WORDS & IMAGES: KAYLA DEVAULT
Climate activists across the United States—and even the world—swooned at the powerful imagery rising from the #NoDAPL movement. Native Americans with prayer staffs, camps with tipis, an open invitation to stand in solidarity... it was an environmentalist's dream to learn from the First People, those who have protected this land and their resources since time immemorial. As the media slowly caught on, even with its inaccuracies and biased coverage, more and more people arrived at Sacred Stone Camp to show their commitment to taking down Big Oil once and for all.
And that is where the problems began.
Just like the fight against KXL years before, #NoDAPL did not begin because tribal people thought the pipeline was a violation of the Paris agreement or of international promises. That's not to say indigenous people aren't privy to the climate talks or concerned about its effects. (Tribal villages in Alaska are among the communities suffering the most in these early stages of global warming.) The difference is that these pipeline fights cross The Great Sioux Nation, a land set aside for the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota peoples per the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. And treaties are international law.
Diné/Ihanktonwan journalist Jacqueline Keeler highlighted this distinction in Unauthorized Disclosure, stating, “The United States is still a colony. It’s a colony without portfolio. It doesn’t have a homeland. It broke away from Great Britain, its actual homeland, but it doesn’t have a homeland. Its lands are basically made up of other people’s homelands, other nations.” Sadly, this message of sovereignty has been drowned out by non-indigenous voices.
As more and more non-native people showed up to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, community members found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. Archambault may be the Chairman of Standing Rock, but behind the scenes there are complicated ceremonial procedures that rely on the knowledge of specific elders. However, many visitors seemed to be in love with the romanticized stereotypes of Native peoples or in awe of plastic shamanism. They didn't acknowledge certain community rules, and so the camps struggled with violations of its no-alcohol policies. Conflict arose between camps who didn't follow the traditional, spiritual leadership of the Standing Rock community.
I joined a number of Arizona natives at the Native Nations Rising in DC this March. We had to leave the march out of complete discomfort when Archambault was booed off-stage by non-natives. Why? Because he followed his responsibilities to his tribe which didn't meet the expectations of the non-Native climate agenda? That is not solidarity.
But this demonstrates further how non-Native climate activists are profiting off of an indigenous movement. So many people were drawn to the stereotypes of Native environmentalism and latched onto the climate justice hype without comprehending the movement itself. These pipelines go through tribal lands without consent. They threaten water supplies to sovereign nations. Yes, #NoDAPL feeds into the larger conversation about climate justice—but tribes don't have the privilege to have that conversation if their human rights aren't even upheld.
Authentic and intentional solidarity in #NoDAPL therefore requires uplifting the stories of treaty violations, not using the movements as the face of your non-indigenous organization.
Standing Rocks exist all over this country, from the Shasta Dam in California to the South Mountain Freeway in Arizona. But not everyone comprehends the sacredness of salmon, of a mountain, or of ancient grave sites as readily as they can join a fight against a pipeline. So as Native Americans finally got the coverage they needed—and as supporters fell in love with the phrase Mni Wiconi—the limelight was violently jerked away from conversations of indigenous rights. Instead, large environmental non-profits built their movements off of indigenous hashtags, put the spotlight on themselves, and pushed conversations of sovereignty to the margins where it has struggled to survive. That is how you appropriate a movement.
The problem is conversations of solidarity do not always support environmental campaigns. The general populace has little knowledge of indigenous peoples, but most will probably cite social ills like poverty and unemployment. They don't consider how colonial systems and structural violence, created and perpetuated by Euro-Americans, are the cause for the loss of language, culture, environmental integrity, and overall opportunity on so many Reservations. Therefore they don't consider the reality that the majority of extractable resources west of the Mississippi lie on tribal lands—and that some tribal nations receive the majority of their revenue and employment from such industries.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs negotiates all energy leases on tribal lands. The revenue received on behalf of tribes are paltry, environmental standards and reclamation fall behind national standards, and often the extraction process violates cultural beliefs—but, to some, any job may look like a job, and anyone trying to take that opportunity away from you may look like an anti-sovereignty enemy. Just look at the Crow Agency and how its relationship with coal determines the economic success of tribal members.
Wash away the false imagery of Native people and you'll begin to see the reality, a reality that often has two sides. Surely no human would opt for the extractive industry if they were promised the same success through a green alternative, but some tribal nations have kept afloat with the "help" of energy dependency. Conversations about a just transition cannot happen until their sovereign rights have been acknowledged, until they are able to make their own decisions about their land and their resources.
So, for all our climate activists out there: What do you really support? Are you invested only in your anti-pipeline movements? Or are you willing to support indigenous rights, however that looks, by practicing authentic and intentional solidarity with tribes?
Kayla DeVault (Shawnee/Anishinaabe) is a resident of Window Rock, Navajo Nation. She is a SustainUS COP22 delegate who works as a research assistant for the Diné Policy Institute while pursuing a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and tribal energy policy. Her passions include sustainability, learning other cultures and languages, and interfacing social and environmental justice. This year, Kayla was appointed to the NEJAC/EPA Youth Perspectives on Climate Working Group where she provides recommendations to national policy. In her spare time, Kayla is a Premiere Scottish Highland dancer who also holds many National Hockey titles, including a Team USA inline hockey gold medal.