The events from the last few weeks at Standing Rock have been nothing short of historic. Police in riot gear and military style equipment moving water protectors from their camp. Hundreds of people getting arrested. Water protectors barricading the road, throwing up their hands peacefully (in a haunting nod to Black Lives Matter) chanting: “hands up, don’t shoot!” And all of it at our fingertips through tweets, live streams, and the 24-hour news cycle.
We have seen this before. Indigenous people protecting their ancestral and sacred territories against extractive “development” projects. Lack of protection and little legal recourse. Disproportionate violence against protestors. Perseverance. Months of resistance. Those in opposition fearing arrest…or worse. In the Americas, actually, all around the world, we have seen this before. And we continue to see it because this global system values profit above all.
In the early 1990s Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), a California oil company, entered U’wa peoples’ existing and ancestral territories to explore for oil. Over 16 million dollars and many seismic studies later, Oxy concluded that this new oilfield has oil. A lot of oil. The U’wa responded: if Oxy found oil once they started drilling, the U’wa would commit mass ritual suicide by throwing themselves off the “Cliff of Death.” With that warning, the U’wa began to fast, pray, and ask their gods to move the oil so that the company would not find it. This was not the first time the U’wa formed a suicide pact. Retreating from Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, understanding the consequences and impending destruction of their people, they committed to dying, rather than living under such oppression.
Fast-forward to 2016, North Dakota. In April, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe launched an ongoing resistance camp near the proposed pipeline that would carry almost half a million of crude oil per day from production regions in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois. The resistance camp was a place for community and prayer, much like when the U’wa gathered to fight oil exploitation that would likely destroy their ancestral and sacred land.
Around the same time, in March in Colombia, the U’wa Indigenous Guard set out to reestablish “territorial control” of several pieces of their ancestral and, in a series of non-violent actions. First, they occupied Mount Zizuma (El Cocuy), a sacred cultural and spiritual site. In July, they occupied the controversial Gibraltar gas plant, asking for its permanent closure. The U’wa were confronted with the threat of disproportionate retaliation when Colombia’s repressive anti-riot squad arrived on helicopters to break up the occupation.
We see the same thing in North Dakota. After the Dakota the Army Corps of Engineers approved the pipeline in July the ceremonies and prayers intensified, and the protestors occupied their ancestral land. The Sioux prayed for the snake’s heads to be cut off (the snakes being the pipelines). The Sioux, and hundred of international tribes and non-native peoples have been standing beside them in solidarity.
Some have called it the biggest tribal gathering since Little Big Horn in 1876, when Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho natives gathered against the threat of the U.S. Army.
We know why they have come together in solidarity. Now, like then, the enemy is strong, he is deadly, and he knows no borders.
The pipeline is not a single isolated project. It is part of a larger global strategy, of a larger global system: jobs are promised along with “development.” Lies about economic benefits are replaced with unemployment, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation.
The night before Columbus Day, a federal holiday named after the murderous colonizer of the “New World”, the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. denied the Sioux Tribe’s request for an order to block the construction. The ruling means that construction can continue. Hundreds of protectors, who were steadfast and unmoved by the legal outcome, stayed on site. Now, they are facing off with hundreds of police officers in riot gear.
The U’wa also continue steadfast and strong, as they have for generations. The U’wa see themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance between the earth (including oil, which they believe to be the blood of Mother Earth), water, mountains, and sky. They came to a variety of agreements with the Colombian government after the occupations. The Gibraltar gas plant, however, will remain open. A silver lining is that, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) accepted the U’wa’s petition against Colombia for its failure to protect U’wa territory and respect U’wa norms that prohibit the exploitation of natural resources. We will stand with them as they make their case.
We also submitted a letter to Energy Transfer, Phillips66 and lender Wells Fargo cautioning them that they have a responsibility to protect human rights (as a matter of international law). The owners of DAPL should know that the world is watching them now and they too will be accountable to the communities and individuals they harm
These are steps in the right direction, but let’s be honest, why does it not seem like enough? Coming together in spirituality, occupation of ancestral territories, protest, legal strategies- the numerous avenues, all exhausted- yet the machine continues.
We must ask ourselves: is this the kind of world we want to live in? Where people’s land is stolen, sold, and destroyed over and over again? Indigenous peoples in North and South America, who have endured the wrath of the colonizers then, and continue to face the wrath of the same today, say no.
And we must say no with them.
In solidarity with the Sioux at Standing Rock, the U’wa in Colombia’s cloud forest, and the innumerable indigenous communities across the globe who have been fighting for centuries, and continue fighting today.
photo cc by A. Golden