Authors’ Note: A recent Daily Cal article explored some of the context of this movement. This piece seeks to highlight voices from UC Berkeley and impacted communities concerning collective responsibility to stand in solidarity. Both authors are affiliated with various groups involved in this movement.
“We are water protectors, not protesters,” reads one sign at the site of the Standing Rock Sioux resistance in North Dakota, reflecting their peaceful, prayerful and ceremonial intention. The largest of the camps opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, Oceti Sakowin, is lined with flags from tribes and nations across the world. The community commonly chants “Mni Wiconi” or “water is life.” The pipeline is represented as a black snake, alluding to a Lakota prophecy predicting earthly destruction.
The pipeline dispute sits at the confluence of indigenous resistance, energy extraction, climate change, social justice and historical representation. Differing political and economic agendas elucidate the sweeping range of attitudes regarding a path forward.
The historical significance of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance movement spans centuries. It is the largest gathering of indigenous people in over 100 years, and the first time since 1876 that all seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation, or Oceti Sakowin, have camped together. The movement has galvanized support across the country and on campus.
On Nov. 10, Native American student organizations on the UC Berkeley campus issued a joint statement reading: “It is necessary and important that the land rights of the people of Standing Rock be talked about, and we appreciate all the many efforts to bring awareness to the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline. However, this is a crucial time for Native self-determination on multiple levels due to multiple issues.”
Tasha Hauff, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, campus doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies and language teacher at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, echoed such sentiments. “What’s going on is an environmental issue, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a race issue, it’s a sovereignty issue.”
Thomas Biolsi, a UC Berkeley professor of Native American Studies, gave historical context. “This is just off the scales,” he said. “I think this is the biggest in terms of media coverage, the biggest event in more than 40 years,” he said.
The movement is a reminder that settler colonialism is not merely an artifact of the past, but a present reality. Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network and Mdewakantonwan activist Tom Goldtooth described at the Bioneers conference how the capitalistic commodification of the earth’s resources force indigenous people “into a world market with nothing to negotiate except the natural resources we rely on for survival.”
Hauff added that the Standing Rock Sioux in particular know a history of mistreatment by the Army Corps of Engineers relating to the Missouri River and their sovereignty. In the 1950’s, dams built by the Corps forced the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes to relocate, and subsequent floods from the dams stripped their land of trees and fertile topsoil. “What’s really sad is that they put in the dam so that it would serve the greater area,” Hauff said, “but Indians don’t actually get any of those benefits.” Assets included irrigation for farmers downstream, electricity and recreation.
Such is the nature of the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL. According to Energy Transfer Partners, the company leading construction, the DAPL will generate millions in revenue for state and local governments, yet there is no indication that any of these funds will go toward compensation for the Standing Rock Sioux.
Energy And Resources Group Professor Daniel Kammen drew parallels with the Keystone XL pipeline and discussed the need for new energy futures that do not marginalize native communities. “The wider issues of indigenous rights and clean energy are ones where we now need a new national dialogue. The clean energy options have become so much more viable that a new cost-benefit around clean versus dirty energy is needed,” Kammen said in an email.
Nov. 15 marked a day of national action in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, where hundreds of actions took place across the country. At a sunrise ceremony early in the morning at City Hall in San Francisco, hundreds of people marched to block off the section of Market Street in front of the office of the Army Corps of Engineers. Native activists from tribes such as the Bay Area Ohlone led prayers, songs, and spoke on the importance of this issue and the collective responsibility of us all to “protect the protectors.”
Teepees, tents, tarps and other shelters cover the fields near the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, some in sight of the pipeline. At Oceti Sakowin, tents for donations, kitchens, medical services, legal support, art and sweat lodges can be found throughout camp. Daily happenings, songs and stories are announced over a loudspeaker by the sacred fire.
“It is necessary and important that the land rights of the people of Standing Rock be talked about, and we appreciate all the many efforts to bring awareness to the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline. However, this is a crucial time for Native self-determination on multiple levels due to multiple issues.”
-Joint statement issued by Native American student organizations at UC Berkeley
Alley Z, who has become a resource coordinator, said, “It’s a different way of organizing by agreement. It’s not the top down structure you’re used to in white patriarchy.”
Theron Begay, of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and head of construction at Oceti Sakowin, has been leading the effort to prepare for winter. Begay said getting materials to camp has been difficult, especially because many of the roads have been closed in response to demonstrations. “We got our work cut out for us,” he said. But, he ultimately remains hopeful. “If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be here.”
Differing agendas within the camp shape a complex resistance movement. Susanne Crow, a Lakota and Dakota elder, expressed concerns that the energy of the camp has strayed from its sacred intent with the influx of outsiders, especially non-Natives.
“This is supposed to be a reverent gathering for the protection of our lives,” Crow said. She shook her head at the fireworks, trash, swearing and lack of discussion about the land and rights of people. “Some people when they go by, they don’t see us,” Crow added. “They put on Indian earrings but they don’t really give a damn about what happens to us.”
Vonda Long, a Lakota descendant of the Wounded Knee Massacre, discussed similar concerns. “I see it turning into a festival now,” Long said, adding that a prayer vibe used to dominate camp when it was just the tribe. Long said her’s was the fifth teepee at Oceti Sakowin.
Crow said while she appreciates all the support and people thinking about the water, there is an aspect of careless donating. “We are not a dumpsite for people who want to dump their guilt.”
Despite some insensitivity, many donations are welcomed. Lamar Armstrong, of the Mojave Paiute tribe, was a lead cook in the main kitchen. Even with a “revolving door” of cooks, Armstrong said “it all comes together,” with a consistently fun energy. The art effort too, converges to produce hundreds of patches and banners a day, said Mary Zeiser, from the Indigenous People’s Power Project, who leads the space.
Bronson Velarde, a firefighter in Arizona from the New Mexico Apache Nation, staffed the medic tent. Along with tear gas and rubber bullet wounds, Velarde said he’s starting to see PTSD, especially in youth. “They’ve been traumatized on so many different levels.” He added that experiences of poverty on reservations have now been confounded by police brutalization during actions.
The Iktce Wichasa Oyate at Oceti Sakowin acts as security for camp. Aidoneus Bishop, of Sami indigenous heritage, is a founding member of this group and a former Marine. Bishop described working to defuse tensions between police and water protectors by creating a buffer zone. He said he always felt ashamed of his service “fighting for corporations and greed,” which did not align with his sworn allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Standing against the DAPL, Bishop said he is now on the right side. “For the first time in my life, I upheld that oath.”
Frank Archambault, member of the Standing Rock Sioux and a founder of the Iktce Wichasa Oyate, said many actions have not actually been condoned by elders. “It’s hard to keep our people calm because there is so much hurt.” The Red Warrior camp, known for its aggressive actions, has been asked to leave by the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council.
Belief that the DAPL will falter seems to come from a deep sense of morality. “(We are) gathering here to defend what we believe in,” Archambault said. “We are not going to stand for anyone endangering what gives life to this planet, which is water.”
Bishop said pipeline proponents are “going to fail because what they believe in is falling apart.” Long added that “they just think about money as their god.”
Many recognize this movement as a sweeping call to restore symbiotic human relationships with their habitats. “What I’ve come to realize is this is a revolution against the corporate greed system,” Bishop said. Zeiser added, “the only way that we can stop the oiligarchy, restore democracy and heal the earth is by coming together and uniting.”
Closer to Home
Dozens of Berkeley students have traveled to North Dakota, and several student groups and communities have risen to the call of solidarity. The ASUC issued a resolution in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, encouraging support from our campus. Students with Standing Rock at Berkeley and the Students of Color Environmental Collective have organized actions and fundraising campaigns. Several properties in the Berkeley Student Cooperative have also pledged portions of their funds in support.
Often touting its legacy as an engine of progress, UC Berkeley maintains a complicated history with Native communities. UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum has held Native American bones in its basement since the 1940’s and has not sufficiently repatriated the human remains and basket collections back to Native communities. In 2015, the UC Berkeley administration moved to develop a large piece of land operating as the Gill Tract community farm, in opposition to community and local Ohlone resistance.
“They put on Indian earrings but they don’t really give a damn about what happens to us.”
Wes Adrianson, a sitting ASUC senator during the height of tensions surrounding the Gill Tract development, spoke about a lack of communication with Ohlone communities and the Indigenous Land Access Committee, or ILAC, protesting the redevelopment. “The question of ownership is very different. The ILAC perspective is ‘this is our land and we belong here,’ ” he said. “The university perspective is we need to exploit this land and get any money out of it we can.”
These interactions with Native groups are often reflected at the campus level. Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American Student Development on campus, said the Native community experiences ongoing processes of marginalization. “I think we have very low visibility on this campus and I think there’s a history behind that,” Bauerle said. “So when folks move forward with things even to benefit Native people they don’t think to check in and think they know best.”
Ron Spencer, UC Berkeley student and member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Navajo tribes who recently returned from Standing Rock, spoke on native representation on campus. He said, “When I think about it, I realize there’s really nothing native on the ground even though those were Ohlone lands. It’s just part of a list of aggressions.”
Some believe that the existing support systems do not go far enough. Amanina Shofry, a third-year student involved in drafting the ASUC resolution, said the administration “tends to portray (itself) as being this progressive ‘for the people’ institution, but (its) actions or lack of action, I think, shows that it is not.”
When asked what is being done to promote the campus mission statement to “create a campus where all Berkeley students, faculty and staff feel respected, supported, and valued,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email, “We support our students in exercising their free speech rights.”
The joint statement from several Native American student organizations on campus reflected the importance of expressing solidarity without marginalizing the voices of native communities. The statement reads, “We are appreciative of the support for Native causes, but as a group that makes up less than 1% of the population on this campus, we are being actively erased by those claiming to help our cause.”
Bauerle stressed the heightened need for organized support systems for Native students. The small community of around 350 does not lend itself to the same level of natural organization that more represented groups experience, putting “different pressures on the students who are here to create community.”
Hauff said one of the biggest ways campus could better support indigenous communities is “to recognize indigenous peoples in all of their studies,” be it engineering or biology. She said although it may be difficult, administration should actively listen to Native voices to show support.
The Road Ahead
From campus authorities to national politicians, the absence of a bold stance in solidarity resonates loudly. This relative silence does little to repair ingrained mistrust accumulated over years of violence and marginalization of Native American communities.
Like this country, the university continues to hold investments in the fossil fuel industry, estimated at around $3 billion in direct assets alone. Despite some steps toward divestment, a clear conflict of interest emerges between financial commitments and progressive agendas. Decisions on how to act are trapped in this limbo, with “business as usual” environmental degradation at one pole and rhetoric of inclusive progress at the other.
“The only way that we can stop the oiligarchy, restore democracy and heal the earth is by coming together and uniting.”
As the future of the pipeline and national environmental policy teeters in the balance, the need for decisive action is greater than ever. In the vacuum of leadership left by the U.S. government, progressive institutions have both an opportunity and a responsibility to lead by example.
As rubber bullets, water cannons, pepper spray and concussion grenades rain down, water protectors remain an example of resilience against daunting odds. Tensions continue to escalate along with recent reports from the Army Corps of Engineers of an eviction effort by Dec. 5. Despite threats of future conflict and an approaching winter, many remain steadfast in their resolve to stay, and more volunteers pour in by the day. Bishop said, “I’m going to walk out of here with that last flag in peace, or they can bury me in that field.”
Since this article was published, the Army Corps of Engineers denied permits for the construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe, effectively stopping the DAPL in its current route.