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10 lessons from Standing Rock

Jesse McLaren

December 7, 2016

Near the plains where Sitting Bull defeated the army of George Custer, Indigenous communities resisted police brutality, media silence and Democrat complicity, and sparked unity and solidarity that stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Here are ten lessons from this ongoing struggle.

1. State violence can be resisted

Despite claims of being a “free market,” corporations depend on the state to secure their profits at home and abroad. The DAPL had support from state governors and was initially approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners has many powerful political ties—including incoming President Donald Trump. When protests challenged the pipeline, the state sent in police and troops with attack dogs, tear gas, water cannon, and concussion grenades—which nearly blew the arm off of one protester. Iraq War veteran Mark Sanderson, who supported the protests, likened the use of troops abroad and at home to protect oil interests: “In my prior deployment, I really feel like I was being utilized in the same way the troops are being utilized here: to protect American interests, whether fossil fuels, natural gas, pipeline. It’s all the same, and it’s the wrong way forward.” Similarly, Canadian Natural Resources Jim Carr recently said the Liberals would respond to pipeline protests "through its defense forces, through its police forces."

But this state violence failed. As Tara Houska, National Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth explained, “The original peoples of these lands fought with all of our hearts against injustice and won. We have been maced, tased, demeaned, hit with water cannons in below freezing temperatures, we stand with the strength of our ancestors before us. The inaction from the administration and media was answered by our refusal to back down. Let this send a message around the world: we are still here. We are empowered. We are not sacrifice zones. Mni wiconi, water is life.”

2. Media silence has limits

The Camp of the Sacred Stones has been set up since April and for months the mainstream media ignored it.  Only when land defenders resisted police attacks was there any significant coverage, and this was often to denounce protests as “clashing with police”—ignoring the real source of violence. But this media strategy failed: despite the attempts to first ignore and then slander the protests, news and support spread across the continent and around the world, as Democracy Now and countless other alternative media sources shared by thousands of supporters broke through the media silence.

3. The Democrats are the twin party of corporate America

The attack on Standing Rock happened during an election that was supposed to offer an electoral alternative to Donald Trump. But Obama was silent about Standing Rock—handing out “medals of freedom” while the police trampled on the freedom of protesters. Clinton was silent as Indigenous youth called on her to support them. And Sanders, who supported the protests and could have continued to raise the issue by running as independent—collapsed his campaign into Clinton’s, allowing Trump to portray himself as the only anti-establishment candidate. Sanders has continued to support the protests but these views are not shared by the corporate Democrats, and the victory at Standing Rock is not because of the Democrats but in spite of them.

4. Pipelines can be stopped

Despite police brutality, media silence and Democrat complicity, land defenders successfully stopped the pipeline for now—as the Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit and called for more extensive environmental review. As Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network explained, “The Obama Administration has told us they are not granting the final easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is not just an amazing victory for Standing Rock and the Oceti Sakowin—but also for the many other Tribal Nations, grassroots Indigenous communities and millions of Americans around the country who have stood in solidarity with us here in person, at rallies around the country, and through phone calls and letters. This is a victory for organizing, and it doesn't stop now. We are asking our supporters to keep up the pressure, because while President Obama has granted us a victory today, that victory isn't guaranteed in the next administration. More threats are likely in the year to come, and we cannot stop until this pipeline is completely and utterly defeated, and our water and climate are safe.”

5. Indigenous people are leading the way

As with other climate justice victories it is Indigenous peoples who are leading the way. Near where Chief Sitting Bull defeated the army of George Custer 140 years ago, the Lakota Sioux and their allies defended the land and the water that is life. The same goes for Canada—from First Nations on the west coast challenging oil and gas pipelines, the Chippewas of the Thames challenging Line 9, or the recent victory at Muskrat falls.

6. Unity and solidarity won

Like the historic occupations of Wounded Knee and Alcatraz Island that helped spark the Red Power movement of the 1960s, the Standing Rock action built unity among Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. As Idle No More-Toronto activist Crystal Sinclair described her visit to Standing Rock, “It was an incredible experience. I was very humbled to learn so much from all these nations coming together and unifying to take a stand to protect the water. What I saw was people putting themselves on the line, being arrested, and taking that risk because this issue is so important. It’s a crucial time in our history. All across our nation and south of the border, people are taking a stand against corporations that are destroying the water.” The protests also sparked settler solidarity—from environmental organizations, to labour organizations, to thousands of veterans forming a human shield to protect protesters from police.

7. Support for a just transition is growing

For too long pipeline proponents have got their way by the artificial divide of “jobs vs the environment.” Unfortunately the leadership of the AFL-CIO fell into that trap and supported the pipeline, instead of calling for a just transition to climate jobs that can create far more employment and help solve the climate crisis. But there were many labour activists who supported the protests. As Laim Cain, spokeperson for Labour for Standing Rock implored his fellow workers, “Listen to the water protectors, listen to folks talking about just transition, a view of the future, involving good union paying jobs, involving many of your skill-sets. Just generating energy in a much more environmentally sustainable manner, rather than just gloss over reliance on fossil fuels, that we currently engage in. As the saying goes, 'there's no jobs on a dead planet'.” The Standing Rock Council reciprocated the solidarity by announcing that “We at Oceti Sakowin Camp welcome any and all support from our Union brothers and sisters," said Standing Rock Council in an October 13 message to Labor for Standing Rock. "This camp stands to protect our sacred water and support a new energy paradigm, jobs and work in green energy fields. We welcome your support in any ways you feel appropriate, join us in paving a new road to a sustainable future for many future generations.”

8. People can stop Trump

The great fear is that Trump’s win signified a surge to the right and a defeat for movements—and there have already been a spike in hate crimes. But Trump’s win is full of contradictions, including disillusionment with the corporate Democrats. While Trump organized a series of poorly attended “victory rallies,” the most significant post-election development has been the series of spontaneous protests across the US (and internationally), and plans for a mass march on Washington for the inauguration in January. Trump tried to tip the balance in favour of the Dakota Access Pipeline by giving his support (which highlighted his financial ties), but this failed. Instead, Standing Rock has become the first major victory in the post-election period, giving confidence and determination to fight the racism, austerity and environmental destruction of the new President.

9. Trudeau is on the wrong side of history

The victory against DAPL happened just as Justin Trudeau gave his approval for the Kinder Morgan and Line 3 pipelines—showing he would rather be on the side of Trump than the climate justice movement. Despite Trudeau’s rhetoric of change, his actions show that he is just as much a climate denier as Trump and that he has turned his back on reconciliation. But the climate justice movement stopped Kinder Morgan once and it can stop it again—along with other pipelines like Energy East and Line 9.  When Trump comes to Canada, the protests will not only be against him but against the pipeline policies that Trudeau shares.

10. Resistance is fertile

Standing Rock sparked solidarity rallies across the US and Canada, including 5,000 in Toronto. While the temperature is dropping, resistance is rising across Turtle Island—against pipelines, in support of Indigenous communities, and for a just transition.

As Grand Chief Stewart Philip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said, “Now is the time to stand beside Indigenous people in support of our timeless struggle to defend Mother Earth. There is a battle being waged across the globe by Indigenous Peoples and their allies demanding a safe, healthy world for future generations. This is about water versus oil and life versus death, and ultimately, survival versus extinction.”

In the past two weeks more than 18,000 people have signed the Coast Protectors Pledge to do whatever it takes to stop Kinder Morgan. Sign the pledge at


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