My boots shifted on the hill, nudging a wire fence stamped into the dry dirt and grass. I could feel the power of the chant fill the lungs of those around me, voices cracking and fists pumping – and I listened, staring back at the line of police in riot gear, unsure if I, as a white non-Native, was part of the implied “we.” But my voice eventually joined in, as I realized I was on the other side of that “we.” These treaties between the U.S. government and indigenous tribes implicate me as I benefit from the history of systemic exploitation and genocide against indigenous peoples that continues today.
It was Indigenous People’s Day, the morning after the injunction to halt construction was lifted, and I drove with hundreds of other water protectors in a caravan to the frontlines after a powerful sunrise ceremony and prayer. This was my second of five days I had the honor of spending standing in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux over my midterm break (Oct. 8-15) with ten other students.
Behind the police standing still, we watched a group of people getting arrested for praying in a teepee next to the laid-out pipeline, which stretched into the horizon of the prairie. On the frontlines, youth indigenous leaders also told the police that we were fighting for their water too, and water for their children. While I think that shouldn’t have to be a convincing point – that you should care about another’s livelihood regardless of how it affects yours – I was touched deeply by this insistence on compassion and humanity, especially in the face of the dehumanizing forces of capitalism.
“We” is a powerful and important word. It can be politicized and polarizing, defining “us” and “them.” Aligning yourself with a community is necessary in forming identity, and brings along with it certain traditions and history. It also defines you in opposition to other communities.
Crucial to the fight against the pipeline is the idea of staying true to a treaty, as the government and private companies have historically disrespected these agreements. The government granted the land on which the pipeline passes to the Sioux through the Treaty of Laramie in 1848. But after the Great Sioux War eleven years later, a new treaty took land away from the indigenous peoples, and more land was repossessed by the government when homestead farms failed. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the land was taken unjustly, ordering the U.S. government to provide compensation to the tribe. To this day, the Sioux has declined the payment from the federal Indian Claims Commission, which now totals over $1 billion. They want their land back.
Unitarian Universalists have a tradition of holding covenant with each other, or a written agreement of how to behave with one another – or to “engage in mutual promises with Spirit,” as the UUA website states. I remember drafting these agreements at the beginning of each year with my Young Religious Unitarian Universalist (YRUU) group, and for special events like overnights and cons. While not every UU community has a written covenant, congregations are committed to “affirm and promote” the Principles and Practices.
Every culture has some kind of social contract, whether explicit or implicit. The survival of Native American tribes largely depends on these treaties, which have a history of being ignored and disrespected. In their legal battle for cultural and environmental autonomy, the Standing Rock Sioux are appealing to this precedent of agreement, and to their entitlement to interact with land in ways that are culturally appropriate.
We slept in the Oceti Sakowin camp in a yurt close to the highway. It was unlike any community I’d experienced before, and I was just barely starting to understand the microdynamics after a week. I was humbled to share the same space as so many different people from so many different places and life paths. Most of my time was spent cooking or cleaning dishes in the main kitchen. I also helped paint signs and tried to talk to everyone I met.
This is not to say there were tensions within the camp. I was constantly aware of my white non-Native identity, navigating how to be respectful when I do not understand the full cultural significance of ceremonies and prayers. I saw a particularly striking example of cultural disconnect one day when I walked along the Cannonball River with a friend I’d made in the kitchen to Sacred Stone Camp, the original camp founded in April. My friend – whose anecdotal reflections came from having been there a few weeks – considered that camp to be more white. There was talk in the other camps that it was too late to unite and centralize winterizing efforts, which perhaps explained the influx of people to Sacred Stone, where volunteers were making longhouses and compost toilets – nice “environmentally friendly” things that might not be possible amid the politics of the bigger camps.
A few – mostly white – volunteers were digging into the Earth to make ground insulation for a winterized kitchen. We talked to a few indigenous young men working the security shift nearby, and one mentioned that in his culture, they would never dig into the ground, because it is Mother Earth – or at least they would have performed a ceremony. One of his friends added at another point “but I like to see these hippies work!”
The concept of “helping” is certainly a vexed one, as often volunteers can erode rather than contribute to progress in someone else’s community. Again, without a direct relationship to the place, there can be a disconnect in values. The decision to dig must have been made without indigenous consent, though certainly with good intentions. I need to remember that sometimes my presence as a white person is not helping, and might actually be actively harming the people in a space.
There were certainly cases of theft, which was all the more disheartening in a community I would call intentional. While some people may come with harmful intentions, I believe strongly in people’s ability to change and grow – and also to respond to accountability. While I speak from a place of privilege as I say this, I do believe in compassion, and that if people are given the space to be trustworthy and trusting, they will rise to that norm. We have to believe in each other. My heart was warmed by what felt like the consistent flow of donations, the fact that there was always someone who would step up to cook or clean dishes in the kitchen or work in the wellness tent, the fact that there were so many different people who decided to be here in cold North Dakota, rather than anywhere else. I was humbled by the generosity and openness I experienced there.
Being from somewhere is a relationship to that somewhere. In forming a connection with your surroundings, this becomes a kind of agreement. Rather than a compromise, it’s a negotiation, a consensus of addressing the interconnected needs of human and non-human life around you. In deciding where we belong, we also decide who or what does not belong.
Considering my positionality, I was unsure which “we” I could claim. While I consider myself fully committed to this movement and the broader anti-capitalist, pro-climate justice movement as a whole, being an ally is an active process, not a label or destination, and I have to earn it. And how do these conflicts — of disrespecting an agreement, whether implicit or explicit — arise in my own communities?
Everyone needs clean water, clean air and healthy land, and we do all share the same planet, though some of us have tragically disparate access to these resources. We are all downstream. We need a new agreement – one that goes beyond national or even global political documents – but is about building relationships that act on our full humanity. Even if this pipeline goes through, we have stood – and will keep standing – together. Perhaps what matters more than who we are is how we are with each other.