Standing Rock, you may remember, was the site of a protest camp against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was due to pass through the lands of the Lakota tribe, threatening their water sources. The protests became a rallying point for native American solidarity, and as I have been reading up on direct action to inform my own activism recently, I wanted to know more about it.
So I picked up a copy of Standing Rock: Greed, Oil and the Lakota’s Struggle for Justice. It’s written by Turkish journalist Bikem Ekberzade, and she combines a history of land disputes with travel writing through the region and interviews with local people.
Considering I was most interested in the protest camps, I was initially a bit disappointed that the book doesn’t get to those until the very end. Instead, we get reminiscences about school and culture from local people, interspersed with a history of various land deals around tribal lands and the creation of reservations.
My disappointment didn’t last long, as I realised that Ekberzade has deliberately woven together these strands of anthropology, history and resistance because they can’t be teased apart – and that’s an important message of the book. You have to understand the legacy of America’s dealings with its indigenous people to make sense of the current injustice. You have to see how history and memory are rooted in places rather than in time in Lakota culture. Places are sacred, and so is water.
Land is an important theme, as you might imagine, and how it was seized for white settlers. “While war and pillage were ways of doing this,” the author observes, “making use of the market economy was another option.” Since native Americans roamed across a wide area and relied on hunting and foraging, they didn’t have any sense of land ownership. This led to land deals that meant nothing to those supposedly signing them, or that set chiefs and tribes against each other. Later, holding land in common left Lakota families in inadequate government housing with no way to raise capital to improve their lives. It’s a case study in the role of land in the economy, which is so often invisible.
Race and privilege is another theme. As the book describes, the pipeline was originally due to pass through the town of Bismarck. It was re-routed because it was a risk to the town’s water supply, at the expense of the reservation’s water supply instead. The reservation is a ‘sacrifice zone’, as Naomi Klein calls them – an unimportant ‘elsewhere’ that can be abused out of sight and out of mind.
One of the complexities of the history is that there has been plenty of conflict between native American tribes as well as with incoming settlers. There have been few moments of unity, and that lack of common cause has made it easier to marginalise and exclude Indian voices. The protests at Standing Rock were the biggest show of tribal unity since the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, and that makes them significant too.
Something I’d have found helpful that isn’t in the book is a map or two. Unfamiliar as I am with the geography of the Dakotas, it would have been useful to see the lay of the land and the route for the pipeline. That criticism aside, I found this a fascinating book and it left me feeling informed and enriched in unexpected ways.
“This book is as much about Standing Rock and why it matters as it is an exploration of hundreds of years of history” writes Ekberzade. “If we were to overlook those stories from the past – if we were to view Standing Rock as an isolated environmental movement – we wouldn’t be seeing the big picture.”