From Smallpox-Tainted Blankets to the #NoDAPL Evacuation: The Lie of Colonial Concern

Water Protectors stand near Highway 1806 in Standing Rock as a police spotlight casts a blinding light in the distance. (Photo: Dark Sevier)

On Monday, November 28, 2016, an evacuation order was issued by the governor of the North Dakota, calling for the end of the largest convergence of Native resisters in modern times. That convergence, known on social media as #NoDAPL and often simply referred to as “Standing Rock” — a place whose history and legacy have now been permanently expanded to encompass this moment in time — has existed in defiance of colonial violence for months now. It is a convergence that has been assailed and slandered in news reports that take the word of law enforcement as gospel, despite the factual evidence that law enforcement has a chronic tendency to dehumanize and kill us. That tendency is the story of our existence since first contact. So is the resistance with which it has been met.

Now multiple levels of government are once again acting in concert to write their preferred ending to another chapter of that story.

In essence, the “emergency evacuation” order from Gov. Jack Dalrymple echoes the recently feigned concerns of the Army Corps of Engineers, stating that the area’s plunging temperatures and heavy snowfall pose an unacceptable safety hazard to the Water Protectors. (Such concerns for our people’s warmth were notably lacking when law enforcement blasted Protectors with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures.) The details and language of those orders can be read elsewhere, but I will tell you, unequivocally, what the public must understand about them: These proclamations have nothing to do with Native safety or survival. Our well-being has never been a priority within these United States. If it were, we would not live as we live and die as we die. We would not be killed at a higher rate by police than any other group. We would not have been subjected to such violence on the frontlines of Standing Rock or any other site of Native resistance. Every rubber bullet that has struck Native flesh, every blast of freezing water that has battered Indigenous bodies at skin-ripping velocities and every cloud of tear gas — everything you’ve seen retells the story of how little they care about our survival.

Our people having been facing a brutal storm in Standing Rock for some time now. The notion that some threat of death and suffering is now officially relevant, now that it’s posed by nature as opposed to law enforcement’s tools of torture and repression, is an insult to us all — including each of you. The truth could not be plainer. The path of the pipeline (redirected from a 90 percent white community’s backyard), the repression and the constant threat of an all-out siege are more evidence than anyone should need, for they are merely part of a larger pattern of evidence.

The Army Corps made its recent statement as a PR maneuver. By issuing an eviction date, even without the threat of force, it has skirted any liability for whatever law enforcement does next. The Army Corps declared December 5 the day on which our people will be deemed intruders on the stolen land the Corps governs. Like the governor, the Corps was sure to couch its decision in feigned concern for our people. The position it made clear was as simple as it was spineless: If our people freeze, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves, because we were warned. And if our people are further barbarized by law enforcement, it will have been by our own choice, because we were given fair warning.

After a full day of public outcry, the Army Corps clarified that it had no specific plans for the removal of our Water Protectors. Its statement was more of a proclamation justifying any ugly consequences of resisting yet another displacement.

As Native people, we know this refrain. It is in fact the mechanism by which this government has always sought to manage the Indigenous people who its extermination efforts failed to wipe from the continent. After every mass murder and every geographical reshuffling, the same cycle has repeated itself. Our people are forced to accept false boundaries and containment, or assimilation, because we are offered no other choice. We are pushed into spaces that are not seen as limiting expansion — until those lands or waters are found to have significant value. When the prospect of wealth is detected, those lands and waters are also looted, leaving disease and devastation in the wake of still more violence against both land and human beings.

These systems of colonialism must be understood. Oppressions replicate themselves, throughout history and throughout societies, until they consume targets well beyond those they were constructed to control or destroy. We see this in the gentrification that destroys both Black and Brown communities. We see this in the reshaping of slavery, which also consumes Native lives through the prison-industrial complex — despite that structure being erected, such as it exists, to uphold the social and economic functionality of anti-Blackness.

The United States, as a nation-state, is as diseased now as the smallpox-ridden blankets that were handed to us so many years ago. It is an irony not lost on us that this government once again masks its attacks as efforts to keep us from the cold — to preserve us with a false regard that reeks of death. But we see what lies ahead. In my own imagination, from so many miles away, I can see the barricades that could soon prevent firewood and life-giving food from reaching my people. I can see a government impatiently attempting to freeze and starve out our resisters, for their own good. I see them waiting until they believe that all those left standing are weak and ill-prepared for an onslaught. I see them shutting down our ability to view that siege from a distance.

But I do not see us defeated. The truth is, this government has yet to defeat us. We have survived, battle to battle, from one patch of land to another. We are the blood of what couldn’t be killed, and the heart of our resistance now beats in Standing Rock. And it will continue to strengthen us all.

UPDATE: North Dakota officials have announced that police will stop anyone attempting to bring camping supplies — including food and firewood — to the Oceti Sakowin Camp,  and inform them that they may be fined up to $1000 if they attempt to deliver the items.

This piece was originally published in Truthout.

On Beating Extinction and Refusing Eviction: A Letter to #NoDAPL’s Frontline

Chicagoans shut down a Citibank branch in solidarity with #NoDAPL. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

I write these words on what’s a cold night in my city, and a much colder night where my heart is — with my friends in Standing Rock. My writing, which typically centers movements, often sways between news and analysis. My coverage of #NoDAPL has been no exception. But this piece is neither news nor analysis, because these words are for you, my people, for our Protectors and resistors — for those who aren’t seeking to be heroes, but who are nonetheless members of heroic movements and communities.

To you I write these words, on the night the governor of North Dakota has issued you an eviction notice, like so many notices issued to so many displaced people. One of the ironic distinctions of course, is that marginalized people are usually pushed out into the cold by eviction, whereas you are being threatened with rescue, due to your own decision to face the elements. While that menace has thus far masked itself in concern, we know better, and what stage is likely being set — one of forcible removal, consistent with the history of colonialism.

I hope people see your determination and know that future isn’t set. Knowing that myself, I am not mourning today’s news, as I am sure you wouldn’t want me to. We know despair heals nothing, builds nothing, and further empowers our enemies. We live in a disciplined state of hope, and have done so for centuries. I didn’t always understand what that meant for me or my own freedom, but I do now, and I feel it more deeply because of you.  

We all take joy and comfort where we can, but my whole heart is with you tonight. Whether you are afraid or not, whether you are staying or not. I know a good many of you will hold the space you’ve grounded yourself in, and that on every front, this struggle will continue. I know we are not stifled by their proclamations. I am grateful to you all — those who will stay, those who feel they must leave, and those who made that space a home for as long as they could. There is something revitalized in the air we breathe because of you. In this moment, I believe in us as I never have, not because I didn’t believe in our potential, but because I had only witnessed snapshots of its expression.

I have not been alone in my years of resistance, but I have never felt so far from loneliness in what it means to struggle as a Native person — even as an “urban NdN,” because I believe we have found something there too — a connection of the dots in our collective constellation, and in some moments, where those lights branch elsewhere.

I believe in us, and that we are ready, more so than I have ever envisioned, to rise up against every threat to our survival and self determination. We have survived the rise of a nation state — a “super power” — grounded in our genocide. This country, built on death and human bondage, has not extinguished the lives it meant to snuff out, nor fully subverted the lives it has strived to control. It has accomplished much towards these ends, but our ancestors have risen, time after time, to prove what we are made of.

We have survived this nation state’s will for us because we are a fire that their water cannons cannot extinguish.

I am so many miles away from you tonight, but I feel your fire, burning in the freezing cold, in a place I’ve visited, but have not managed to live. You have fed that fire with every hour you have held that space. I know you’re not done yet, but I want you to know that your victories have come in stages, all building to this moment, and whatever trial or climax comes next. I want you to know that you have moved us and will continue to move us, bringing us closer to the united front we must form, with ourselves and with those pushing against every other pillar of white supremacy.

I am here for you and this. My disability and responsibilities keep me from joining you in that cold, beautiful heart of resistance that your blood — the blood of what couldn’t be killed — has kept beating. But I am living in this moment with you so that our peoples may live, and until we all get free. I will live for that, now and always, until we uproot every pipe they try to lay through our land, until we halt their violence and empty their cages. I want you to know, and have to tell you, that I will live for you, for us, and our co-strugglers, until we are living our freedom dreams — whether I live to see that day or not — and that in this moment, you give me life.

(Image: Monica Trinidad)

#NoDAPL Eviction Announced: Will You Keep Fighting With Us?

Water Protectors square off with police earlier this month. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

As people from around the country continue to converge in Standing Rock, and less than a week after police blasted Water Protectors with water cannons in freezing temperatures while gassing them in a confined space, the Army Corps of Engineers has lived up to a long-held tradition of the United States government — the displacement of Native peoples. In a letter addressed to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, the Army Corps outlined its plans to remove Water Protectors from their frontline encampment areas on December 5. In what we can expect will be a violent spectacle, reminiscent of the violence we have already witnessed during this struggle, Indigenous people will once again be faced with forced relocation for the sake of white wealth. While the government has at times voiced sympathy for the Protectors, such actions are, of course, both historically consistent and arguably predictable, but that doesn’t dull the pain.

When one is serially battered, no previous beating makes the next punch to the gut hurt any less, and I am hurting tonight. But as we process this news, and contemplate what it means for the safety of the Protectors, amongst many other concerns, there are some things we must remember.

First and foremost, this is a struggle that has made the shape and function of colonialism quite clear. The ubiquitous and socially comforting belief that our oppression was just another tragic aspect of our country’s distant past has been blown apart with concussion grenades and other instruments of war. Our society can no longer pretend that the atrocities against us have ended, and with that knowledge comes a renewed accountability. If you believe you would have actively opposed the policies and norms that killed a hundred million of our people, you are now answerable to the realities of the present. Everyone who has born witness to this struggle, up close and from afar, is now faced with a choice — a choice you will have to revisit again and again, because for many of you, these battles are wholly optional.

As this standoff nears a climactic moment, will you fight in every way you can to help us write a different ending than the one this government just penned? Will you keep raising your voices for us, no matter how bleak things may appear? Will you commit, as we have committed, to keep on fighting until we can’t fight anymore? And will you now bear witness far and wide, to the constellation of Native movements that have always been all around you, though rarely seen? Will you uplift those movements as well?

These events should also reinforce to everyone the realities of state violence, in all its forms. Native people are killed at a higher rate by police than any other group in the United States. The culture of policing, where we are concerned, has continuously been affirmed in Standing Rock, as Protectors have been beaten, tortured, attacked by security dogs, shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed and blasted with water that actually froze to razor wire as our people choked on tear gas and endured hypothermia. We must acknowledge that the all-too-familiar images of police violence during the Civil Rights Movement are not relics of another time. As we have witnessed with police attacks on the movement for Black lives, structural violence is cyclical. Today’s police violence against oppressed peoples is not an aberration in an otherwise evolved society. It is a remix of old atrocities and abuses. It is the character of law enforcement, born of slave patrols and Indian Constables, on full display, and we must not pretend otherwise.

In addition to seeing us, I sincerely hope you have seen the opposition, and clearly. We must see structural violence for what it is if we wish to halt harms and create safety. The Army Corps and Obama have repeatedly invoked politicized language of empathy and concern. To feign such concerns, while doing absolutely nothing to protect our people, is a mockery of those who are once again being battered and displaced for the sake of progress. In his letter to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, Colonel John Henderson of the Army Corps stated,”This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area.” Let’s be clear about what this means. Our people have been attacked again and again by people I can attest from experience do not look at Natives as human beings. While our people have converged in peace, police from around the midwest have also converged, to play their role in this moment of colonial and anti-colonial struggle. Morton County police and the police who have travelled from afar to join them have done everything short of killing our Water Protectors, and the only solution to this aggression that officials can produce is to further repress us.

The Army Corps letter also states that officials are worried about “death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” Such pretense would be laughable if this situation weren’t so tragic and enraging. The government has proven at every turn — including its approval of this pipeline route — that it has no concern for our well being or survival. Any claim to the contrary is a spineless PR maneuver, though some will surely latch onto it, so as not to see this shameful moment in US history as President Obama’s swan song. 

But if either Obama or his friends believe he will not be tainted by the memory of their behavior in this matter, they are sorely mistaken. The pages of history are already being written, and everything that has happened, and everything that has yet to unfold, will be  told and retold. We are not simply Protectors and warriors. We are storytellers, and we will not allow the indulgence of forgetting.

Lastly, I want to reinforce to everyone that this is not over. As Chairman Archambault stated in response to the Army Corps letter, in a statement that was released Friday night, “Our tribe is deeply disappointed in this decision by the United States, but our resolve to protect our water is stronger than ever.”

Our people have not backed down, and I do not anticipate any such action. Elders, children and other vulnerable individuals will likely be evacuated when an eviction attempt seems imminent. These evacuations have happened effectively in the past, and I trust the best efforts of our people on the ground will safeguard many. But we, as resistors, do not believe in done deals. Our people will continue to resist in and beyond this moment, as this is but one front in the wars being waged against us. The question at hand is: Will you fight with us?

Thanksgiving and Native Struggle: Why It’s Okay to Be Grateful

November 4 in Standing Rock, a Water Protector watches from a distance as police brutalize Native people. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

Thanksgiving angst has hit new highs this week, and with good reason. We’ve preemptively argued with each other online about whether or not to argue with our families in person, because, well, politics are that fucked right now. White nationalism is on the rise and with each passing day, Donald Trump still exists. And perhaps most pertinently, this day, that’s false narrative is irksome and hurtful every year, now stands in contrast to the reality of colonial violence, playing out on a historic scale in real time.

Since last spring, more than 200 Indigenous nations have converged in Standing Rock to resist construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in keeping with US tradition, law enforcement has waged war against those peoples. Water Protectors have been battered, tortured, tear gassed, struck with concussion grenades and shot down with rubber bullets. They have been terrorized with the constant noise of low-flying planes and the buzz of surveillance drones. They have lived, surrounded on all sides by an army of police and the very water they have gathered to protect — and with winter upon us, that water is now freezing cold.

I’m not surprised that after watching what our people are going though — being gassed away from prayer site, with no retreat but the frigid water at their backs, and being blasted with water cannons in the freezing cold — that many would have more pause than usual about the lies that decorate this holiday. I appreciate that pause. After all, these lies have always been an insult to our collective intelligence.

Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday during the Civil War, for the sake of public morale. That’s an interesting enough story, but it has no enduring social or political utility, and nationalist holidays usually have both. Thanksgiving as a happy dinner day between pilgrims and Indians provides a fluffy historic cover for genocide.

Now, that’s utility.

I’m not saying all of this to chip away at your enjoyment of the day. I intend to enjoy it myself. I know that many Natives treat Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, and I respect that. If people choose to join that practice in solidarity, I respect that as well. But for myself, as a Native woman who organizes against state violence, I feel I spend enough of my time mourning for both the past and the present. I choose to resist the lies of this holiday, as constructed, by holding people close who would never support its fictions, and by cherishing the work they do and the community they build. Finding gratitude with such people, and taking comfort in their joy, doesn’t feel like a concession to colonialism to me.

On this day, some of my friends will find themselves in Standing Rock for the first time. Most travelled with friends or family to act in solidarity with Native freedom fighters. They are spending this day with loved ones, but in a way that defies the legacy of genocide by embracing justice for Native people, and bearing witness to our stories as they unfold.

To bear witness to what this system would erase is an act of resistance, and unrelenting, interconnected resistance is what is called for in these times.

We can’t all be in Standing Rock today, but like our friends who have made the journey, and our friends who have been there for months, we are not tethered to any colonial mythology as we share space today. So I would offer to anyone feeling conflicted, or who simply wants to push back against the legacies of harm that are embedded in this holiday: Talk about Standing Rock today. Talk about what you can do about it. Encourage those you break bread with to donate if they can. Talk about what Native sovereignty and collective liberation might look like. Talk big. Because our gratitude doesn’t have to be bound up in a harmful nationalist mythology. Our connectedness and our gratitude can be transformational, today and every day.

Water Cannons and Razor Wire: What Happened Last Night At Standing Rock

Water fired from the water canons that battered protesters in freezing temperatures last night froze to the razor wire of a police barricade. (Photo: Redhawk)

This afternoon, hundreds of water protectors, many of whom were injured by law enforcement last night, are peacefully assembling in downtown Bismarck to protest the egregious colonial violence inflicted upon Water Protectors on Highway 1806 last night. When gathering in Bismarck, which is 90 percent white, Protectors are frequently met with calls to “go back” where they belong — the irony of which is apparently lost on the white residents of Bismarck.

Last night, as the temperature in Standing Rock plunged below 30 degrees, hundreds of people were blasted with water cannons near the Oceti Sakowin camp. Water Protectors on 1806 were also hit with percussion grenades, sprayed with mace, hit with rubber bullets and tear gas, and otherwise abused by the law enforcement. For nearly a month, Water Protectors have been prevented from removing a barricade on the Backwater Bridge on 1806. The Protectors created the barricade on October 28, to protect the Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone, and Rosebud camps during a police assault that resulted in the violent eviction of the North Camp. The police have since used the barricade to put added distance between DAPL construction and the protectors, and to disrupt community traffic. Yesterday, people attempted to peacefully remove the barricade and were immediately attacked by law enforcement.

An elder went into cardiac arrest on the frontline. People were trapped on a bridge, and in some cases gagged until they vomited and urinated on themselves. Many experienced trampling injuries. Hundreds are experiencing hypothermia.

The media is running “news” from last night with the Morton County Sheriff’s press releases as the only source. This complete failure to uphold the tenets of journalism is not simply unethical. It is dangerous. The Morton County Sheriff remains largely unchallenged by the press in its claims that it did not fire water cannons at human beings but merely put out fires that had been set on the bridge, in spite of video footage that directly contradicts such claims.

Protectors at the Oceti Sakowin Camp say they are calling on President Obama to create and sign an executive order that cancels the Dakota Access Pipeline. “We call on the President to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to no longer ‘wait and see’ when they need to determine an ‘appropriate response’ to Dakota Access drilling under the Missouri River without an easement permit, which they are.”

As a Native woman who has been to Standing Rock three times, and whose health now prevents me from making a fourth trip, I have my own asks. Call every  number put in front of you. Jam every phone line. Look at the target list of financial institutions supporting this pipeline. Pick a bank. Shut it down, just like we did in Chicago on Saturday and people did in Philadelphia this morning. The Trump administration hasn’t even taken hold yet, and I watched over a livestream last night as my friends and people were battered with water streams that can tear skin from flesh and eyes from sockets. I watched my people hold space and scramble to save one another as drops of water froze to razor wire.

I know marginalized people around the county are organizing for their own survival right now, and sitting around tables discussing the difficult days ahead. But a strategy of protection, defense and obstruction cannot wait for the inauguration of an autocrat. It must be applied here and now.

Please show us that you see us. Please do all you can to stop this.

If you cannot travel to Standing Rock, or support or organize an action where you live, consider contacting one of these Sheriffs and police departments that have loaned out the officers who are abusing Native peoples in Standing Rock. Jam their phone lines and tell them to bring their people home. If your community is on this list, actively organize to recall the deployment.

Michigan City Police Department
Michigan City, IN
(219) 874-3221

North Dakota Highway Patrol
Offices across North Dakota
(701) 328-2455

Hammond Police Department
Hammond, IN

Munster Police Department
Munster, IN
(219) 836-6600

Griffith Police Department
Griffith, IN
(219) 924-7503

Anoka County Sheriff’s Office
Andover, MN
(763) 323-5000

Washington County Sheriff’s Office
Stillwater, MN

Marathon County Sheriff’s Department
Wausau, WI
(715) 261-1200

La Porte County Sheriff’s Office
La Porte, IN
(219) 326-7700

Newton County Sheriff’s Office
Kentland, IN

South Dakota Highway Patrol
Pierre, SD

Jasper County Sheriff
Rensselaer, Indiana

Lake County Sheriff Sheriff’s Department
Crown Point, IN

Laramie County Sheriff’s Department
Cheyenne, WY

Wyoming Highway Patrol
Cheyenne, WY

Ohio State Highway Patrol
Columbus, Ohio

Nebraska Emergency Management Agency
Lincoln, NE
(402) 471-7421

Supply note: With at least two hundred injured last night, Standing Rock medics are in critical need of the following items:

Milk of Magnesia
Wool socks
Wool blankets
Space blankets
Hand warmers
Trauma kits (portable)
Suturing kits
Straw bales

Supplies can be shipped to:
Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council
P.O Box 1251, Bismark ND, 58502
or if you are shipping via UPS or Fed Ex, please use the address:
220 E. Rosser Ave. 1251, Bismark, ND, 58502

Or you can donate to the Standing Rock medics here.

On Donald Trump and White Leftists Who Want to Build Bridges

I have seen a number of posts on social media urging people on the left not to write off everyone who elected Trump as racist or misogynistic. We need to connect with some of those people, we’re told, as their decisions were grounded in despair and disillusionment. I have some thoughts to share with those who would make such arguments. These thoughts come from a place of love, but please understand that I mean every word.
To me, there is no distinction between racism that is named as such, because it fits some obvious social mold, and the brand of racism practiced by those who are out for their own white selves, and simply don’t care if some of us live or die, whether refugees drown at sea or for lack of safer space, or whether Black people are gunned down by police with impunity in cities around the country. I understand they have their own frustrations, but they literally do not care what happens to us. They elected a man who made his disastrous intentions towards us very clear, and I reject any argument that such an act is not a racist decision.
The problem here isn’t that we need to narrow our notions of racism, in order to collectively build forward. It’s that we need to broaden those notions to encompass racism’s varied manifestations. Only then can we address the reality that white supremacy is both institutional and structural, and only then can we effectively tear down the pillars that support it. Trump voters acted in a racist manner, without question. For Black, Indigenous and other people of color who betrayed themselves and their own, this is a matter of internalized oppression, but for white people, this is all very simple: Their choices were either the product of an actively hateful mindset, or a set of values that have nothing to do with whether or not some of us survive.
Please remember, it wasn’t an entire populace that perpetrated the mass genocide of my people. The violence was dealt by some, and cosigned, either actively or passively, by many others, for the sake of their own economic and social superiority. Would we not call this racism?
If you are asking us to be gentle and indulge the complexities of such thinking, in this terrible moment, you are appealing to the wrong audience. If white people listened to people of color pleading for their lives or demanding justice, we wouldn’t be here. White people who want white Trump supporters to be reached and led in a different direction — which is surely possible in some instances — need to get their hands dirty (or dirtier). The language Native people like myself use, or that any oppressed people use, to describe the violent decisions Trump voters have made is not the problem.
The problem is that far too few people cared about what is about to be visited upon us, and pleading with the oppressor to care, or even demanding as much, has not gotten us where we need to go.
I will continue to challenge and combat racism in my work, but I am not in a position to hold the hand of those who actively perpetuate racism in white communities, and teach them to do better. That has always been work best suited to white people (and far more dangerous for us to even attempt), and historically, white leftists haven’t done nearly enough of it.
So I am asking now that when you say that we shouldn’t oversimplify, that you direct your pleas for bridge building to people who aren’t living on the margin’s edge. We don’t need to hear that right now, and shouldn’t have to.
Call a meeting of white allies and accomplices instead, or at least be specific about who you are arguing should be building bridges.