Since April, the construction of the North Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which would transport crude oil from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, has been protested by groups of Native land defenders and allies, a movement known as NoDAPL.The response to NoDAPL protesters has been unnecessarily militarized and violent, with the governor of North Dakota calling the National Guard, a reserve military force that has been used to clamp down on large-scale political actions like in Ferguson and Baltimore. While the media, as well as some protesters, have treated NoDAPL as solely an environmental issue, it is also a matter of Native rights. It is crucial that we acknowledge that due to ongoing colonialism and violence, Indigenous people would disproportionately suffer the consequences of climate change and environmental destruction caused by this pipeline.
In early September, the Standing Rock Sioux made an injunction request, which was later rejected, to stop the construction of the pipeline across treaty-protected, sacred burial grounds and through the Missouri River, their source of water. Peaceful protests against the DAPL were met with increased state and police violence against Native land defenders, which has included attack dogs, pepper spray, and mass arrest. This has been largely ignored and unreported by mainstream media sources. Similar struggles have occurred within Canada: in late 2015, Indigenous peoples opposing the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, a pipeline that was to run through treaty-protected Unist’ot’en land, were met with increased RCMP presence and surveillance on their land, and harassment and intimidation tactics. While both the Unist’ot’en clan and the Standing Rock Sioux have faced systemic violence that is part of the continuous oppression and erasure of Indigenous peoples, the mainstream media has portrayed the Indigenous struggles against the fossil fuel industry only as environmental activism.
This shift in media portrayal is further reinforced by non-Indigenous celebrities, political figures, and environmentalists, whose support occupies space in the media that should be given to Indigenous peoples directly affected by this issue. Their participation takes the focus away from the decolonization struggle at the centre of the NoDAPL movement, and is given priority over Indigenous voices, making it more about their involvement in the events and less about the events themselves. This misguided allyship is exemplified by actress Shailene Woodley who declared that “we’re all indigenous to this Earth” while publicizing her support for the NoDAPL cause. If those allies are sincere about their support for the Standing Rock Sioux and other Indigenous groups fighting against colonialism, they should be mindful of their privilege and empower solutions that come from the Indigenous communities they want to support.
Despite the environmental focus of the portrayal of the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight, we should not forget its anti-colonialist foundations. Moreover, those of us who are settlers directly benefit from colonialism. Instead of framing the problem in a more palatable way, non-Indigenous people need to acknowledge that this movement is fundamentally about decolonization.