On November 21, as they tried to clear a highway bridge blockaded by militarized state forces, American Indian protectors and allies endured water cannons, percussion grenades, and rubber bullets. An Indian elder went into cardiac arrest; hundreds were wounded or faced hypothermia after being drenched in frigid temperatures. Among the wounded was Jewish activist Sophie Wilanski, who was hit in the arm with a percussion grenade. Wilansky underwent eight hours of surgery in Minneapolis, and may lose her arm.
This is the first of three articles exploring the crisis taking place at Standing Rock, North Dakota. This piece looks at the militarization taking place around the encampments of American Indian protectors and their allies. The second places the current conflict in historical context. And the final piece considers why this conflict over Indian land and sovereignty could be of particular concern for Jewish activists.
[pullquote align=left] At a roadblock, a young state trooper leans into the car with a flashlight.
[/pullquote]It is hard to get to Lakota country. Leaving Milwaukee, we drive west all day through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota. The great expanses in this part of the country always make me wonder what it was that made it so crucial for the U.S. army to win it away from Indian people. What could possibly justify the human cost of the brutal battles that took place, are still taking place, over this seemingly desolate land?
Arriving in Mandan after dark, we turn south towards the Standing Rock reservation. A full moon illuminates the hills; scattered rocky bluffs appear suddenly in the moonlight, looming for an instant and then disappearing back into the night.
Forty miles in, we spot floodlights. At a roadblock, a young state trooper leans into the car with a flashlight. “You can’t go this way,” she says. “The bridge is out.”
I ask her what happened. “Protesters burned it,” she says, cheerily. “You have to go back to Mandan, take a left, and come down state highway six.”
This curt explanation reduces the protracted conflict taking place here. It fixes the blame for the inconvenience on Indian protectors, ignoring both the long conflict over sovereignty and borders in Lakota country and the current fight to protect the waters of the Missouri River against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
[pullquote align=right] Historian Richard Drinnon described such dynamics as “the metaphysics of Indian hating,”
[/pullquote]Bent on protecting sacred lands and waters, Lakota protectors and their allies have been camped near the Missouri River on Indian lands at Standing Rock Reservation since April, 2016. In October, they build an additional camp on land vouchsafed to them by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty but confiscated by subsequent state law. Their presence on this land provoked a military response.
Subsequently, protectors attempted to stop the assault on this encampment by the Morton County sheriff’s department, accompanied by forces from seven neighboring states deployed under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. Even accounts critical of the protests picture the fires near the bridge, not on it. Since October 27, police have chained charred remains of military vehicles to concrete blocks, making the bridge impassable.
Likely scripted for her, the state trooper’s explanation sows division in Morton County. Hearing it temps the motorist to blame protesters for the inconvenience, aggravating perceived conflicts between indigenous and white inhabitants of the area. This aggravation, in turn, provides justification for increased militarization of the area. Historian Richard Drinnon described such dynamics as “the metaphysics of Indian hating,” in which conflicts arising from expansion and empire justify repression and removal of Indians.
[pullquote align=left] Our more complicated entry takes place in context of public militarization in defense of private resource speculation.
[/pullquote]The suggested detour easily adds forty miles to the trip. We decide there must also be a shortcut that the state trooper did not tell us about, and spend the next two hours lost on hardtop gravel roads that lead up into the hills. Finally taking the suggested detour, we arrive in Lakota country past midnight.
Standing Rock Lakota historian Vine Deloria described sovereign Indian country as “the nations within.” Writing in 1832, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall explained their status as “domestic dependent” nations, both separate from and surrounded by states. To Indian people, these “nations within” are sovereign: places of resistance and survival.
Crossing into Indian country is rarely as dramatic as getting to Standing Rock is these days. On other reservations, there might or might not be a sign noting the transition. Our more complicated entry takes place in context of public militarization in defense of private resource speculation: the planned transportation of fracked oil from Canada to markets in the populous Midwest and East Coast. Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, has offered to reimburse the state of North Dakota and Morton County for the cost of law enforcement: the militarization against Indian protectors. The violence at Standing Rock is engineered by and directly benefits millionaire energy speculators.
[pullquote align=right] Sharpshooters are stationed in the hills.
[/pullquote]Arriving at camp Oceti Sakown, we park and sleep in our van. When I wake up just before seven, it is not yet light: we are at the western boundary of Central Time. I climb a small hill at the edge of camp and look north: it is the same bridge we tried to cross the night before. Floodlights light up the bridge as well as marking military presence in the hills across the water. I see the lights of what look like ten or more vehicles coming down the road to the bridge; the changing of the guard.
This military presence is a constant: lights in the hills, the soldiers across the river. Planes and helicopters buzzing overhead sometimes make it difficult to hear people talk on the ground. When we join a short, solemn march to the bridge to honor the passing of a veteran from Standing Rock by putting his ashes into the water, the soldiers stand across the bridge. Sharpshooters are stationed in the hills. All night the bridge is lit by military flood lights: a rival to the moon, a marker of force.
In this charged context, any sign of resistance on the part of Indian protectors and their allies is read as dangerous insurgency. Assertions of sovereignty by Indian people are taken to be hostile acts justifying the use of lethal force in response. That is how the metaphysics of Indian hating works.
The conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline takes place in context of a hemispheric history in which first European empires and subsequently nations like the United States deploy maximum military force against Indian people, resulting in massacres, dispersion and forced migration. Nick Estes of The Red Nation details the ongoing struggle of the Oceti Sakowin – the Great Sioux Nation− against encroachment on their lands and water. Settler nations like the United States colonize native lands, stripping resources and wealth and in the process overriding indigenous ways of life and governance. While the resources have changed over time – gold, land, oil – the dynamics of repression have remained the same.
[pullquote align=left] “If they want to replay history,” he said, “we’re gonna show the world like we couldn’t before.”
[/pullquote]The mustering of violent state force against peaceful protesters at Standing Rock continues a long history. Against this grim history, peaceful Indian protectors and allies like Sophie Wilanski deploy what one activist called a “media jujitsu.: “If they want to replay history,” he said, “we’re gonna show the world like we couldn’t before.” Protectors and their allies at Standing Rock today work to subvert the metaphysics of Indian hating into broad solidarity: for Indian sovereignty, for clean water for us all.