photo by Jonathan Klett
Native leaders and scholars have repeatedly pointed out the limitations of framing Standing Rock and other indigenous opposition to fossil fuel extraction as purely a climate justice movement. These movements, they say, are simply the latest manifestation of native peoples’ long and checkered struggle against settler colonialism.
“We are struggling against constant erasure and the fact that people still don’t realize that colonialism exists,” says Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux), a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. “People don’t honestly believe we exist in many ways, so there’s misconception about us. They don’t know that four-out-of-five native people don’t live on reservations. Popular imagination places us in rural lands, while we are incredibly urbanized. That doesn’t mean we are any less authentic.”
The indigenous climate justice movement, Estes says, is linked to the radical American Indian Movement of the 1960s and ’70s that was involved in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, mounted the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington DC in 1972, and led the Wounded Knee armed uprising of 1973 that drew worldwide attention to the treatment of Native Americans.
“People are saying this is the first time we have united like this since the nineteenth century, but I think that’s a misconception of us as a people,” says Estes, who is also a co-founder of The Red Nation, a coalition dedicated to native liberation that’s been active at Standing Rock. “For example, in 1974 at this very place, at Standing Rock [Reservation], the International Indian Treaty Council brought together more than 19 indigenous nations from across the world – from Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua, and all [across] North and South America. That council was fundamental in the drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The current movement builds on those existing struggles, though I think organizing and unifying in this particular way is significant.”
Indigenous climate justice scholar and activist Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi) agrees. The history of Native American activism is pockmarked with internal squabbles that have come in the way of many of their legal and cultural survival struggles, he points out. “But since [the] 1970s, we have had a global indigenous movement that has become the largest non-State participating sector in the United Nations,” he says. “So, I think the correct thing to say is that tribes themselves have been working together, networking more and more globally over the last 40 years, and that has made possible some of the heightened attention we are seeing on the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
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