Special Report — Four Guidelines from Oceti Sakowin for Movement-Building

Matthew Rose-Stark | 02.27.2017

Photo © 2017 Camille Seaman.

Author’s note: I spent ten days at Standing Rock early this winter. This article was written after the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners an easement to drill under the Missouri river on December 4th. Since that victory, the fight has continued. Water protectors have remained steadfast in the face of sub-freezing temperatures, blizzards, and continued police harassment. However, the Trump administration pushed the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the final easement, allowing Energy Transfer Partners to drill under the Missouri River. The several hundred protectors who remained at Rosebud and Oceti Sakowin Camps were evicted by police on February 23rd; many left to set up camp at nearby Sacred Stone Camp, others to support other resistance camps around the US. Water protectors have pledged to continue the battle in the courtroom and beyond.

To date, 67 million dollars have been divested by individuals from banks supporting DAPL. The Seattle City Council, under enormous public pressure, has voted to divest 3 billion dollars from Wells Fargo over its support for DAPL, and the Santa Monica City Council has followed suit. This focus on divestment fits into the larger movement for fossil fuel divestment, which has doubled in the last fifteen months to over 5 trillion dollars. Similarly, the ripples of Standing Rock have inspired the fighting of extractive industries around the US. From protest camps against the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in Florida, to the Two Rivers camp in Texas resisting the Trans-Pecos pipeline, indigenous-lead resistance has inspired a generation.

Standing Rock was a place of stark contrast.

The beauty of the landscape, the sound of wild geese. It clashed with the buzz of helicopters overhead and the constant unnatural glare of floodlights pointed towards the camp.

The compassion of many, working tirelessly for justice—I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’ve also never seen anything like the brutality and inhumanity enacted by the police against the water protectors. Cresting the hill between the camp and the pipeline, you see a war zone. Peaceful, prayerful water protectors attacked with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas, and water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures— it’s one of those things you never forget.

The elders, organizers, and leaders of the camp require that every new member of the camp attend a daily 9AM orientation. This covers the mundane—where are the kitchens? the essential—fill out an information form at the legal tent before going on any action, and the complex—how do we de-colonize the way we relate to and interact with the rest of the world?

They even provide, scrawled and circled in the middle of the white board, the four central rules for non-natives at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. I came back to these rules again and again throughout my time at Standing Rock, like a checklist to ensure I was acting in allyship and in movement-building ways.

As I sit here today celebrating the pipeline resistance and the precedent it sets for how we can and must resist the Trump administration, it strikes me how universal these rules are. These four guidelines, written by Oceti Sakowin elders, organizers, and leaders, point the way:

Rule 1: Indigenous-centered

US social, political, and economic life is defined by white supremacy. Whiteness is the status quo, from which everyone who diverges is expected to come as close to it as possible. This is seen in euro-centric standards of beauty, notions of what does and does not constitute “correct” speech and grammar, and more. The idea of private property and human beings’ inherent supremacy to and ownership of the natural world stem from a colonial, European worldview. Most of us subconsciously carry these assumptions with us wherever we go.

At Standing Rock, I was on Native land… But as a white person, a person who has been shaped by white privilege, I bring a colonized worldview to the space. This worldview tells us that we belong—everywhere. That our opinions are necessary—always. And that we already understand—everything. This first rule serves as a reminder that this is not the only nor the right way to be in the world. This rule prioritizes and centers the spaces, conversations, and actions of Native people.

When there is a group dialogue or meeting at the camp, the facilitator prioritizes Native voices and the voices of people of Color before white people are welcomed to speak. When there is media present we must defer to Native voices to answer their questions. When at actions, we must use our bodies—and the privilege our skin affords us—to protect Native people in prayer.

This struggle is not about us. This is not about our thoughts or opinions. This is not our chance to assuage our guilt, prove our commitment, or have a transformative cultural experience. This is about stopping a pipeline, this is about the biggest gathering of tribes in history, this is about indigenous sovereignty and rights; our job is to support this struggle.

We are needed, but not in the way many of us are used to showing up. Like stagehands, our role in the production is instrumental, but the spotlight was never meant for us.

Rule 2: Be of Use

Standing Rock is an electrifying, unique, and fascinating place to be for a number of reasons. From the effective (if chaotic at first glance) decentralized model of leadership, to the profundity of a social movement grounded in prayer, ceremony, tradition, and connection to the land. I found myself brimming with questions and a deep desire to understand it all. But the manner in which I ask questions comes from a colonialized incarnation of knowledge. We speak of possessing knowledge, arguably as absurd as the idea of possessing land; however, possession implies exclusion. I am not entitled, nor do I need to understand everything.

My second night at Standing Rock I went out to the edge of camp with an indigenous man named Leo to get a better look at a large bonfire blazing on Turtle Island, near the pipeline. I asked him who had lit the fire, he replied, “That’s us.” Uncertain what he meant, I pressed him, “Do you mean you guys lit that bonfire?” He responded again “That’s us.” Unsatisfied, I changed my tactics, and asked him about his walkie-talkie, which was buzzing with static filled snippets of conversation. “They gave it to me.” “Does that mean that you’re helping to lead things here?” He turned towards me and shining his flashlight in my face, said bluntly, “You shouldn’t ask questions like that, those are DAPL questions.” I apologized and then fell into silence, deeply embarrassed.

I was not at Standing Rock to understand the complex political dynamics and decision-making that informs the direct actions and resistance strategies. Nor was I there to understand what amounts to millennia of spiritual and cultural traditions and ceremonies from hundreds of different tribes—indeed even if I was, I could not begin to scratch the surface in a mere ten days. It was an honor to be invited into a sacred space like the Osceti Sakowin camp, but I was invited to assist in whatever ways I was asked, trusting that whatever people or forces were guiding this movement could continue to do so without my input or comprehension.

Rule 3: Build a New Legacy

The legacy of our country is one of white supremacy, genocide, and enslavement. The first response of many white folks coming to terms with this is guilt. Guilt can serve as a catalyst for action, but it can also be paralyzing. Centering your guilt only reifies white feelings, and further—white supremacy. Ultimately, guilt is only the first step. The antidote for guilt is action.

We must begin by learning and acknowledging our history—the history of the stolen land we live on, the history of the Brown and Black folks on whose backs this country was built, and the history of the innumerable ways we’ve benefited from the atrocities of the past. Then, grounded in that understanding, we must commit to doing everything in our power to ensure that we do not continue down this path. We must learn to use the privilege that these historical injustices have allotted us to help build a new legacy of equality, justice, sovereignty, and dignity.

Rule 4: Bring it home

A defining characteristic of having white privilege is the ability to ignore the fact that it exists, and in turn that discrimination, oppression, and white supremacy exists. As a white person, I always have the option to retreat back into my privilege, to take a break from the struggle when it gets to be too much. It is a choice for me to engage, a choice most do not have the luxury of.

Activism is not a destination. Going to Standing Rock is not enough; we cannot simply pat ourselves on the back having done our part. We have to continue the fight at home. We must share our experiences—not as a badge of honor, but as a catalyst for further action with our friends, family, and colleagues. Even if the pipeline is defeated, the work is not over. Though a victory, it’s just is a drop of sacred water in the proverbial bucket. We must educate ourselves on local movements and notice and fight against the injustices happening in our communities everyday. Though not as “big” or “exciting” as Standing Rock, often, that is where we can have the biggest impact.

At a particularly heated camp meeting, an Indigenous man rose to speak, addressing the white folks in the room directly. He described a line of white people at the previous days action, standing strong and silent, arms linked, protecting a group of indigenous elders in prayer from police who were brandishing billy clubs and pepper spray. He acknowledged their dedication, their steadfast belief in what they were doing, and their willingness to risk their privilege and their physical safety to protect these elders.

“When they [police] look at you, they don’t see an enemy, they see their brothers, and sisters, and mothers.” He was amazed to witness, for the first time since he’d been at Standing Rock, the police deescalating and retreating from a conflict. “In that moment,” he said, looking around pointedly at many of the white folks in the room, “You stopped being our allies, and became our brothers and sisters.”

But allyship is not an identity. It is a verb. It is an action we can choose to take in response to a particular time and place each and every day. When we act as allies, we are fighting for the collective liberation of all peoples. As we forgo the comfort of our privilege in the name of justice, we are relinquished from the profound isolation of hierarchy. We gain a much deeper security than that privilege ever offered; we gain the security of connection, community, purpose, and justice.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

-Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.