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Not Just Water: Standing Rock & Tribal Sovereignty

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October 18, 2016


Shailene Woodley, also known as Shailene Would she be talking about this if it didn’t make her trend on Facebook? Was arrested last Monday for criminal trespassing at the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests. While the conflict over the pipeline has surfaced relatively recently, it has been opposed by the The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe along with 100 other tribes in the U.S and Canada since its initial proposal in 2014.

The pipeline, intending to more cheaply accommodate the transport costs associated with moving crude oildapl project from Illinois poses severe problems for the reservation’s 8,000 occupants, threatening public health and welfare, water supply and cultural resources. Less than a half mile from the reservation’s border, the pipeline threatens the reservation’s source of clean drinking water, provided mainly by the Cannon Ball and Missouri River. It also interferes with several ancient burial grounds and prayer sites, both of which were bulldozed on September 3, 2016, despite Standing Rock’s sacred claims.

While the protests hit on environmental and safety concerns, it also fundamentally engages with an issue of tribal sovereignty which Woodley seems to conveniently forget as she continues to reduce it simply to an issue of water. In a video captured by the Native Opinion, Woodley relays the importance of resisting the pipeline’s construction, stating that “..it’s not just going to affect those living in [the] area, its going to affect all human beings.” She adds that she’s present despite not being from North Dakota because she “…know[s] that what happens to [the] Missouri River is going to happen to [her] eventually,” reasoning that she “…stand[s] in solidarity with [her] brother and sisters to prevent this from happening [there] because hopefully they’ll stand in solidarity with [her] as well to prevent it from happening in [her] community.”

Reducing the Dakota Access Pipeline to solely an environmental issue of water allows for derailment and erasure of tribal sovereignty, which lies at the center of the struggle. The inevitable bursting of the pipeline will of course impact water, but there seems to be no interrogation of why certain communities are particularly prone to continual human rights violations, and why certain communities are immediately lobbied for when such violations occur while others require two years of momentum to gain visibility.

When the pipeline was originally proposed, it had two possible routes, one of which constitutes the pipeline currently being built, bordering the Standing Rock reservation, the other, running North near Bismarck, the state’s capital. Ultimately, the northern route was abandoned out of fear that the pipeline may jeopardize the drinking water of Bismarck residents. The redirecting of the pipeline shows that the potential harms of its construction were not sufficient altogether to stop its construction, but rather, it was merely a matter of the federal government deciding which communities are disposable enough to put at risk.

Essentially, the worth of the residents are being held against the profit that the pipeline will create, and the cost-benefit analysis determines in the instance of Bismarck residents the cost is too great while at Standing Rock, that the benefit is. This assignment of value is not random, but rather a byproduct of hundreds of years of denigration, genocide, and desecration. Hundreds of years of delegitimizing Indigenous leaders and their claims to their land. Hundreds of years of trauma without retribution.

While intended as an effort to unify, these false generalizations and erasures of nuance actually just illustrate a state of disillusionment. This type of disillusionment allows people like Shailene Woodley to participate in a protest and feel like a good moral white woman, all while not feeling guilty about their participation in a system that allows a community’s land and resources to be destroyed for profit. This type of disillusionment allows people like Shailene Woodley to get arrested and to fail to recognize that the same system that allowed for their expedited release condones the destruction of Indigenous communities. This type of disillusionment allows people like Shailene Woodley to recognize this human rights violation as wrong, but to never indict the systems that make it possible. It is not just a convenient location that determines the placement of pipelines, but convenience combined with disposable communities, inevitably linked to race and class.

So no, Shailene, the pipeline’s construction will not affect all human beings, and most definitely will not affect you, but if you want to help, its fundamental that you start challenging the system and not the outcome of the system. What’s clean water without a sovereign community to oversee it?


Image via Paulann Egelhoff

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2 Responses to “Not Just Water: Standing Rock & Tribal Sovereignty”

  1. Cecilia Ellis

    Hey Amina! This is so important and everyone should read it, you provide essential perspective. Thank you for that! I do want to ask your opinion, though — and I apologize for sounding so goddamn cliche and white and I know it’s kind of a worn out discussion — but isn’t celebrity advertisement of a cause a good thing for sparking broader conversation, at least? Obviously Shailene failed to highlight the root of the issue and the fact that this is an indigenous issue first and foremost, but this wasn’t just attention to her, but to the pipeline. (Although obvs it was good PR for her, too…) Would it be better for a person with a platform not to use it? She could have done it SO much better, unquestionably, and focused on the actual indigenous people around her instead of on herself, but people do pay more attention to celebs than issues themselves and she did make headlines. I’m genuinely curious what you think, I’m sorry if this is rude!

    • Amina Pugh

      Hi Celia,
      While I do think that the visibility provided by folks in the media is important, I think even the way we discuss media involvement in marginalized resistance illuminates some of the issues I have with it. I want to clarify that I don’t take issue with celebrity/media involvement in itself, but the way that it is approached. Even describing it as “celebrity advertisement” implies that it is a commodity to be purchased and exchanged, and more often than not, it is self-serving. For many celebrities, their involvement to me often seems self-serving, though as everything else, this is nuanced and can be a combination of many things.

      I personally don’t believe that all exposure is inherently good, and for me, I don’t necessarily know how much Shailene’s involvement has been helpful. A productive conversation cannot be sparked by Shailene if she misrepresents the objectives of Standing Rock as well as why their conditions are the way they are. The conversation that Shailene is sparking is really one that is concerned with water rights, and it gives me co-opting vibes. She talks about Standing Rock with a focus on water as opposed to tribal sovereignty because it allows her a stake in the conversation that she otherwise would not have as white person. Reducing the issue with the pipeline to one solely of water is really reductive and perhaps it provides exposure, but there are so many better ways to do this. Bastardizing the concerns of Standing Rock to make it more valid to non-Indigenous folk by focusing just on water which applies to us all* (obviously not true) doesn’t seem helpful to me. If she wants to be helpful, she needs to stop talking, not only because this is not her community, but because she misrepresents the primary concerns of Standing Rock. There’s a difference between muffling voices and amplifying them. Shailene needs to do more of the latter.