How To Talk About #NoDAPL: A Native Perspective

Water Protectors gather after a day of prayer and direct action. (Photo: Desiree Kane)

This piece is very personal because, as an Indigenous woman, my analysis is very personal, as is the analysis that my friends on the frontlines have shared with me. We obviously can’t speak for everyone involved, as Native beliefs and perspectives are as diverse as the convictions of any people. But as my friends hold strong on the frontlines of Standing Rock, and I watch, transfixed with both pride and worry, we feel the need to say a few things.

I’ve been in and out of communication with my friends at Standing Rock all day. As you might imagine, as much as they don’t want me to worry, it’s pretty hard for them to stay in touch. I asked if there was anything they wanted me to convey on social media, as most of them are maintaining a very limited presence on such platforms. The following is my best effort to summarize what they had to say, and to chime in with a few corresponding thoughts of my own.

It is crucial that people recognize that Standing Rock is part of an ongoing struggle against colonial violence. #NoDAPL is a front of struggle in a long-erased war against Native peoples — a war that has been active since first contact, and waged without interruption. Our efforts to survive the conditions of this anti-Native society have gone largely unnoticed because white supremacy is the law of the land, and because we, as Native people, have been pushed beyond the limits of public consciousness.

The fact that we are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other group speaks to the fact that Native erasure is ubiquitous, both culturally and literally, but pushed from public view. Our struggles intersect with numerous others, but are perpetrated with different motives and intentions. Anti-Black violence, for example, is publicly performed for the sake of social and economic control, whereas the violence against us has always had one pragmatic aim: our total erasure.

The struggle at Standing Rock is an effort to prevent the construction of a deadly, destructive mechanism, created by greed-driven people with no regard for our lives. It has always been this way. We die, and have died, for the sake of expansion and white wealth, and for the maintenance of both.

The harms committed against us have long been relegated to the history books. This erasure has occurred for the sake of both white supremacy and US mythology, such as American exceptionalism. It has also been perpetuated to sustain the comfort of those who benefit from harms committed against us. Our struggles have been kept both out of sight and out of mind — easily forgotten by those who aren’t directly impacted.

It should be clear to everyone that we are not simply here in those rare moments when others bear witness.

To reiterate (what should be obvious): We are not simply here when you see us.

We have always been here, fighting for our lives, surviving colonization, and that reality is rarely acknowledged. Even people who believe in freedom frequently overlook our issues, as well as the intersections of their issues with our own. It matters that more of the world is bearing witness in this historic moment, but we feel the need to point out that the dialogue around #NoDAPL has become extremely climate oriented. Yes, there is an undeniable connectivity between this front of struggle and the larger fight to combat climate change. We fully recognize that all of humanity is at risk of extinction, whether they realize it or not. But intersectionality does not mean focusing exclusively on the intersections of our respective work.

It sometimes means taking a journey well outside the bounds of those intersections.

In discussing #NoDAPL, too few people have started from a place of naming that we have a right to defend our water and our lives, simply because we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our communities. When “climate justice”, in a very broad sense, becomes the center of conversation, our fronts of struggle are often reduced to a staging ground for the messaging of NGOs.

This is happening far too frequently in public discussion of #NoDAPL.

Yes, everyone should be talking about climate change, but you should also be talking about the fact that Native communities deserve to survive, because our lives are worth defending in their own right — not simply because “this affects us all.”

So when you talk about Standing Rock, please begin by acknowledging that this pipeline was redirected from an area where it was most likely to impact white people. And please remind people that our people are struggling to survive the violence of colonization on many fronts, and that people shouldn’t simply engage with or retweet such stories when they see a concrete connection to their own issues — or a jumping off point to discuss their own issues. Our friends, allies and accomplices should be fighting alongside us because they value our humanity and right to live, in addition to whatever else they believe in.

Every Native at Standing Rock — every Native on this continent — has survived the genocide of a hundred million of our people. That means that every Indigenous child born is a victory against colonialism, but we are all born into a fight for our very existence. We need that to be named and centered, which is a courtesy we are rarely afforded.

This message is not a condemnation. It’s an ask.

We are asking that you help ensure that dialogue around this issue begins with and centers a discussion of anti-Native violence and policies, no matter what other connections you might ultimately make, because those discussions simply don’t happen in this country. There obviously aren’t enough people talking about climate change, but there are even fewer people — and let’s be real, far fewer people — discussing the various forms of violence we are up against, and acting in solidarity with us. And while such discussions have always been deserved, we are living in a moment when Native Water Protectors and Water Warriors have more than earned both acknowledgement and solidarity.

So if you have been with us in this fight, we appreciate you, but we are reaching out, right now, in these brave days for our people, and asking that you keep the aforementioned truths front and center as you discuss this effort. This moment is, first and foremost, about Native liberation, self determination and Native survival. That needs to be centered and celebrated.


K and friends

Author’s note: Some of the language in this piece has been edited for clarity. The piece originally referred to anti-Blackness as “performative,” which was meant to convey that anti-Blackness is publicly performed, for the sake of social control and exploitation, whereas anti-Native violence is committed to completely and quietly erase Native peoples — a very simple, pragmatic approach to a structural oppression.
 I apologize if the words I originally chose did not effectively state what I was attempting to convey. 

On Activism and Organizing: There is a Distinction

What’s the difference between an organizer, an activist, and someone who is just plain fighting for their life, on a personal level? Often, there is no discernible distinction, as these roles often blend together in ways that could never be separated. But for some people, there is no such complexity. I point this out because, in recent years, there has been a verbal shift in social justice spaces towards referring to everyone involved as an organizer. As a person who believes that we too often negate the meanings of words by transforming them into umbrellaed concepts, I have to say my piece about the matter.

Not everyone who is involved in movement work is an organizer, and that’s okay. And to be real, if you find that you’re spending more time condemning the imperfect ideas and practices of others than you’re spending lifting folx up, you are not healing or building anything — and that’s what it means to organize. But at some point, the ideas behind words like “activism” and “organizing” became horribly skewed, and while these are just my opinions, I think that’s bullshit.

I’m not about to bust out a dictionary, but let’s discuss what these words mean in practice.

Activism is about showing up for justice, and in the name of justice. Folx have attached a lot of nasty connotations to this word, but there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with being a person who is committed to showing up and working hard, in a consistent manner. There is nothing wrong with throwing down, in the interest of justice, with zero interest in being a planner or an architect of such moments. People should be described in whatever terms they prefer, because people have the right to define who they are, but there is nothing wrong with being an “activist” or a “protester” for that matter.

Nothing. Period.

The #NoDAPL water protecters are water protectors because that is the name they have chosen for themselves, and their work, but if they called themselves protesters or activists, would their work be less valid? Or is the act of throwing down what matters?

Organizing is a more complicated matter than simply throwing down or flexing a skill, and it should be named as such. One of my own mentors once asked me, “But aren’t we all organizers?”

My answer, as ever, is a resounding no.

Organizing sometimes means educating others, even though you have no obligation to do so. It means taking other people’s stances and feelings into account, even when they don’t resonate with your own, and realizing that no one shows up perfect to the revolution — including the past, present and future you. It’s about finding the line between having difficult conversations, to help people and communities move forward, and expecting people to simply show up where you’re at, because you’re tired of waiting for them to do so.

It’s okay to be tired and unwilling to indulge or even challenge people. But simply rejecting people’s behavior is not, in of itself, organizing, because organizing is a constructive act.

Being an organizer usually means realizing that this work pays you back in the form of community, purpose and the hope of something better, and can often detract from everything else. It’s work that ought to be materially compensated, but most of the time, it is a calling, not a career. It ought to be praised and credited, but usually isn’t. That’s just the way of things, and not everyone is going to find that tolerable.

Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone — including you — to do better, rather than honing the membership of your clubhouse.

It’s about instigating change and creating momentum.

Not everyone will assume such a role and that’s fine. Some people would never want to, and I respect that. I hope such people choose to do something in the name of justice, but that work can take many, many shapes.

To be clear, no one is obligated to swing the door open to those who endanger others. I am not above boxing out individuals who can’t stop harming folx, because to me, declaring that someone isn’t disposable means that I’m not about to toss them into the lake, or into a cage. It DOES NOT mean that they are welcome in my living room. We have a natural right to protect ourselves, and to repel the antagonism of white supremacy, but ideas don’t spread without engagement. Part of real-world organizing is finding the line between productive dialogue and harms we simply cannot engage with. That’s not easy, but it is organizing.

I see no ethical or merit-based hierarchy between involuntary struggle, activism, and organizing, but if your work is mostly rooted in dragging folx and tearing people down, please don’t call yourself an organizer. Because what you’re doing is something else entirely. Whether it’s about branding or simply reveling in a sense of superiority, such “work” is not an effort to heal or build, and it sure as hell isn’t transformative.

Seriously, let’s ask ourselves: Are we trying to make change? And how do we really think that happens?

Bottom line: Ideological posturing won’t change the world, and no one should pretend otherwise.