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From Alcatraz to Standing Rock: Indigenous Resistance Has Always Been About Sovereignty

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Oceti Sakowin Resistance Camp
Oceti Sakowin Resistance Camp. Photo credit: Joe Brusky, Overpass Light Bridage.

In 1970 my family took a car trip to the Colville Indian reservation in Washington State, driving over 1,000 miles from our home in Los Angeles to visit our Indian family. We passed through San Francisco, which at the time was the site of one of the earliest American Indian activist struggles, the Alcatraz Island occupation. Although I was only twelve and didn’t fully understand the relevance of the times I was living in, television images of young militant Native activists at Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, and Wounded Knee in 1973 were permanently etched into my teenage brain. An impressionable youth, my identity as a mixed-blood urban Indian was shaped by those times and events, laying the foundation for my life as a Native artist, scholar, and writer.

The resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline taking place at Standing Rock right now is the most significant political event in Indian country since those struggles of the early 1970s, and there was no way I was going to miss it. I managed to carve out a few days and take a side trip to Standing Rock during Thanksgiving weekend, with a story assignment in my role as a journalist at Indian Country Today Media Network.

In the short time I was there I had numerous epic experiences. I interacted with legendary people from the American Indian Movement who had been key players in the historic 1970s actions. As part of my media assignment, I crossed paths with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt who were there to play a benefit concert. I took part in non-violent direct action training in case I found myself on the front lines.

But ultimately I wasn’t there to have a personally enriching cultural experience; I was there to bear witness to what is an unprecedented historical moment. My goal was (and is) to document what I saw and contribute to the literature that will emerge, helping to contextualize the Standing Rock struggle in larger historical and sociopolitical processes.

Most of my time there was spent in the Oceti Sakowin main camp. While there are so many aspects of the Standing Rock encampments that are deserving of analysis, what I was most intrigued by was that despite the fact that there were more non-Native than Native people in the camp, it was nonetheless a space dominated by Native people. The rules for engagement are based on Lakota protocol, and the atmosphere of the camp is infused with ceremony. As a Native journalist I was given priority for a press pass. Oceti Sakowin is, in other words, Indigenous sovereign space.

This is an unusual experience for Native people, especially those of us who live in cities (which is most of us anymore). To be surrounded by non-Native people and have OUR world views centered, OUR people deferred to—however imperfectly—felt nothing short of revolutionary.

In the big picture, the ongoing demonstration at Standing Rock is about Indigenous sovereignty. Yes, the message “mni wiconi” (water is life) drives home the importance of protecting water for all the people who depend on it. It is a friendly, non-confrontational message that draws everyone in, because after all, who doesn’t agree that water is life, and that it should be protected? The commitment to prayerful non-violent direct action invokes the righteousness of the civil rights struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi who have come to embody the concept of peaceful resistance, despite the violence that surrounded the struggles of those times.    

Underneath the calm waters of the message Mni Wiconi, however, is a deep undercurrent of Native outrage for centuries of genocide and injustice, and of being marginalized in their own homelands. At its core the outrage has always been about broken treaties. But treaty abrogation has become so normalized in the American imaginary that it is taken for granted as just the way things are—despite the Constitutional mandate that treaties are the supreme law of the land.

The 1851 Treaty Camp, as it was named by water protectors, was the overt expression of the Lakota people’s never-ending demands for the US to uphold its treaties. It is no small irony that this would become the site of militarized police violence against the water protectors.

The Standing Rock conflict, combined with the election of Donald Trump, is the uncovering of a major social rupture in the US. In one historical moment we see exposed to the naked light of truth, on one hand, an American empire morphing into fascism, driven by entrenched corporatized, fossil fuel-based state power. On the other is an exploding resistance to this evolving corporatized state fascism, led by the unlikely convergence of Indigenous peoples with environmentalists, who have more often than not been adversaries.

In the big picture, Standing Rock represents the unprecedented coming together of divergent interests. It’s too soon to tell if this is just an historical event, a full blown social movement, or a revolution. Either way, the underlying message is that the protection of Indigenous treaties means the protection of precious natural resources. 

Indigenous sovereignty, in other words, is good for the environment. And that makes it good for everyone.

With the announcement by the Army Corps of Engineers that the DAPL easement will not be granted for the Lake Oahe crossing, hope arises for a new respect for the sovereignty of tribal nation lands and treaties. But with the incoming Trump administration comes the very real possibility of new attacks to what protections are inherent in the federal system, with rumblings of their desire to privatize Indian trust lands. This constitutes the exhumation of the 1950’s policy of termination, where the US sought to end treaty and other legal obligations to Indians.

While the easement denial is a battle victory, we know that the war is far from over.


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-WhitakerDina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. She is the co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.