actually an accurate assessment of the situation. His frustration not only stemmed from the current repression by the state but also his feeling that there was a lack of ability to actually stop the pipeline. Although the encampment had grown significantly, it was highly disorganized. Fundamentally, it was not enough to just “resist,” but it was also necessary to create a strategy that would actually defeat the pipeline. This man had asked a very important question, “Who is gonna stop ‘em?”
Ultimately it is up to the people to find a way to win. In Standing Rock, it wasn’t until a few people came together in resistance that the protest encampment was established. It wasn’t until word spread and the struggle became linked to surrounding native and non-native struggles that it exploded in size. But as the struggle continued, more questions came up that continually confounded participants on the reservation and those that came in solidarity.
Protesters at Standing Rock faced an overwhelming display of military force. In the face of this they had to use a diversity of tactics to advance the struggle.
How can so many people from so many different struggles and cultures work together? What is the relationship between legal and illegal forms of resistance within a single campaign? How does a protest encampment exist with limited support and continue through subzero weather conditions? If people do not believe that a struggle can be won, then it is hard to see a path forward. Many were convinced that the legal struggle was the only way to win. However, even among those that understood that the law would not save them, there was not a clear alternative.
The legal strategy had serious limitations, but, despite these, it had a role in advancing the struggle. The movement had launched several legal challenges that had delayed some construction. However activists within the movement were also engaged in civil disobedience against the pipeline. As the state increased their violent attacks on the people, serious doubts were raised by the participants about their ability to successfully engage in civil disobedience and defend against attacks from repressive forces. What was missing was a strategy that could use all of these tactics, including legal challenges in the court, civil disobedience at the site, and self-defense when the people were attacked by the police and private security.
A strong resistance will use many tools to advance the struggle, but the participants must understand how to use these tactics and how to switch between them when needed. It is also important to keep in mind that most struggles are not quick and easy. The ability of the protest to organize so much different work created many opportunities to expose the actions of Energy Transfer Partners and in turned helped to rally people all over the country to join the movement. However, all these efforts did not coalesce into a unified and organized resistance, leaving the movement increasingly vulnerable to fracturing as tension mounted and other issues presented themselves.
One of the central conflicts within the movement was the political differences between the formal tribal leadership and the participants within the protest encampment. The camp was united in the fact that the Pipeline should not exist, but beyond that there was little agreement or discussion of the issues needed to advance this fight.
One of the few points of unity was the belief in taking directions from indigenous leadership; however, this leadership was itself very divided. This created a situation in which various non-profits took over a tremendous amount of the day-to-day operations of the encampment. This in turn put them in a position to promote passive and legal tactics of resistance as the only way forward. They also stressed the need to subordinate the movement to decisions made by the federally recognized tribal leadership.
The movement at Standing Rock began as a protest led by Sioux youth.
The official tribal leadership was distinct from both the non-elected cultural leadership and from the initial group of activists that established the encampment. It is important to understand that the federally recognized tribal leadership had a different political position than the majority of the occupation.
It was the tribe’s youth that began the encampment and they had been the most clear on the need to resist the encroachment of business interests and police violence. A small group of young people, all under the age of 25, had come together found the One Mind Youth Movement (OMYM).2 The OMYM was a loose group of young people who worked to support other Sioux youth through battling poverty, drug addiction, and suicide. What began as raising money to send groups of teenagers to film festivals, to see the ocean for the first time, and establishing youth group homes, became more politicized after November 2015 when Energy Transfer Partners began their scheme to build their pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation. In April 2016, fewer than a dozen OMYM members formed a small “prayer camp” on the north end of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
I heard native youth complain that many of the tribal leaders choose to live in Bismarck rather than the less developed Reservation. The tribal leadership had worked to turn the struggle into a spectacle while opposing those who called for further militant action against the DAPL. This tension between militant and more passive resistors eventually splintered the struggle. A month after my visit the Red Warrior Society announced they would be departing Oceti Sakowin, and they specifically cited the animosity of tribal government and prominent government officials as the key reason for their departure. The Red Warrior Society is a loose organization of activists that believed in resisting the construction of the Pipeline by whatever means at their disposal and had been linked to several instances of sabotages and direct actions against the construction of the DAPL.
In a press statement published in December 2016, the Red Warrior Society stated, “Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Chairman Dave Archambault has made it abundantly clear that a diversity of tactics in the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline is not respected nor wanted. We have this to say: without the courage and the actions of those who actually put their minds, bodies, and spirits in harm’s way the pipeline would be built. Without the Warriors who locked down and took measures to put a stop to the work on DAPL, the black blood would already be flowing under the Missouri river. The encampment itself would not even be here right now. The hard work of the Warriors has cost ETP millions, we have struck the Black Snake a deadly blow.”3
The Red Warrior society was particularly critical of the way in which the official tribal leadership sold out the struggle.
While the Tribal leadership stressed continued, “civil dialogue” between Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock Tribe, the Red Warrior Society pushed almost entirely for illegal action against the pipeline. The Red Warrior Society was unable or unwilling to work with a broad section of the encampment that was not willing to participate in legal work. In such a complicated situation, that included such a broad array of people, to refuse to work with folks who also did legal work created serious limitations. This not only led to confusion but also ultimately isolated the Red Warrior Society and limited opportunities to use both tactics. There was a need to expose the fact that without organized resistance the pipeline would be constructed and to simultaneously demonstrate that even groups with different political stances can work together in the struggle.
Around this same time there was a popular viral video of a native elder in full tribal regalia speaking on the need to support the encampment. This video came up in conversation with a member of the Standing Rock reservation and he was sharply critical: “You think that man just dresses like that? No, of course not, he wears fucking jeans and a t-shirt like the rest of us, but when the camera comes on, he puts on our culture, when its to perform for outsiders, he puts on that costume.” This primary focus on presentation of the movement to outsiders was central in the Standing Rock Tribal leadership’s ultimate decision to demand that the entire camp vacate Lakota territory.
In January of 2017, the Tribal Council of the Standing Rock reservation voted unanimously to ask the protesters to leave. The council cited the need to open the Backwater Bridge on N.D. Highway 1806 in order to assuage concerns from the residents of Standing Rock and the need to ‘normalize’ relations between the State and the Standing Rock Reservation. The irony being that protesters had made several attempts to reopen Highway 1806, all of which had been thwarted by Law Enforcement and Dakota Access personnel in violent confrontations.
Additionally the Tribal Council stressed the need to pursue legal pathways as they prepared to demand that the pipeline resistors abandon their struggle. This sentiment was echoed by supporters of the tribal council, one of whom stated, “I truly believe we have to have faith in the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement to be conducted on the Dakota Access Pipeline)…Everything we did here is going to keep going.” A year after these statements were made, not only was the pipeline completed but it had already experienced five spills.4
One spectator at the Standing Rock city council spoke against the actions of the Tribal Council, “I do not think all these people should be asked to go home when they fought for you guys, they fought for me, fought for my children, fought for your guys’ children…I feel sending these people home is wrong.”5
When the National Guard and local Sheriff evicted the camp at Standing Rock, they did so at gun point, threatening with deadly force even those who were praying.
Within three months, the population of the protests camps would decrease from almost 10,000 to less than a hundred. On February 23rd, 2017, the National Guard and local law enforcement evicted the remaining occupants, and thirty-six people were arrested.
The question remains: In a chaotic, inspirational, and ultimately tragic situation, how can people come together and actually be victorious? While stopping the pipeline would have been a real victory, it would also only have been a partial one. Struggles like Standing Rock also need to have a long-term perspective aimed at stopping not just one pipeline, but also stopping the broader aims of the ruling elite of this country as they pollute the planet and slaughter the poor in their quest for maximum profit.
Ultimately, it is necessary to link these sorts of struggles up with efforts to overthrow the ruling class and establish a socialism in this country, where production can be carried out to serve the needs of the people, instead of serving the interests of a tiny fraction of the population. In this sense, it is important to see that individual struggles need to build movements and organizations that last beyond their immediate aims. For those politicized by the struggle at Standing Rock there is a need to learn from past failures and continue resistance in an ongoing, sustained way.
In understanding these questions, we must look at the founding of Oceti Sakowin and the ability of that struggle to spread and link with surrounding struggles. A handful of youth established the original encampment that swelled to over 10,000 in just a few months. That required being direct about the need to not stand back and wait for established forms of protest, and instead to take resistance in their own hands, using whatever was at their disposal. The importance of their fight spoke to a broad group of people that traveled long distances to lend a hand. Ultimately, nearly all people have a vested interest in not only defeating oppressive forces such a Dakota Access, but overthrowing the ruling elite of this country. We must think critically and collectively about a given situation in order to come together with others and create a path forward.