“They can cut all the flowers, but they can't stop the spring.”
- Pablo Neruda
The Sacred Stone camp in Standing Rock North Dakota accomplished the impossible. It survived the worst of the North Dakota winter while the U.S government, police, military and the Dakota Access oil corporation did everything they could to squash the camp. Under snow and under siege in the middle of the middle of nowhere, the struggle at Standing Rock became a powerful symbol around the world of what is possible when we stand together against injustice. The camp stood in the way of the Dakota Access pipeline project, which was supposed to be a done deal, and created a corporate crisis. The international climate justice movement was also re-energized and focused by the struggle of indigenous nations and their allies.
The Sacred Stone camp itself is now empty – the threat of a flood from snow thaws forced an evacuation. Many have moved to nearby camps to continue the on-the-ground struggle, while many more are now spread across the United States vowing to continue the fight against the pipeline.
The struggle at Standing Rock is changing shape, but it continues. It is essential that we build on the important gains made so far, and extract as many lessons as possible for moving forward in the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline as well as many more pipeline and resource extraction projects governments and large corporations are trying to ram down our throats.
These are definitely not the only lessons from Standing Rock, but a few we found important to apply to the immediate climate justice work.
Leadership: Understanding the roots and importance of indigenous leadership in the climate justice movement is essential
Professor Ward Churchill, author of many books including, “A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present” documented the reduction of the North American indigenous population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900. This was not accidental. The foundation of Canada and United States is based on the forced displacement of indigenous nations from their lands, the introduction of deadly diseases and often times their outright murder.
Things did not improve from there. Every major quality of life indicator continue to be significantly lower for indigenous people when compared to national averages. The Health Canada website even acknowledges such shameful statistics such as, “Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Aboriginal youth.” It would take massive space to document the systemic injustice against indigenous nations since colonization, but it's simple to say that they have suffered incredibly.
In Standing Rock, 41% of citizens live in poverty. That is almost three times the national average. It's no wonder that they opposed yet another multi-billion dollar pipeline whose benefits would be the same billionaires who stole their land and poisoned the water – while their community still lacks proper schools and hospitals.
Indigenous self-determination jeopardizes the foundation of the capitalist economies of Canada and the United States, where resources have been continually exploited without proper consent or compensation. It is on indigenous nations land that the richer have gotten richer, and indigenous, poor and working people have gotten poorer. That's why governments react so violently to indigenous people asserting their rights. They are always afraid it will set a positive precedent for others to assert their own land rights as well.
It's a moral and political necessity that those whose traditional territories these projects are built on be given the final say as to what happens on them. Time and time again indigenous nations have shown themselves capable and committed to putting people and planet before pipelines and profit.
Allies: Support from non-indigenous people is crucial to successful campaigns
Indigenous peoples make up approximately 4% of Canada's population and 2% of the population of the United States. Given these small numbers, what they've been able to accomplish in terms of presence in environmental struggles is incredible. But they can't do it alone! The Standing Rock struggle was the most successful ever at mobilizing the support of non-indigenous communities in the United States and literally around the world. We need to work much harder to convince poor and working people that they have much more in common with indigenous nations fighting these planet killing projects than they ever will the the millionaires and billionaires who run governments and corporations. It is possible. One of the most powerful moments of the Standing Rock struggle was when hundreds of US military veterans joined the camp and vowed to defend it against any raids.
Resistance and fight back: Governments will do anything possible to try and destroy effective resistance.
Despite being peaceful and unarmed, the Standing Rock water protectors faced constant and violent attacks. Private security with attack dogs. Water cannons spraying in sub-zero temperatures. Police departments from 24 counties and 16 cities in 10 different states. 700 arrests. Hundreds more injured. Helicopters. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Concussion grenades. Sound cannons. Drones. Constant surveillance. The National Guard with actual missile launchers. Ambulances being blocked. Threats to block food deliveries. We can have no illusions about what governments are willing to do in support of these resource extraction projects, and that's why it's so important that these struggles are documented and supported by mass movements. This makes it much more difficult for them to brutalize water protectors. Imagine what the police would have done at Standing Rock is no one was watching and no one outside of North Dakota cared!
UNITY: When we work together in a coordinated way, the possibilities are endless
When we visited the Sacred Stone Camp six months ago to document the struggle for the Fire This Time newspaper, what we witnessed was incredible. The camp had not yet reached its peak of 15,000 peomembersple, but there were thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds determined to stop the pipeline. The camp was supported by a worldwide movement which sustained the it through donations, information sharing and solidarity actions. No one had ever stopped a pipeline already under construction, especially one so close to completion, yet time and time again the struggle at Standing Rock forced the government and oil corporations backwards. Deadlines were missed. Billions of profits lost through lose revenue and divestment. The impossible became possible.
Dismantle capitalism: We are fighting an entire system, not just a pipeline.
In the end, the most important criteria for any individual struggle is if it advances the overall struggle for social and environmental justice. In the case of Standing Rock, the answers is undeniably yes. Thousands of people have already been energized, mobilized, and educated in the ongoing struggle. This movement of people will place major factor in politics in the years to come, which is exactly what the government and oil corporations are afraid of. We can't stop now. We need to continue to oppose these individual projects, while at the same time connecting it to the larger fight of poor and oppressed people to build a new world which puts people and planet before pipelines and profits. Standing Rock turned the key, we need to rush through the door.
Follow Thomas Davies on Twitter: @thomasdavies59
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