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13.7.2: Indigenous Sovereignty and Environmental Justice

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    While each one of the movements covered in this chapter has specific identities that were central, in reality, social movements centering around race have intersecting dynamics, especially around social class and gender. Similarly, the fight against building oil pipelines on Indian reservations has implications for the drinking water of millions of non-Native people and on the climate and global population as a whole. Environmental injustice harms not just one marginalized group but many in addition to poor whites, so calls for justice require solidarity across these categories of identity (Mohai, Pellow & Roberts, 2009). We have seen how pivotal social media and media coverage is to amplifying these causes and most importantly, bringing diverse people together for the same cause. Dr. King, a sociologist in his own right, understood the importance of appealing to allies and what are commonly referred to today in the movements as "accomplices" or "co-conspirators," or individuals engaged in proactive behavior that helps support the movement or cause, which is why he was willing to lead a group of peaceful protestors from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African Americans despite the risks of physical violence and brutalization from law enforcement and white terrorists, in part because he understood that the national broadcasting of these images would draw empathy from otherwise privileged and unengaged audiences (Powell & Kelly, 2017). Though the march started with only 2,000 participants, ultimately 50,000 supporters from across the country joined in the efforts.

    Similarly, when tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard put out the call for supporters to join the prayer camp at Standing Rock, it swelled to thousands. Those who could not travel supported through online fundraising campaigns and donated supplies such as blankets, heavy jackets, and camping supplies to the encampment. Allard thanked the "keyboard warriors" who amplified the cause via social media and despite the mainstream media blackout, many became aware of their struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline through these acts of solidarity and online activism (Democracy Now!, 2020). Likewise, the 2020 summer protests following the police lynching of George Floyd were comprised of a diverse collective, of mostly young people in the U.S. and internationally, in which signs read, "Latinos for Black Lives," "White Silence is Violence," "Filipinos for Black Power," and "Queer and Black Trans Lives Matter."

    Standing Rock Sioux Opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline

    At the core of the struggles of Native American people are the issues of land use and sovereignty (discussed earlier in Chapter 5.5). A sovereign state is a political organization with a centralized government that has supreme independent authority over a geographic area. The U.S. has a long history of breaking treaties with American Indian Nations for the purposes of resource extraction. As awareness of the climate crisis increases, especially among young people, resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Keystone XL(KXL) pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is playing a central role in climate activism. Groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), formed in 1990, lie at the intersection of these social issues. Merging cultural beliefs and activism, IEN's direct-action training against the KXL referenced the Lakota prophecy of the Black Snake, which they believe to be a "manifestation of the sickness of society" and symbolic of oil pipelines (Bioneers, 2017). Their organizational goals are as follows:

    1. Educate and empower Indigenous Peoples to address and develop strategies for the protection of our environment, our health, and all life forms – the Circle of Life.
    2. Re-affirm our traditional knowledge and respect of natural laws.
    3. Recognize, support, and promote environmentally sound lifestyles, economic livelihoods, and to build healthy sustaining Indigenous communities.
    4. Commitment to influence policies that affect Indigenous Peoples on a local, tribal, state, regional, national and international
    5. Include youth and elders in all levels of our work.
    6. Protect our human rights to practice our cultural and spiritual beliefs.

    These efforts culminated in 2016 as a group of Indigenous youth dubbed the Youth Council some of whom had been trained by IEN., staged a 2,000 mile relay run from the Sacred Stone Camp, a prayer camp established to resist DAPL on the northern end of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, to Washington D.C. to deliver a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers asking that the permit for DAPL to cross the Missouri River be denied.

    As explained in the DAPL Fact Zine:

    The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is proposed to transport 450,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude oil (which is fracked and highy volatile) from the lands of North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The threats this pipeline poses to the environment, human health and human rights are strikingly similar to those posed by the Keystone XL. Because the DAPL will cross over the Ogallala Aquifer (one of the largest aquifers in the world) and under the Missouri River twice (the longest river in the United States), the possible contamination of these water sources makes the Dakota Access pipeline a national threat.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock." (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; Divided Films via YouTube)

    As featured in the video above, Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock, what followed were months of peaceful protest that became the single largest gathering of Native Americans in 100 years. In the Sioux language, Mni Wiconi translates to "Water Is Life, Water is Sacred." Led by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the water protectors organized at Standing Rock were comprised of Standing Rock Lakota Sioux tribal members in conjunction with peoples from more than 280 Indigenous Nations, including former Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, and allies such as Bernie Sanders and Leonardo DiCaprio in addition to people from numerous civil rights, environmental, and veterans organizations. Unarmed protestors faced down private security forces and were attacked by security dogs, sprayed with pepper spray, and hosed down with water canons in freezing temperatures by the Morton County Sheriffs Department. Though President Barack Obama made statements in support of a re-routing of the pipeline "in a way that is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans," as one of his first acts as President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum instructing the Army to expedite the review and approval process for the unbuilt section of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As of the writing of this text, DAPL has oil flowing but it is still being litigated.

    Banner of the mni wiconi movement at their protest.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): MNI WICONI banner. (CC BY 2.0; Becker1999 via Wikimedia)
    Did you know?

    Youth led movements such as the Sunrise Movement along with indigenous groups such as IEN are advocating for a Green New Deal (GND) in the United States which would implement a just transition from a fossil fuel based energy economy to a sustainable "green" economy. The GND employs an environmental justice lens that addresses the needs of black, brown, indigenous, and marginalized communities while developing jobs in infrastructure and clean energy. The GND is a plan for one hundred percent clean, renewable energy by 2030 utilizing a carbon tax, a jobs guarantee, free college, single-payer healthcare, and a focus on using public programs.

    A final example of solidarity and intersectionality can be understood on a local level in Long Beach, California. A grass-roots coalition of nearly 20 community groups created the People's State of the City in 2013, as a way of drawing attention to experiences of marginalized groups living and working in the city - as their issues were generally not addressed by the local power structure. Video 11.6.3 provides an excerpt from the 2016 People's State of the City, a glimpse at the solidarity and intersectionality of diverse groups such as East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Unite! Here Local 11 (hotel workers), Californians for Justice (educational justice), Mentoring Youth Through Empowerment (a program of the LGBTQ Center), and Khmer Girls in Action. The People's State of the City emphasizes "people power" and giving voice to lived experiences of people of color in the city.

    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\):: 2016 Long Beach People's State of the City. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; LAANE via YouTube)

    Media Blackout & Social Media

    Just as with the Black Lives Matter movement, social media played a pivotal role in amplifying the call to hopeful protestors who preferred to be called water protectors. Activists noted that the mainstream media was not covering the protests as much as they felt it should. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, an organization that aims to challenge media bias, noted that by September 7th, 2016, many months into the protests that had already drawn thousands of peaceful supporters that were subject to violence from both private security and local law enforcement, of the three major media outlets ABC, CBS, and NBC, only CBS had aired a lone 48 word segment that ran at 4 a.m. Independent journalist and host of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman said of the apparent media Blackout,

    It is astounding how little coverage they have gotten over these months. But this very much goes in lockstep with a lack of coverage of climate change. Add to it a group of people who are marginalized by the corporate media, Native Americans, and you have a combination that vanishes them. And yet these protests have only intensified, the resistance camps have only grown over the months, without the media megaphone of the corporate media.

    Goodman herself was present at the protests, and had a warrant issued for her arrest alleging that she participated in a "riot." This shows that while "the revolution will not be televised," it may end up being tweeted instead.

    Video \(\PageIndex{4}\): "Gil Scott Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with lyrics." (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; Jeremy Alexander via YouTube)

    Key Takeaways

    • Indigenous rights and sovereignty are intertwined with environmental justice causes.
    • White supremacists continue to pose the greatest threat to public safety in the 21st century and the threats are amplified by internet communications and widening wealth inequality.
    • Multi-racial solidarity remains the key to combating racism and economic oppression.

    Contributors and Attributions


    • Democracy Now! (2020). A dream that comes true: standing rock elder hails order to shut down dapl after years of protest. [Video]. YouTube.
    • Levin, S. (2016). Judge rejects riot charges for journalist amy goodman after oil pipeline protest. The Guardian.
    • Naurackas, J. (2016). Dakota access Blackout continues on abc, nbc news. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
    • Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J.T. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34, 405-430.
    • Mohanty, C. (1984). Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Boundary 2, 12/13, 333-358.