Standing Rock & the Way Forward
This time we’re tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.
Aurora Levins Morales, “Red Sea”
After more than nine months of resistance and protracted struggle at Standing Rock, there is evidence of a partial, preliminary win: instructed by President Obama, the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement required to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Instead, Assistant Army Corps Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy has asserted the need to explore “alternate routes.”
Of course, this does not mean that the long fight against the pipeline is over. It remains to be seen whether Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the Dakota Access Pipeline, respects the decision of the Army Corps. An incoming Trump administration with deep ties to this company and to energy profiteering could overturn the decision. And, just as the pipeline was initially rerouted from the Bismarck metro area to Standing Rock, its eventual path will endanger water further down- or upstream. In a statement released Sunday, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault looked forward to seeing protectors return home for the winter.
This weekend, thousands of U.S. veterans, bent on putting their bodies between the protectors and militarized forces defending the pipeline deployed to Standing Rock. Unique in the long history of the United States, this cavalry stood on the side of indigenous sovereignty, of the heroic stand led by Indian people against environmental degradation. Many in this multiracial group of veterans spoke about their feelings that, by ‘standing with Standing Rock,’ they were finally, truly, serving their country.
I woke up Sunday morning worrying about what seemed certain to be a showdown between protectors and veterans, on the one side, and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, the North Dakota National Guard, and the hired goons of the Dakota Access Pipeline Corporation, on the other. I wondered if that uneven lineup would result in more militarized violence against unarmed people. I could not imagine the win.
As I fretted about Standing Rock, the words of the Jewish-Puerto Rican poet Aurora Levins Morales ran through my mind. The lines above come from her poem, “Red Sea,” about the mythic crossing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to freedom. The poet re-imagines the flight of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to include the liberation of all captives, not just the Israelites.
Levins Morales rerouts the Exodus story away from the promised land. As Osage historian Robert Allen Warrior wrote in his now-classic essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest and Liberation Theology Today,” the land given to the Israelites was already occupied. And so it has been with the United States. This time, safety in a promised land for some cannot come at the price of displacement for others: that country is what we promise each other.
In makeshift and sacred spaces at Standing Rock, protectors and their allies have stood together, The world has watched as unarmed protectors have endured dogs, water cannons, rubber bullets and percussion grenades, imprisonment, torture and indignity; only to come back the next day to stand again. Together, they have, for now, “cut the head off” the Black Snake of DAPL. Their partial victory this weekend puts a halt to the violence there, though it is unclear how long this will last.
In a bleak time in this country, this partial win teaches us about the force of courage, love and justice. Rapacious, extractive corporations like Energy Transfer Partners will always be able to muster more force than protectors of land, sovereignty, water and democracy. Hunkered down in the cold of Lakota country, Indian protectors from many nations, joined by allies from around the world, have modeled the way forward; This time it’s all of us or none.