The battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline got the world to recognize the humanity of Native Americans of the 21st century, even if a little.
Even though the Dakota Access Pipeline remains a big problem (oil is in the ground as we speak), the no-DAPL movement was not for naught. Indigenous people collectively achieved one major victory through Standing Rock. We forced people to learn about us. Now more than ever before, the public is concerned with our issues, is familiar with our political structure, knows a little about our collective values while also recognizing our diversity and individuality, and is much closer to ultimately believing in our humanity.
This is no small feat.
The average American tends to have either the wrong idea about us or no idea about us at all. That we have continually been dehumanized and marginalized in popular history and political discourse has real consequences on our wellbeing. We end up in situations like the one we’ve been dealing with for over a year now: a corporation decided to put the integrity of our drinking water at risk instead of the water of a town just north of us simply because, to them, hurting us is less cruel than hurting our white neighbors. In their eyes, we are less human.
Native people have been pleading with the public for generations to recognize our humanity. They tell us to “get over the past” and claim that we’re cry babies, but we’re no more or less sensitive than the average person. We are simply trying to give our children a fair shot at being taken seriously in life.
It worked out well that media coverage of the pipeline situation indirectly yet successfully worked to hamper some of these pervasive stereotypes and shift public consciousness in the way of better understanding Native American people.
In the first place, that so many people have now heard of Standing Rock at all, and in turn know that there is a difference between a tribe (ethnic classification) and a Tribe (sovereign nation) is progress. And because so many other Native people showed up to support Standing Rock, the public has now heard of a lot of other tribes, too. Many beautiful feature articles and video pieces which highlight this diversity have been published and widely shared. It’s good work.
Two years ago, you would’ve been hard pressed to find a non-Native who recognized any tribe aside from Navajo or the Oglalas of Pine Ridge. I lived on the east coast for eight years and never once met a person who didn’t raise an eyebrow in confusion when I told them I was from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Considering that the Anishinaabe and the Oceti Sakowin (great Sioux nation) once, not so long ago, covered nearly the entire Midwest and remain some of the most populous indigenous groups on the continent, the utter lack of recognition felt pathetic.
Of course it’s not the fault of the individuals. It’s a systemic problem. The average Joe would know plenty about these things if they had ever been taught it in school, or if the media had done a better job over the years of covering our issues, or if Hollywood hadn’t exacerbated the idea that we’ve all disappeared. All of these systems have unwittingly collaborated in a grand scheme to fail Native American people.
American history did not begin in 1492, and Europeans did not settle an empty continent. To act as though the post-contact period is the root of our nation robs the children of our country of the complete truth. What if students in Europe had no knowledge of the Roman empire?
When the pipeline issue first started to gain attention, it took a really long time for non-Natives to start paying attention, until the water protectors and the SRST made it impossible for outsiders to ignore. Suddenly, Standing Rock became a celebrity buzzword, for once in a non-exploitative way. They weren’t selling our image, they were convincing other people to buy into the idea that our issues mattered. It became cool to care about us, and that’s a good thing.
Recognition of our people has clearly improved, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The issue of total ignorance is one thing, but we also face this monster called discrimination.
Harmful stereotypes about Sioux people in particular remain pervasive on the plains. Not far from the place where the protests went down is a town called Grand Forks, where the Fighting Sioux mascot was wildly popular for years but respect for real Sioux culture was minimal. The non-Native community in North Dakota feverishly demanded ownership of the image of our ancestors to make their sports team look tough, but in person they called us lazy, alcoholic, stupid and worthless. A casual read of headlines and comments on local news coverage of Standing Rock today will prove just how racist many North Dakota residents still are. These sentiments are a real threat, and they cause a lot worse than hurt feelings.
From the Cavalry’s massacre of hundreds innocent Sioux women and children at Whitestone Hill in 1863 to the incidents of police brutality at Standing Rock in 2015, these savage stereotypes have gotten a lot of people injured, incarcerated and killed.
When Lewis and Clark met the Sioux on the Missouri river not far south from where the pipeline protest has taken place, they called us “the vilest miscreants of the savage race,” deemed us beggars, no-accounts and bullies. That depiction followed us into popular history. But a close reading of the primary source journals prove that the Sioux were actually very generous and gentle toward the Corps of Discovery. It was a wildly unfair characterization.
Today, it is another Army Corps whose opinion matters to us: this time, the Corps of Engineers. Under leadership of the Trump administration, though, neither the Corps nor the Justice Department heeded our concerns. Trump himself is a perfect example of a person who does not believe that we are human. To him, we are playthings and caricatures. I doubt he’ll ever start taking us seriously.
So while we’ve made great progress through making our voices heard at Standing Rock, we’ve got to keep the momentum going. If you’re an ally, you can help.
I urge all journalists to keep demanding deeper understanding of Native people and to keep an eye on indigenous communities even when the struggle is less dramatic. Stop calling us “Indians” (it’s an outdated term, like “negro” or “oriental”). Rather, refer to the specific names of our tribes and clans. Keep giving our leaders opportunities to speak for themselves.
I am grateful to the reporters and editors who have treated us with dignity and to the non-Native allies all over the world who have shown support. More than that, I am grateful to the Native people everywhere who have worked so hard for generations: first to keep us alive, then to save our culture, and now, to demand the fair treatment of our people and respect for our lands.
Thanks to the young Native people who stood up first, a powerful spirit of unity and strength has emerged from this pipeline fight: one that will stand the test of time and carry us past the loss, the corruption, and the divisiveness. All nations have risen and will be more prepared to protect the earth and one another. We’ve seen that we can do it. Finally, the public is so much closer to respecting our humanity, supporting our causes, and standing with indigenous values, which they now recognize are critical to human survival. That is a victory in and of itself.