For months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies have protested the routing of an oil pipeline near its reservation in North Dakota – and recently won a temporary victory when federal officials put a hold on the pipeline’s completion. But the protest itself has been a significant event in the 200-year history of American Indian activism, says Frederick Hoxie, who told that history in the book “This Indian Country: American Indian Activists and the Place They Made.” Recently retired as a University of Illinois professor of history, law and American Indian studies, he spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about the protest and what it means.
What have you found significant about this event, especially when compared with other American Indian protests of recent decades?
This has been a remarkably successful protest because the organizers presented themselves as more than American Indian activists; they argued that they were defending the environment on behalf of everyone. They spoke of the long history of mistreatment of native peoples, but they insisted from the start that their cause was bigger than defending the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The pipeline opponents’ approach was strikingly different from fishing rights and treaty rights protests of the recent past – recalling the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973, for example. Those events focused largely on local, tribal grievances and cast participants in the largely male role of modern-day warriors. By contrast, women were quite prominent and visible in the North Dakota protest, and the organizers made a point of reaching out to potential allies in groups concerned with the environment and the unchecked power of energy companies in our daily lives.
Their appeal succeeded in rallying a broad group of activists behind them. As a consequence, there was little intertribal tension in the protest camp, and people from a wide array of reform groups rallied to their side. The protesters’ broad approach also won them the support of mainstream churches, political leaders, veterans and others not directly identified with environmental issues.
Finally, the on-site leadership was generally effective in controlling the peaceful tone and maintaining order at their demonstrations, as well as in their use of social media to organize sympathy protests and issue calls for material support. What came across to the public as a consequence of these efforts was a movement that was clearly native-led, but which was also very much in the American tradition of broad-based, peaceful protest.
How do you view this event in light of the long history of native activism that you chronicle in your book?
As I described in “This Indian Country,” Native Americans have long insisted that the United States has an obligation to respect their communities and their homelands. They have never asked for special treatment, but they have argued that this nation in the past repeatedly promised them land, protection and dignity in exchange for their friendship and their land. Treaties embody many of those promises, but so do federal actions that recognize and protect American Indian cultures and traditions.
The most effective protests have been ones where native leaders have demonstrated that their claims are based on these basic principles of fairness and respectful consultation. The North Dakota group’s ability to accomplish that goal drew people toward them and multiplied their power. The protesters also benefited from the active support of national American Indian leaders and organizations who endorsed their approach.
The pipeline protests also introduced a newer element to the tradition of Native American activism: the claim that native people have a special obligation to alert the American public to threats to the environment. White people often stereotype native people as innocent children of nature. The protesters turned that benign stereotype around by declaring that they would not sit idly by while a precious resource – drinking water – was being endangered. In contrast to the old conservation poster of the old Indian silently weeping over polluted streams, these activists stood up as Indians and as Americans to express outrage and demand action.
Is the protest a sign of yet another stage in the evolution of American Indian politics and expectations?
The sophistication of the protest operation itself, its ability to win significant participation and support from non-native environmentalists, and this unexpected – if even temporary – victory signal a new and exciting stage in the evolution of American Indian politics. Following in the footsteps of native activists who began their campaigns nearly two centuries ago, these protesters have demonstrated that they have a legitimate claim to speak out on an important issue of our time, and that they have the political savvy and organizational strength to enable them to win the spotlight and to be heard. It will be difficult to ignore them in the years ahead.