Climate Change, Indigenous Resistance, and Standing Rock

The following is an excerpt from Sharon Delgado’s Love in a Time of Climate Change:

Indigenous communities are at the forefront of struggles to prevent extreme forms of extraction of fossil fuels that produce climate change. The historic assault on Indigenous lands continues today in countries around the world, often through the violation of treaty rights and the exploitation of native lands by extractive industries. Large corporations have repeatedly violated treaty rights by extracting resources and polluting traditional lands that have sustained Indigenous peoples for millennia.

In 2012, the Canadian government passed legislation that violated treaty rights and removed environmental protections on lands upon Indigenous communities depend. This legislation gave more power to mining, logging, fishing, and oil companies, which were already extracting resources and polluting Canadian lands and waters. A major concern was the tar sands industry, which destroys forests and creates vast wastelands to extract a tar-like fuel called bitumen, to send via pipelines to refineries in the United States for export to the global market.

In response to this legislation, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike calling on the Canadian government to honor First Nations’ treaty rights and to protect the lands and water from corporate exploitation. “I am willing to die for my people because the pain is too much and it’s time for the government to realize what it’s doing to us,” she said. “I am not afraid to die. If that’s the journey for me to go, then I will go.”

Chief Spence’s fast gave impetus to the Idle No More Movement, which links the rights of Indigenous people with the rights of Mother Earth. The movement has now become global in scope, with Indigenous people rising up around the world to resist the exploitation of their lands by extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction, the construction of oil and gas pipelines, deforestation, pollution, and the development of harmful infrastructure systems that pollute the land, air, and water. Climate activists have joined them in solidarity on the front lines of local resistance actions, recognizing that Indigenous leadership and teachings about protecting the earth are essential for transitioning to a life-enhancing way of being in the world. Even when stopping climate change is not the primary purpose of such actions, they express resistance to the unbridled use of fossil fuels.

In 2016 thousands of people, including members of over 300 Indigenous tribes, travelled to join the Standing Rock Sioux “water protectors” in their camp in North Dakota.  The tribe welcomed allies and engaged in peaceful and prayerful actions of resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which if completed would transport crude oil under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation, endangering their water supply as well as the waters downstream. Leaders from many different religious groups issued statements in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. The United Nations issued a statement calling on the United States to ensure their right to participate in decision-making about the pipeline, since its construction would negatively impact their rights, lives and land. Hundreds were arrested in nonviolent actions.  People around the country and world sent money, transported supplies, and engaged in solidarity demonstrations. The Standing Rock rallying cry was “Mni Wiconi,” meaning “Water is Life.”

In early November 2016, five hundred clergy gathered at Standing Rock to engage in acts of repentance and reconciliation. They publicly repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, and then gave a copy of the doctrine to tribal elders, who burned it. They also memorialized and lamented the execution of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux men who were hanged by the U.S. government in 1862 after an uprising. As the condemned men stood upon the gallows awaiting death, many of them sang a hymn: “Wakantanka” or “Many and Great” (currently Hymn 148 in the United Methodist Hymnal). As an act of repentance, the clergy at Standing Rock sang that same hymn, both in English and in the Dakota language. They told law enforcement officials, “You’re standing on Dakota land.” Several were arrested and spent time in jail. This gathering of clergy at Standing Rock demonstrated repentance for past harms, the desire for reconciliation, and a commitment to Indigenous rights and care for the earth.

Just days later, on Election Day, I arrived at Standing Rock with eight friends. The tribe had asked for people to come who were trained in nonviolent action, so we responded to their call.  We watched the election results come in that night at a nearby casino, and woke up in the morning to the specter of a Trump presidency. It was a good day to be with friends, engaged in positive action for change.

We spent the next few days getting oriented at the camp. We attended the newcomer orientation and daily community briefings, media trainings, legal trainings, and nonviolence trainings. We were reminded again and again that we were guests, that we needed to follow the guidance of the elders, and that we were part of a peaceful gathering based in prayer. We contributed as we could—working in the kitchens, painting signs and banners, washing dishes, filling potholes, stacking wood. We sat at the sacred fire.

One day a contingent of Indigenous Canadian women processed into camp. The women, representing every tribe in Canada, carried a large banner that had symbols of species from their different regions. They sang songs and gave gifts of support to the Standing Rock Sioux. Each woman spoke of the struggles of the people in her region to protect the land, air, water, and the species upon which they depend for life. We then had the privilege of walking through the welcome line, shaking hands, giving hugs, and exchanging words of greeting and appreciation.

Finally, on the day before we were scheduled to go home, we were invited to participate in a nonviolent resistance action. I was arrested for blocking a road near the pipeline construction site with over thirty others, including several other members of the clergy. I spent four days in Bismarck County Jail.  Our trials have been delayed.  Mine is now scheduled for December 2018.

Regardless of the outcome of the struggle, Standing Rock has become a symbol of Indigenous resistance to the degradation of creation for the sake of profit. It is also a model that will be replicated as people seek to protect the rights of Native peoples and the gifts of creation in this critical time. Standing Rock represents the much larger struggle of bringing peace, justice, and healing to the earth. It demonstrates that when people come together in peace and in prayer, there is hope that creation may be protected and justice may prevail against the principalities and powers of this and any age.