Corporate plunder vs. Native resistance

The following article is based on a presentation given by Ragina Johnson at the third annual Howard Zinn Book Fair, December 4, 2016, at San Francisco City College Mission campus. The thousands of water protectors and their supporters camping by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation scored a major victory on that day, when the US Army Corps of Engineers announced it wouldn’t grant an easement permit to Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the builders of the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, to drill under the Missouri River.

The announcement—a significant milestone in the effort to compel the government to recognize Native sovereignty over tribal lands—came one day before a deadline given to protesters to clear out of the camps they had built to oppose construction of the pipeline. Throughout the previous week, thousands of people had arrived to protect the camp from any law enforcement attempt to uproot it. But as Johnson points out in her presentation, the victory does not spell the end of the struggle. The Army Corps has said it will consider an alternative route, and President Donald Trump immediately declared his support for the pipeline project. But for now the pipeline is stopped, giving protesters time to continue their organizing efforts.

Ragina Johnson is a Native American Marxist living in the Bay Area who writes and speaks about Native American resistance and politics, particularly in relation to climate justice. She visited the Oceti Sakowin camp as part of a solidarity delegation sent by the International Socialist Organization last October.

I’m going to touch on several points today: (1) the state of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, (2) the role of solidarity in the movement and what the camps look like on the ground in that regard, (3) how did we get here and some of the history of resistance of the Lakota and other movements of Native resistance, and (4) I’ll end with some brief points on what we can do going forward. 

First a note on terms because people may not be familiar with all these names. Many people use the word Sioux—a French word that actually refers to the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota people. Oceti Sakowin is the name of the main camp in Standing Rock and means the Great Sioux Nation, or Seven Council Fires, or the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota.

The state of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Today at Standing Rock we are seeing a historic Indigenous fight back. Under the banner of Mni Wiconi (“Water is Life” in Lakota), over six hundred Indigenous nations support the Standing Rock protest, and thousands of non-Native people in the United States have come together at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (which straddles North and South Dakota and is the reservation of the Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Lakota, as well as the Yanktonai Dakota) to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Currently there are between 10,000-15,000 people at Standing Rock. This includes 2,000 veterans with more on their way. The resistance and solidarity so far has stopped the last leg of the pipeline construction. This is despite an astounding $17 million used as “emergency funds” by the state of North Dakota to push back the water protectors. 

Today we have had a huge victory. It was just announced that the Army Corps of Engineers personally called chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to tell him that the easement permit—required for routing the pipeline under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe—has been denied. While the struggle is far from over, this is a victory we have to celebrate. This would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the solidarity of Indigenous nations, thousands of veterans, and non-Native people responding to the attacks against the water protectors. The Army Corps is saying it is going to reroute the pipeline, so we have to talk about that. It’s not what we wanted completely. We want the pipeline stopped altogether, so the struggle is far from over. But this is a victory.

The use of the capitalist state to protect corporate profits instead of ordinary citizens couldn’t be more openly on display the last few months. The police and National Guard have been armed to the teeth to assist the Energy Transfers Partners (ETP) project of getting oil to market.

The state and DAPL security goons have unleashed unprecedented violence against the water protectors. Attack dogs have been unleashed on Native people trying to protect the graves of their ancestors. Water cannons have showered water protectors in freezing cold temperatures as police tried to clear a road. Armored vehicles mounted with military-grade crowd control devices have screamed in the ears of Native people, as they prayed for their ancestral lands not to be poisoned or desecrated, and for their sovereign rights to be upheld. And concussion grenades, beanbags, and rubber bullets have been shot at close range at protectors. These are actions that now threaten the limbs and eyes of people who have been at Standing Rock trying to protect water for future generations, a basic human right. 

It is not an exaggeration to say the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of North Dakota, and ETP have gone to war, once again, against the Lakota people and supporters.

The pipeline

If completed, DAPL will stretch 1,172 miles from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa, before terminating in Illinois. This is an almost $4 billion project, which began in 2014 and was set to finish by the end of this year. If completed, the pipeline will carry a daily load of up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing. 

This is an environmentally devastating extraction process that both Democrats and Republicans support. If people read the WikiLeaks documents released during Hillary Clinton’s race for the presidency, you know she supported fracking. If you are wondering about Obama’s silence or neglect in speaking out for the water protectors, just remember he oversaw the greatest expansion of fossil fuel extraction in the history of this country during his years as president. 

DAPL was set to weave through hundreds of waterways, including the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers; so the drinking water of not only the Standing Rock Sioux but also seventeen million people further downstream are threatened—when the pipeline inevitably breaks. We have to repeat this—when it inevitably breaks.

The Army Corps of Engineers—which is responsible over the past several generations for the displacement of thousands of members of the Oceti Sakowin for land and resource extraction—fast-tracked the Dakota Access Pipeline. It never legally consulted tribal governments, and it never completed a mandatory environmental impact statement. Now the Army Corps has said it will come out and do a full environmental assessment; this is a victory, and something it should have done in the first place. Instead, it divided the pipeline project into sections within states to get past federal regulations and environmental oversight. 

Also, as far as the route is concerned and the idea this pipeline should be rerouted, people have to know that the pipeline was already rerouted once. It was originally supposed to weave through Bismarck, one of the largest cities in North Dakota. But the pipeline was rerouted out of fear it would poison the drinking and ground water there.

This fact has been completely ignored by the mainstream media; nor was it addressed by the state of North Dakota or DAPL. Instead they vilified and dehumanized the Standing Rock Sioux and water protectors who were saying the very same thing about the impact of the pipeline on their water. 

Native self-determination

Native and non-Native people at Standing Rock are fighting not just for the integrity of vital waterways and ecosystems, but also for the right of Native American self-determination and sovereignty. Treaty rights have been at the heart of this struggle alongside the fight to protect the water. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II expressed this early on stating, “We don’t want this black snake within our treaty boundaries.” 

In 1851 and 1868, the Lakota signed treaties at Fort Laramie with the US government. The second, known as the Fort Laramie Treaty, created the Great Sioux Reservation, which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. It also protected hunting rights, which encompassed a much larger area, south to the Republican and Platte Rivers, and east to the Big Horn Mountains. The 1851 treaty includes the region where the pipeline is being built, and this is the area where the camps are now organized—the same area the Army Corps claims is “government land.”

In fighting the pipeline, the tribe has also invoked the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which protects Native American graves and burial sites. They submitted to the court locations of ancient burial sites, only to be backstabbed by the company when they used this information to destroy these sites for their advantage. The media like to keep reporting that “maybe burial sites and sacred sites will be desecrated,” but sites already have been destroyed by the pipeline construction. 

On September 3, goons (also know as DAPL “security”) attacked water protectors with dogs and pepper spray. It was videoed by Democracy Now! and watched by millions of people around the world. Protectors at that time had found DAPL personnel tearing up Lakota burial grounds, and the day after they filed their case to stop the desecration. After this brutal attack on protectors, construction was legally halted by a temporary injunction, which prohibited construction twenty miles east and west of the river.

But on October 9, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia quietly denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for a continued injunction to stop construction of DAPL through treaty-protected land. Construction dramatically increased, as well as the repression of water protectors. Since August, an astounding 564 water protectors have been arrested. The majority of these arrests were in the last two months. They have been charged with misdemeanors like criminal trespass, engaging in a riot, resisting arrest, and destruction of evidence. Some have been charged with felonies, like water protector Red Fawn Fallis, who’s been in jail for over a month. She was originally charged with attempted murder and now the charge has been decreased to felony possession of a weapon.

The increased repression and violation of civil rights shows that this is a huge fight. Energy corporations want to get their crude oil to markets in the US and overseas. They want to see a return on their investments. The Canadian and US governments have been wholeheartedly in favor of these projects because the fossil fuel extraction that we have seen over the last few years has actually helped rebuild their economies. But the construction permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers is only valid until the end of 2016. The vast majority of the pipeline has been completed—so the last juggernaut has been around the Standing Rock Sioux treaty land.

The near-zero temperatures will make it hard for the DAPL to finish construction. It will be hard for workers to labor under these conditions and for equipment to function. This is another reason why Energy Partners was rushing to get this project completed and why the repression escalated. This is why on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to put in place eviction orders for the camps. They announced that after December 5 people at the camps “will be considered trespassing and subject to prosecution.” But we have to ask who are the real trespassers on this land? 

Supposedly this order was given to protect the water protectors, but this was one week after Sophia Wilansky was shot with a concussion grenade, which exploded her arm. Now, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has backed away from forcing water protectors to leave the camps and said that authorities will no longer stop and fine people coming in. This retreat by the state was in response to a backlash of thousands of people traveling to North Dakota in solidarity with the camps. The governor said he only wanted to warn people about the cold. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Chairman Dave Archambault II responded with a really great comeback: “The Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers [here]. It is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.”

The evacuation orders came after the Army Corps of Engineers had asked DAPL twice to kindly stop construction, which DAPL never did. When the temporary injunction was in place, DAPL had not even stopped construction. Protectors found them working at night. This is why people today are saying the fight is far from over and the resistance camp must stay in place. They rightfully fear that once again DAPL will not listen to the Army Corps, despite the Corps’ refusing the permit. 

The Lakota has a long history in dealing with Army Corps. In fact, the land around Lake Oahe was stolen in the 1940s when the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams, including the Oahe Dam in South Dakota, flooding areas and displacing the Standing Rock Sioux and others. 

The camps and the role of solidarity

I’ve noted the disgusting levels of repression that has ensued against Native water protectors and supporters, but along with this, solidarity has grown dramatically. 

The violence meted out to water protectors has angered people across the country and across the world, leading to an outpouring of solidarity and support from millions of people who were already outraged by the attacks committed against Black people in the fight against police brutality. We have to say this level of solidarity is incredibly important, so I want to talk a bit about this. 

I was part of a solidarity delegation of the International Socialist Organization that went to Oceti Sakowin in October, and we’ve had many go since then. We have a dozen or so members at the camp this weekend from New York City and Portland, Oregon.

The level of organization since I’ve been there has grown tremendously. As I mentioned, there are 2,000 veterans there and more are arriving, which is phenomenal. It is not only inspiring, but was needed politically and organizationally. This victory would not have happened if the veterans hadn’t mobilized in solidarity with Standing Rock. 

The delegations of veterans say they are there to form a “human shield around the water protectors to protect them from the increasingly violent police crackdown.” There is nothing similar to this except the struggle of the Vietnam antiwar movement in terms of the agency, internationalism, and politics that veterans and soldiers bring to our struggles when they mobilize for our side.

This comes on top of the many delegations of workers that have gone to Standing Rock, including healthcare workers and labor solidarity groups. People from different struggles and movements for Native rights, and individuals who have never participated in a movement like this before, have came to fortify the camps for winter, including building housing, staffing medical tents, and participating in nonviolent direct actions. 

Just to give you a sense of the lay of the land: Sacred Stone camp was the first camp and started in April of this year. It is on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Across the Cannon Ball River is the Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires). This is the main camp, the prayer camp. Many other camps are housed within the Seven Council Fires, including the Red Warrior camp, where most direct actions are planned, as well as many other sub-camps based on Native groups, nations, or specific groups like the Two-Spirit camp for LGBTQ people. As I mentioned before, these are on land claimed by the Army Corps of Engineers as US government land, but it’s Lakota treaty land.

Encampments have moved and organized based on where they are needed. For instance, the 1851 treaty camp at the end of October was set up to block the pipeline construction and protect sacred sites.

The majority of actions aren’t people locking themselves down to equipment. Many are prayer ceremonies and visits to the sacred sites of ancestors that the pipeline is set to wipe out, or were recently destroyed. Over 300 sacred sites have been desecrated already.

There is a level of solidarity and internationalism there that I’ve never seen in any struggle I’ve participated in, and I’ve been active since the Iraq antiwar movement of 2003. I haven’t seen this level of people coming together and organizing together from so many different groups. For the Great Sioux Nation, this is the first time they have come together in something like 150 years.

As I mentioned, there are over six hundred Indigenous nations that have pledged support for Standing Rock. This is the first time in modern history that this number of nations has come together in a united struggle—defying the long history of divide and conquer on the part of colonizing governments like the United States, Britain, and others.

This is expressed around the camp in what is called Flag Row. There are hundreds of flags of groups in solidarity with the camp. The majority come from Indigenous nations but there are also flags from college campuses with signatures of professors and students, LGBTQ flags, Palestinian flags, and Syrian revolutionary flags. During my visit, there was a delegation from Kenya that had just arrived, one from Italy, and one from the Sami People from Norway, an Indigenous people from northern Europe, which was a powerful statement when you look at the history of colonization. 

Some of the solidarity and internationalism is expressed in the many political signs that line the fences surrounding the Oceti Sakowin camp. One reads, “From Palestine to Standing Rock—We are all United!”

On the ground there are now nine communal kitchens, which feed thousands of people three meals each day at the camps.1 There is a morning orientation at nine that helps new arrivals get integrated into the camp—both to understand what is needed there but also to educate people about Lakota culture so they can be there in solidarity with the prayer camp. There are daily direct-action trainings.

At the Seven Council Fires, there is a community gathering area called the Sacred Circle. They have microphones for speeches, prayers, and music, and there is drumming all day. Here is where solidarity greetings are given. While I was there, we heard from tribes and nations from around the US and around the world. There were tribes there from the Northwest along the Klamath River who are fighting a new gas transportation project, and from the Potawatomi Nation in Wisconsin still fighting against Enbridge Line 5.2

The struggle is multiracial and multigenerational. You get to learn from elders who have participated in past struggles, and the lessons are being passed onto a new generation. We spoke with Lynette Black Bear who is originally from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She is Oglala Lakota. When she was a teenager, she snuck food into the Wounded Knee occupation. This is where in 1973 the American Indian Movement along with Oglala Lakota activists had a seventy-three-day standoff with federal agents demanding Congress hold hearings on broken treaties. 

Even before this weekend there were many military veterans there. Native Americans have the highest per capita representation in the armed forces and this is one of the reasons why this large delegation of veterans has come together. 

We spoke to a former soldier, Lakasha from the Nimiipu (or Nez Perce), who had done a tour in Iraq in 2004/05. He arrived home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and has suffered over the last twelve years. As he watched the videos of Native people fighting back, he was drawn to Standing Rock. It lifted his spirits. 

Lakasha told us about his time in Iraq saying, “It was difficult. The Iraqis are Indigenous peoples themselves. It was the same thing that we are seeing here. First Nations fought on both sides of the American Revolutionary War. I am done fighting for that.”

Solidarity is being built on a strong political basis. With everyone that you speak to on the ground, you get the sense that they understand they are up against the US government, which has gone back on treaties and are in bed with corporations. There is an understanding that the fight is with these corporations and the arms of the US government—from the Bureau of Land Management to the Army Corps of Engineers, to the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that was responsible for pushing uranium extraction on Native lands like the Navajo Nation and others.

While this is an Indigenous-led struggle, it’s not framed as “whites” or “settlers” who are impinging on Native sovereignty. Instead, there is a sense of who is the real enemy. 

I would argue that there is a total lack of the divisive politics of identity, which I would frame as a focus on the differences versus what unites us. In this struggle what unites us is that we all need clean water, “Water is life!” And it’s incredibly refreshing that people can organize around this demand and see how we are in this fight together.

The encampments at Standing Rock have become the very expression of this solidarity. It is this grassroots solidarity that has brought us to this awesome victory today. 

How did we get here? Some history

This movement didn’t come out of nowhere. Canada’s Idle No More (INM) started in 2013. It arose in response to legislation from then Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Canadian government that attacked First Nations’ rights and removed many environmental protections to enable extraction from the Alberta tar sands. It was a movement set in motion by First Nations exerting their sovereignty.

INM became an international phenomenon. It projected and started to knit together local resistance to paint a more systematic picture of what was happening at this time—a new round of attacks on Indigenous rights within a new fossil fuel extraction drive. 

Out of this came the fight to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline—another big victory we had over the last couple years due to grassroots struggle. It was a broad movement that brought together Indigenous people, environmental activists, even farmers and students. Organizations like the Cowboy and Indian Alliance sprang up in the middle of this struggle uniting Natives and non-Natives that were living in the pipeline’s path. 

In this process, people who might never have thought about Native American rights were suddenly standing in solidarity with their fight, seeing the connection between stopping climate change and fighting for Indigenous sovereignty and seeing the role of treaties in this process. 

In the Sioux Nation there is also a long history of struggles against extraction and corporate and government encroachment on their lands. For the Lakota, this goes all the way back to the gold rush of 1874, which caused the US government to first renege on the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Mining companies disregarded this treaty and flooded into the Black Hills. They did this under US government protection. In 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to reservations by January 31, 1876 or a “military force would be sent to compel them.” 

Against this attack by corporations and the government, bands of the Lakota followed the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull, who refused to give up their land and their way of life. This led to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, where the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho defeated General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry in a significant blow to westward expansion. It was the greatest defeat of the US government at the time.

There also is a legacy of the multiracial solidarity were seeing today—even though today’s struggle is larger and broader than any in the past. In the 1970s there was a struggle led by the Lakota in the Black Hills of South Dakota against uranium and coal mining. It also brought together Native peoples, environmentalists, students, farmers, and miners. Again the movement based itself on the Lakota’s treaty rights to maintain their sovereignty and to also stop new extraction projects that would poison the air, the land, and the people. 

Out of this struggle, “In 1980, the US Supreme Court affirmed that the Black Hills had indeed been stolen from the Lakota in 1876, and they backed the cash-based ‘just compensation’ rather than a return of land.”3 The Lakota have never accepted any money for their land. They have refused this money. In 2011, the trust was worth $1.3 billion! Instead they want their land, sacred sites, the water, and people protected. Thirty years ago the government admitted what we know today, and what people are struggling around—that this is treaty land.

What can we do?

There are many ways for us to continue to be in solidarity with Standing Rock. The fight is far from over in terms of the pipeline construction.

People can continue to travel to Standing Rock as calls for solidarity go out. Locally, activists have been protesting the banks that are funding DAPL. Idle No More–San Francisco Bay held an action to divest from Wells Fargo. There may be fundraising efforts in the coming months.

Politically, we need to generalize the lessons of this struggle. I think it’s very important to understand what a movement based on solidarity can achieve, a struggle steeped in grassroots organizing. It’s also a movement that was independent of the two main political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, because it was forced to be. Both parties are completely and wholeheartedly in favor of the pipeline project, because they are both beholden to corporations.

It’s also important to note how a movement that raises concrete demands allows thousands of people to rally around it: stop DAPL, save our water, and uphold treaty rights for Native peoples.

These lessons are more important than ever given the coming Trump presidency. These lessons of broad-based organizing are vital, because Trump plans to go after all of us. This movement shows that with unity and solidarity you can actually win struggles. 

A whole new generation of people is making the connection between racist state violence and militarism. Just look at what has happened to people in Standing Rock and what has happened to the Black Lives Matter movement in Charlotte, North Carolina or Ferguson, Missouri in terms of state repression. Or the experiences of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, who understand their deployments were about securing oil for corporations and US imperial power, and how now they see their role as standing in solidarity with the Lakota and water protectors against an oil pipeline and the violence of police and military. 

People are thinking through all this while wondering what it’s going to take to stop the planet from burning and how to uphold people’s rights. 

We also must understand that right now the Indigenous rights movement is at a historic point. DAPL is only one fight. Indigenous nations around the country have been fighting these types of battles for decades and generations. There are many local issues and struggles around protecting Native water rights, their sacred sites, and upholding treaties. 

Within all these struggles, self-determination will be a leading element of Native resistance in this country, as history has shown us. As a socialist I believe we need to support such radical demands that put into question the US imperial and exploitative projects. 

Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull touched on this very thing—the inequality in the United States and a capitalist system that has since its founding fought to conquer Indigenous people. He said: 

We have now to deal with another race—small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

Ultimately, our goal should be to not only fight for self-determination and sovereignty of all Native Americans but importantly to also fight the capitalist system that continues to displace people and extract resources. Extraction and land dispossession have gone hand in hand with the founding of this country, and it continues as an aspect of capitalist growth. Therefore attacks on Native sovereignty and self-determination have continued.

The system Sitting Bull described is still in place more than 125 years later, and will continue to wreck havoc on the earth, on Native peoples, on the oppressed, and on working people, unless we struggle against this system and call for a new vision—a socialist society that puts people, and the planet first, instead of corporations and profit. 

I want to end by celebrating the immense victory we learned of today. We have had such few victories of late. It is a victory for the Lakota, but it is also a victory for all of us. 

Special thanks to Sara Rougeau and Brian Ward for traveling to Standing Rock with me for our delegation. Without our years of collaboration and thinking through Indigenous politics, resistance, and Marxism together, this talk would not have been possible.


  1. With the onset of extreme cold in mid-December, combined with the decision by the Army Corp of Engineers to not grant the easement for DAPL to be built, the numbers at the camp have decreased.
  2. Enbridge Line 5 is a major oil pipeline pumping oil from western Canada to eastern Canada via the Great Lakes states. Line 5 runs through northern Wisconsin and passes under the environmentally sensitive Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
  3. Zoltan Grossman, “The Black Hills Alliance,” excerpt from Unlikely Alliances: Treaty Conflicts and Environmental Cooperation between Native American and Rural White Communities (University of Wisconsin Geography Doctoral Dissertation, 2002), forthcoming in 2017 from University of Washington Press, https://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossma....

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