“For the Future”: Doing Indigenous History after Standing Rock

Zoë Jackson, March 2018

#NoDAPL protesters march past the San Francisco City Hall in November 2016. Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 4.0In August 2016, Amber Annis, member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Minnesota, watched on Facebook as a man attached himself to heavy machinery at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The man was part of a group of activists protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by Energy Transfer Partners. The 1,172-mile pipeline would transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. “It was the first time that I’d seen nonviolent direct action by the protesters,” said Annis, speaking at an AHA annual meeting panel titled “The #NoDAPL and Water Is Life Movements and Historians.” Inspired by what was occurring, Annis and her family headed over to Standing Rock that September to join the protesters’ encampments.

According to Donald Fixico (Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Mvskoke Creek and Seminole), a historian at Arizona State University and chair of the AHA18 panel, the Standing Rock protests constituted the largest gathering of native people in US history. The significance of the #NoDAPL protests, said Fixico, should not be underestimated. Beginning in April 2016, indigenous activists, calling themselves “water protectors,” started protesting along the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which lay within half a mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and crossed Lake Oahe. The water protectors feared that construction of the pipeline would destroy ancestral burial grounds and other cultural resources and endanger their water supply. For native scholars, the #NoDAPL and Water Is Life movements struck close to home; bringing global attention to indigenous history and issues, the movements simultaneously called for personal and professional engagement.

The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests against it take place in the shadow of a long history of conflict between federal agencies and indigenous peoples over tribal lands and resources. “The development of the Dakota Access Pipeline is only a continuation of decades of abuses enacted upon the [Cheyenne River Sioux] tribe at the hands of government agencies,” said Annis. In the mid-20th century, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of five dams on the Missouri River, affecting seven reservations including the Standing Rock Reservation and the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The Oahe Dam, completed in 1962, displaced several native residents and resulted in the flooding of 160,000 acres of reservation lands. The dam, according to Michael Lawson, a member of the meeting panel and a historical consultant who has provided research support for Sioux tribes filing injunctions against the Army Corps of Engineers, “caused more damage to Native American lands and resources than any other single public works project in the United States.”

“When you identify as native, it’s already a kind of resistance because of the structures and settler colonial legacies that we’re still living with every day.”

The construction of the Oahe Dam ignored historic treaties and the tribes’ water and land rights. As with the Dakota Access Pipeline, Lawson said, tribal members “were incensed that the United States was again so willing to breach the faith” of its treaty obligations and to sacrifice tribal interests in order to “satisfy a non-Indian desire for what was deemed as progress.” According to Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), an American Democracy Fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, the Army Corps of Engineers was only able to build the Dakota Access Pipeline because it claimed sole jurisdiction over the Missouri River despite native claims to the land. Estes notes to Perspectives on History that internal documents reveal that the Army Corps of Engineers intentionally built the pipeline so “the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as well as downriver tribes would bear the brunt of the risks if there was a contamination of that river.” Similar justifications were used during the construction of the dams in the mid-20th century, he says.

Fixico says that the #NoDAPL protests constitute the first major US–Indian conflict in the 21st century. As it was in the past, Fixico explains to Perspectives, the issue now is American capitalism conflicting with tribal rights and concerns. But the protest movements today differ from previous conflicts in important ways. Lawson noted, for example, that there was little resistance to the dams built on the Missouri River in the mid-20th century. Now, he said, “tribes are more networked,” and their increased sovereignty has allowed them to facilitate protest movements at Standing Rock. Estes says that in the past, “Elders . . . were leading movements, and it was the young people who followed. And in this particular instance, it was actually the young people who were leading the movement, and it was the elders who were following.”

Standing Rock has brought much-needed attention to indigenous history, indigenous historians, and issues facing native communities. Estes, for example, has been researching river and water developments along the Missouri River for over a decade. He says that while the communities he worked with found his research interesting, few people cared about the scholarship when he presented it at academic conferences. Standing Rock, he says, has brought more attention to the kind of work he does and has allowed historians working on these issues to present them in a broader historical context. According to Fixico, social media in particular has amplified #NoDAPL and brought global attention to indigenous history and issues. At a more basic level, Estes argues, the Standing Rock moment has made indigenous history “mainstream.”

The #NoDAPL protests have also invigorated indigenous historical scholarship in other ways. At the annual meeting, Farina King (Northeastern State Univ.; Navajo) described how her oral history work with indigenous people in the Dallas area was made possible, in part, by Standing Rock. Activity related to the protests brought to King’s attention a community of Native Americans in Dallas she hadn’t previously known about. Until recently, she noted, there had been a sense that Native Americans in the Dallas–Fort Worth region were “invisible.” But the “call to stand with Standing Rock,” said King, “brought a lot of people to un-erase that invisibility. And to become vocal. And shout out ‘We are here.’” King met J. Eric Reed (Choctaw), one of her sources, at a #NoDAPL rally in September 2016, organized by Yolanda BlueHorse (Rosebud Sioux/Lakota), another of her sources. As Reed told King, “The call to stand with Standing Rock is like a drum that all our people are hearing and were gathering around.”

History, as a discipline, has yet to come to terms with its relationship to settler colonialism and imperialism in North America.

But there is still work to be done. Standing Rock drew attention to indigenous issues and communities, but misperceptions about native peoples continue to pervade American society. Some indigenous scholars see their scholarship as an attempt to correct this. Fixico tells Perspectives that he has “always had a purpose to help people have a better understanding of American Indians and their issues and concerns and their history,” especially when there is “so much misinformation that’s been written about American Indians.” Estes particularly notes that history, as a discipline, has yet to come to terms with its relationship to settler colonialism and imperialism in North America. Much of the work in indigenous history, according to both Estes and Fixico, has been done by non-Indians, many of whom lack knowledge of indigenous languages or hold no discernible connections to the communities they were studying. In his scholarship, Fixico says, he tries to provide a native perspective and to change the thinking of the next generation. His work is “for the future.” Similarly, Estes, in his forthcoming book Our History Is the Future: Mni Wiconi and the Struggle for Native Liberation (2019), plans to highlight a non-anthropocentric view of history, centering on indigenous people’s relationships with such entities as the land, the water, and buffalo.

The protests have made it impossible for indigenous historians to see their work as separate from the broader movement for indigenous rights and sovereignty. Fixico, for example, considers himself “something of an activist scholar.” In attempting to balance out what has already been written about American Indians, he says, his scholarly work is part of his activism. Estes notes that activism is not really a choice for his community. “When you’re a nation that is constantly under siege, anything that you do as an indigenous historian is political by default,” he says. King offered a similar perspective: “When you identify as native, it’s already a kind of resistance because of the structures and settler colonial legacies that we’re still living with every day.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline began carrying oil in June 2017, but the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continued fighting the pipeline and the environmental risks it presents. As plans for the construction of new pipelines and other industrial projects continue, efforts by indigenous activists and indigenous scholars to emphasize the importance of land, water, and other natural resources will also continue. Gesturing toward history, Annis ended her talk at the annual meeting by noting that the word Oahe, as in the Oahe Dam and Lake Oahe, translates to “a foundation to stand on” in Lakota. Her daughters, she hoped, “will understand that the foundations they stand on are made not only with sacrifices but with fortitude from our ancestors.” “They too will understand that they are water protectors themselves,” she concluded.

Zoë Jackson is editorial assistant at the AHA.

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