One of the most significant social mobilizations of recent times has gone almost unnoticed. In the area around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, more than 200 groups, including Native American and indigenous people from the United States, Canada and Latin America, environmentalists, defenders of human rights and war veterans, have gathered together to support those who are calling themselves the “water protectors.”
It is about the fight of a Sioux tribe against the section of the Dakota Access pipeline that would pass under the Missouri River, the only source of water for them (and for millions of U.S. residents), and that would impact their ancestral lands. As in the case of so many other Native communities, this story is a litany of extermination, repression and systematic expulsion. This is largely due to the myth of terra nullius, which has been used by past and present colonizers to make the case that the land is “vacant” and subject to “legitimate” occupation by the White man, since the indigenous peoples neither “owned” nor “developed” the lands in the capitalist sense of private property.
From the Gold Rush of the 19th century up to the hydroelectric power projects, mining and petroleum extraction of the 20th and 21st centuries, treaty violations and plundering have been common features of the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans. In the case of the Sioux, the treaties of Fort Laramie of 1851 and 1868 stipulated the geographical areas that would be occupied by each of the tribes and the territorial concessions made to the white people (the tribes were originally not recognized as foreign nations or states, but neither were their people identified as citizens of the Union). Among the most offensive symbols of the treaty violations — the current allegation of the Standing Rock tribe — is the majestic Mount Rushmore “national” monument, displaying the sculpted heads of four former U.S. presidents, located in the sacred Black Hills, which had been ceded to the Sioux.
Faced with resistance based on the principle of nonviolence and the mantra “water is life,” local authorities and private security for the pipeline have responded with dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, mass arrests and the representation of the “Indians” as uncivilized opponents of progress and the “collective good.” This kind of colonialist and racist narrative invalidates the rights of the Native Americans to sovereignty, land and existence, since their vision is of a natural world that is not something that humans occupy, but an actor among others (including plants, animals and the ancestors) in the permanent re-creation of the cosmos.
In the Battle of Standing Rock — which marks an important victory in the fight to stop the pipeline — alliances are emerging across cultural differences and alternative modes of relating to “Mother Earth.” Taken together, these alliances suggest the slow but inevitable development of a counter public in the face of the predatory mentality of (post)modern capitalism.