Lessons in Practicing Allyship at Standing Rock


The unexpected mainstream (non-Native, white) interest on the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the water protector movement combatting it, started by the Standing Rock Sioux, has motivated a complex conversation on how to ally (as a verb). Visiting Standing Rock “made me realize my white activist privilege more than ever”, said Anna Sorokina, a second-year environmental studies major.

On Nov. 24, Thanksgiving day, 11 Northeastern students were there to experience this Native-led movement firsthand.

On Dec. 4, 2016, The US Army Corps of Engineers said it would not approve permits for construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River near sacred Sioux burial sites. Whether Energy Transfer Partners will fight this rejection, or continue despite it, remains unclear, particularly under president-elect Trump, who allegedly still has money invested in the pipeline.

Here are some thoughts from Anna Sorokina, second-year environmental studies, Alissa Zimmer, fourth-year environmental studies and political science, Maya Carlson, fifth-year anthropology/international affairs and Nick Boyd, third-year electrical engineering.

Their answers over email have been lightly edited for brevity.

For Indigenous-centered coverage of events, check out Indigenous Rising Media on Facebook, and also the Camp of the Sacred Stones’ blog, with their Dec. 8 update.

What did you observe in terms of dynamics of the campground? Is there a distinction between temporary protesters and people there long-term?

Zimmer: I think that we were at Standing Rock at a particularly interesting time in terms of camp dynamics. Over the break, there was a huge influx of protesters, particularly white folks. Some estimates say there were 10,000 people at Oceti Sakowin (the camp we stayed at) over the break.

There’s a daily orientation meeting that you attend as soon as you arrive to camp. At that meeting, facilitators shared the values, rules, and protocols of life at Oceti Sakowin. The first rule, and the most important, is that this space is Indigenous-centered. It’s about practicing good allyship, of elevating the voices and experiences and decisions made by the people whose ways of life have been threatened for centuries and who invited us into their home. Many of the protocols focused on ways of interacting with tribal elders and with sacred fires, situations many of us have never been exposed to before. One of the protocols was that no cultural appropriation was allowed. That included dreds worn by white folks, jingling ankle bracelets, bindis, etc.

There was a lot of very noticeable tension at camp, with white folks vastly outnumbering indigenous folks. There was very visible cultural appropriation. There were people centering traditional white environmentalism over native sovereignty. There were white folks policing indigenous folks and disrespecting the sacred spaces around camp. And these were constantly brought up by indigenous folks during a variety of meetings I attended.

At one morning’s water ceremony, primarily songs in indigenous languages were sung, but eventually the space was opened up to songs in English that captured similar spirits. With an offering of tobacco, Elders would sit by the sacred fire with you and answer your questions about prayer. Being in an indigenous-centered space didn’t mean being inauthentic or pretending to understand things you didn’t or never sharing your own experiences. It just means practicing a certain mindfulness, of thinking before acting and acting with the utmost respect for others.

We’ve got work to do as we collectively imagine what a more just world can look like, and these tensions have to be aired out in the process. White people have to sit with some discomfort along the way.

Carlson: There is no outward distinction between temporary settlers at the camps and folks who are there for the long haul. It is also problematic to make any assumptions about who identifies as Native and who identifies as Non-Native because identity is messy and fluid and one should never make assumptions like that.

If you are non-native to that land you are enacting certain forms of settler-colonial violence by simply being there…

Settler-Colonialism in the camps:

-Building of permanent structures on sacred land without asking

-Coming to the camp. Period.

-Assuming Natives will leave when we are asked to leave by the govt. They are not camping. They live here.

-Not respecting that we are here to provide energies and prayer.

-People talking about building ecovillages, taking building strategies from the camp and wanting to make them your own is settler-colonial violence + knowledge extraction.

-Disrespect of ceremony.

-Going places where you are not specifically invited to.

How did your expectations of the camp match up to the reality of it?

Carlson: Art is everywhere, which I suppose wasn’t a surprise but I didn’t expect to see such a visual outpouring of love and solidarity. Signs and banners have been sent in from all over the world to show solidarity – from Palestine, from Alaska, from Peru and Tibet. I went into this whole experience with very few expectations.

I went in with the anticipation that I would be in a place unlike anywhere I had ever been and that was true. The juxtaposition of tipis next to campers, with yurts and painted buses squeezed next to each other, canvas mess halls nestled behind white dome structures is truly stunning. People greet each other as they pass, looking one another in the eye.

At the camp, they refer to everyone, even the police, as relatives. If you are also indigenous you are brothers and sisters and cousins. What does this mean when we think about the significance of protection? We protect our family. We protect our own. And if we all belong to one another, what is sacred to you is sacred to me and we protect one another. To quote a young mestiza woman named Quetzala who led a talk on decolonization, “Decolonization is about relationship building to every living thing around us. it is about erasing the concept of the individual and creating local relationships.” This is a living process happening at the camps.

And yet, all of the strength and beauty of the camp is interrupted with helicopters and airplanes flying over head 24/7, which is technically illegal. All night, there are floodlights streaming into the camps from Turtle Island, the sacred burial grounds of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota nations that the police have taken over and surrounded with razor wire. It’s scary and angering to see how our government treats its own citizens. And even though I wasn’t surprised, I was unprepared for what it would feel like to be under Big Brother.

What did you learn from physically being at the camp that you wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise?

Sorokina: There is so much power in having thousands of people come together and plug into the work that’s being done at the camp. Folks are willing to do whatever is needed to be “of use” to the camp: pick up trash, wash dishes, chop wood, etc.

Boyd: Before coming to Standing Rock, I had never really done any work with native sovereignty and justice. When I got there, I heard firsthand about the experiences of Native Americans on reservations and in everyday life. I had no idea the extent to which the historic injustices forced upon native people continue to this day and continue to affect their lives and livelihoods.

It also opened my eyes about the privilege that I experience at the expense of other people. the camp was an intentionally native-centered space, and being asked to forgo our right to knowledge and resources really made me think about how entitled I am to things that many native people live without.

Carlson: Every day begins with a morning prayer. To quote a woman leading a peaceful march to the bridge where Water Protectors were sprayed with water cannons and hit with rubber bullets and blasted with stun grenades: “Remember where you walk, who you walk with, we are all visitors, let us walk in peace and beauty. This is what we are here for to protect the water.”

When one of the police officers on top of Turtle Island sneezed, hundreds of Water Protectors below shout out ‘Bless you! We love you!’. This type of unwavering empathy for all life, including those who are enacting genocide against your people and your way of life, is remarkable to bear witness to in real life.

You learn that even though you feel respect and admiration for Native people, they are not doing anything new or radical in their eyes. I think the way that Native Americans at Standing Rock refer to all people as relatives is a powerful inversion of how we in the Western world view things through the lens of the individual.

Capitalist colonialism came in and divided us. Race, as constructed through Colonization, tells us there is something that inherently differentiates us from one another. Colonial logic is still DEEPLY embedded into our “modern” world. We still categorize people and differentiate ourselves from each other based on class, race, gender, etc etc.

We can’t pretend like these categories don’t exist because that negates the historical context with which these hierarchies have been used to justify oppression and genocide. But listening to the ways Native Americans speak about forgiveness and love and faith as fundamental to bringing people together and decolonizing this world has completely changed the way I engage with the world moving forward.

Is police violence towards the water protectors continuous or in spurts? Did you notice any sort of retaliation or was it mostly self defense?

Carlson: [Police violence] did not take place at the camps while we were there, though there were actions in neighboring towns where police were using force against Water Protectors who were peacefully exercising their right to free speech. There are also two types of violence we should differentiate – direct violence, and structural/indirect violence. Stopping delivery of supplies to the camps, forbidding the Red Cross to come in, not plowing the roads to the camp are indirect acts of violence that continuously impact people at the camp.

Police violence is also visible through their occupation of sacred burial grounds. This is a form of direct colonial violence against Lakota, Dakota, Nakota people/ancestors. 24/7 surveillance is also a form of structural violence. Structural violence happens at the camps 24/7 and ultimately I think this is the most concerning and least understood because it doesn’t necessarily make for a viral facebook post

Is the onset of colder weather increasing the urgency of the work there?

Carlson: Native Americans know how to deal with the cold. They’ve been living in the winter for thousands of years. The work has always been urgent.

Sorokina: Absolutely. There is a need to winterize the camps, which is what we helped with a bit when doing construction work/insulating buildings.

Zimmer: In some ways, yes. There are daily weatherization meetings that teach people how to prepare for the coming weather, and there is a constant need for building structures and getting supplies donated for the winter. However, I heard a very different sentiment around the impending winter weather expressed by a few Indigenous folks leading prayer ceremonies. They made it clear that those lands were their homes and shared stories of survival. It was also mentioned that for generations and generations, indigenous folks have experienced extreme poverty levels due to historical injustices and all across North America often find themselves without enough resources for winter. This experience is not new for them, they expressed. I think this perspective is an interesting one, although it’s important to remember that this was one sentiment and that different indigenous people and non-indigenous protesters may feel pretty differently.

Boyd: As one member of the tribe said, they’re “used to the cold”. It is, however, changing the atmosphere of the camp. It feels more like a permanent city.

Did you gather from those in leadership positions that there is a goal here larger than simply blocking the pipeline?

Carlson: Of course. The #NoDAPL movement is one of thousands of fights being waged around the world by indigenous and non-indigenous people who are trying to protect our earth and our water and in turn the human race in the face of climate apocalypse. Organize organize organize. Build coalitions. Listen to Native voices. Generate knowledge that can be shared with your friends and neighbors and future generations. Native people are building a school so that Sacred Stone Camp can become a center for learning for generations to come. It’s happening. This is just the beginning.

Sorokina: Yes! There is a strong need to decolonize, which goes well beyond any single action/protest. We ought to recognize ongoing injustices Native people face, educate ourselves on Indigenous rights and history, and call out cultural appropriation when we see it occur.

Boyd: Blocking the pipeline is a smaller battle in a much larger fight for native sovereignty that has been waging for hundreds of years. It is just one more example of how Native peoples have been systematically pushed to the side. This protest drew the largest coalition of indigenous nations that anyone had experienced before.

There is hope that the attention that Standing Rock is getting in the news is the beginning of a rise in public awareness of the continues plight of native peoples across the country and around the world, and that a victory here could be one step towards more recognition and a better life for them.

What can college activists learn from this sort of organizing?

Carlson: If you’re not decolonizing the way you communicate, organize and situate yourself in this world, you are not being a true accomplice to people who are marginalized by our current world order (read: Contemporary imperialism via the Modernization Project).

Zimmer: Mindfulness. Taking a step back before we speak and act. Taking into account how much space we are taking up and how we can open up spaces for other people. Thinking about how we can center the voices of communities and marginalized folks first and foremost. Thinking about the language we use. Thinking about how we physically interact with others. This mindfulness was what was fundamentally asked of non-native activists at Oceti Sakowin, and we can bring that same mentality back to campus with us. A lack of self-awareness and the bad habit of acting before listening is what makes solidarity so elusive to many of us.

Anything else?

Sorokina: This trip made me realize my white activist privilege more than ever. Indigenous folks don’t choose to fight for environmental/social justice, and they have no home to go back to after they are done protesting the pipeline. Their lives depend on this water and this land — the fight for justice is ongoing and is not just another activist “cause” to take up. This is why it’s important to use an Indigenous framework when standing in solidarity with water protectors in North Dakota. We can’t take up space in these conversations and this struggle; we can’t tell the stories of Native people FOR them. The best thing we can do is listen carefully and educate ourselves.

Boyd: Regarding the news from the Army Corps of Engineers: I don’t believe that anyone thinks this is a final victory. Native peoples have a long-standing and well-justified mistrust of government and bureaucratic processes, and know that this is not the end of the fight. Energy Transfer Partners has significant money invested in drilling under the river, so even though the access has been denied, there is a good chance that their legal fees of continuing as before will cost much less than rerouting the pipeline. Even if the construction does move, protesters will move as well.

This fight will continue until Energy Transfer Partners either runs out of options for crossing the Missouri River, or the cost of further exploration overwhelms potential profits. Either way, the fight isn’t close to over yet.

These students have reiterated the need for self-awareness whenever supporting the work of a group you may not be a part of. As a crash course in allying-as-verb (not as an identity), Chescaleigh’s classic video is worth watching (also linked above).

Though the Standing Rock camp was established in April, 2016 by Sioux elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard – resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline has only recently been acknowledged by international media. In late October, the UN started investigations into the many alleged human rights violations against the water protectors.

Read more about Northeastern students’ experiences at Standing Rock at Huntington News.