Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Beyond Cowboys and Indians: Will the Sacred Stones Camp Turn Into Wounded Knee, 1973?

For weeks now, thousands of Native American activists and their allies have been resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at a place in North Dakota called Camp of the Sacred Stones. As the standoff escalates, the kind of resistance that is materializing is itself rooted in the biggest American Indian protest event in history: Wounded Knee, 1973.

What People at Sacred Stones Are Fighting for

Originally based out of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota, the Standing Stones Camp was established in April of 2016. An hour south of Bismark, North Dakota, the camp was first populated by activists of the Sioux Nation from over a dozen reservations in the region, but soon its numbers were swollen by other Native nations and their allies, and several other protest camps were also established in the area. The protestors have been blocking and obstructing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which leads through Indian land, for fear that any accidents with the pipeline would poison their water, land and food sources, and bring devastation to their way of life. The pipeline, which would lead through the states of North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, is touted by its supporters as a project that would make the United States more self-sufficient in its energy production, create many jobs and serious state revenue from taxes. The US Army Corps of Engineers approved the construction of Dakota Access, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has taken the issue to federal court. The ruling has been postponed until September 9, 2016. Meanwhile, activists in Indian Country, across the United States and beyond are raising money and packing donations and whole families into cars, heading for the Camp of the Sacred Stones.

At the core of this struggle is the issue of sovereignty – a people’s right to their own environment. American Indian history is a story of dramatic land loss over the centuries since the arrival of Europeans. For Native peoples, land and landscape go beyond property: the environment is a source of spirituality (hence “Sacred Stones”), a connection with your ancestors (burial grounds), a source of nourishment (traditional food sources as alternatives to GM and processed food), spaces of culture (oral storytelling), and more. The U.S. government signed hundreds of treaties guaranteeing Indians their right to the land (including to hunting and fishing even outside their reservations), and then proceeded to ignore and violate those agreements. Since the late 20th century, Native North Americans have been aggressively defending their right to the land and resources. Sacred Stones is a part of this struggle.

Echoes of Wounded Knee at the Sacred Stones Camp

In late February of 1973, the abuses of the chairman of the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota drove its traditionalist Oglala Sioux residents to ask for the protection of the American Indian Movement, a radical Native rights organization with membership across the US and Canada. AIM had been known for a confrontational approach that was more akin to Malcolm X’s Black Nationalism than to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent protest. After discussions with the Oglala, a caravan of AIM activists drove into the village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The venue was a deliberate choice: the killing of hundreds of peaceful ghost dancers at Wounded Knee in 1890 by the US 7th Cavalry was a historical trauma that echoed in the memory of the Oglala and AIM leader Russell Means, a native son of Pine Ridge. Now they wanted a federal investigation into the activities of their tribal chairman, the reinstatement of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as the basis of relations between the US government and the Sioux Indians, and amnesty for all in the village.

Like at Sacred Stones, it was only a matter of days before the occupation of Wounded Knee developed into a dangerous standoff. Both takeovers have involved various law enforcement agencies, which have serious firepower. Yet by most accounts, the Sacred Stones occupation is largely nonviolent even as it is confrontational, and the protestors themselves have banned weapons from the camp. The activists of Wounded Knee had firearms, although they were much outgunned by the Oglala tribal and state police, the FBI (major crimes on reservations fall under their jurisdiction), federal marshals, and the US military without insignia. Although this past Saturday their protestors have clashed with private security, Sacred Stones has experienced nothing like the withering firefights that claimed several lives at Wounded Knee.

The presence and reach of news media is key to the understanding and predictions about the outcome of both Wounded Knee and the Sacred Stones Camp protest. The standoff at Wounded Knee lasted over two months, which was more than enough time not only for the US national media, but also for the international press to arrive on the site and cover the developments. The Sacred Stones Camp protest found it slower to break through to mainstream media, with only radio and social media spreading the news until just a week or so ago. At Wounded Knee in 1973, the occupiers built a partnership with the media: they would provide journalists with quotes and images of horse-riding and rifle-wielding Indians with long hair – while their opponents on the other side of the road blocks looked just enough to be the cowboys. In return, the media gave the protestors opportunities to voice their immediate demands, discuss the historical injustices they had suffered as Native Americans, and call for reform in federal Indian policy. Judging from its media coverage, the Camp of the Sacred Stones seems to be facilitating a similar partnership: the exchange of exotic spectacle for a public voice. Like at Wounded Knee, some of the protestors are Indians on horseback, while others are whole families, putting their bodies in front of the bulldozers. Their banners influde the United States flag flown upside down (a signal of distress from the days of the American Indian Movement) - and the AIM flag itself. On the outside, activists and celebrities like Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, Johnny Cash and Marlon Brando kept Wounded Knee in the public eye, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Momoa and others may do the same for the Camp of Sacred Stones.

Most importantly, at Wounded Knee the very presence of the press deterred the government from taking violent action to remove the protestors. For all the differences in technology, the news media may have a similar function at the Camp of the Sacred Stones. Yet the media is also regarded as fickle: it needs stories to feed. At Wounded Knee in 1973, these were provided by the diversity among the occupiers – the many different Native nations and their Euro-American allies, from hippies to leftist radicals to Vietnam veterans – and their spectacularized rituals of weddings, births, funerals, and even a warrior ceremony in camp. Paradoxically and sadly, further violence at Camp of the Sacred Stones may actually increase media attention.

The kind of intense and sustained protest event that was Wounded Knee and is now Sacred Stones Camp also informs the possible responses by law enforcement, and in the latter case, the Army Corps of Engineers and Energy Transfer Partners, the company whose construction of the pipeline is being blocked by the protestors. As long as there is significant media attention and an influx of new activists in the area, the authorities and the company may play a waiting game – like the Nixon Administration did at Wounded Knee in 1973. Like there, they may also engage in negotiations to resolve the standoff. However, there are signs at Sacred Stones that the authorities are trying to block access to the camp and the construction site, and to make life uncomfortable for the occupiers by shutting off their water and energy sources. These echo similar measures at Wounded Knee, where the occupiers held out in spite of such deprivations and the cold of the South Dakota spring.

Back in 1973, the government’s promise to examine the demands of the protestors at Wounded Knee was followed by the federal prosecution of the occupation’s leaders, and years of trials in the courts. This was fueled by the human cost of Wounded Knee: two Indians were killed and one US marshal was paralyzed for life in the firefights around the village. Today, the Sacred Stones Camp is teetering on the edge. Saturday the protestors broke through to the construction site, and security clashed with them, producing images of attack dogs chasing Indians, evoking the iconic pain of the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that their protest has not yet escalated into more violent confrontations and there has been no loss of life may yet lead to a peaceful resolution that allows for saving face for those in power, while backing off from imposing the pipeline project on Indian Country. On the other hand, if the impending court ruling allows further construction, we have to fear for limb and life on the Missouri River.

The Old and the New at Sacred Stones

Radical American Indian activists identified the transnational energy corporation as one of the major threats to their ways of life already in the 1970s, and the environmentalist movement has likewise been advocating for a policy of alternative energy sources for decades. Yet the struggle of the Sacred Stones Camp is rooted in a longer history of energy exploitation of the American West and its inhabitants. The memory of the whole Sioux Nation, and specifically of the Standing Rock Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota reaches back to the period after the Second World War, when their communities were displaced and lost much of their cultural habitat in the dam building on the Missouri River by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the Pick-Sloan Plan. Since the 1960s, the Hopi and Navajo reservations of Arizona’s Big Mountain Black Mesa have been suffering from the public health and environmental effects of the Peabody Energy company’s strip mining in the area – including their use of potable water to transport coal for processing hundreds of miles away. The Sacred Stones Camp protestors fear that something like this would be repeated on their lands: if the Dakota pipeline breaks like others have in other places, the oil leaks will poison the water table. In their admission, Sacred Stones is fighting to preserve the water sources of the region. What is new to their struggle is the poignancy of the issues involved: the US national project to become more self-sufficient in energy production, the potentially devastating environmental effects of human industry, indigenous human rights, and the global movement to combat climate change.

The Sacred Stones protestors are now in the process of broadening their support base into something that reaches and surpasses the kind of “Cowboys and Indians” coalition that marched on Washington, D.C. in April of 2014 to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline – the international version of the Dakota Access Pipeline. For this, Sacred Stones needs to go global - and despite its attempted objectivity, this very article is playing a part in their efforts.

While it was unsuccessful in the short term, the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 ultimately contributed to improvements in federal Indian policy by mobilizing Native Americans to push for their rights, publicizing their causes internationally, and catalyzing alliances that eventually became a global indigenous rights movement. Partly as a result of the Cowboys and Indians protest, the Obama Administration eventually withdrew its support from the Keystone XL Pipeline in late 2015. While they have not yet managed to get either of the two major current presidential candidates to take a position on the issue, the Sacred Stones protestors are looking to President Obama to cement his legacy in Indian policy by speaking out against the pipeline project. Asked by a Malay citizen at a town hall meeting in Laos today, the president said he was proud of his administration’s record of protecting Native rights, but could not speak to the details of the case.

Through their local protest with a global reach, the Camp of Sacred Stones are trying to trigger a landslide of support for the protection of water and land in the American West – in that mythical land of cowboys and Indians. Will they be successful, against what odds, and at what price? They are in it for the long haul.

Gyorgy “George” Toth, Ph.D. is Lecturer in post-1945 US history and transatlantic relations at the division of History and Politics of the University of Stirling, Scotland, the United Kingdom. He has published on American Indian history, memory and activism, including his book From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlie: The Alliance for Sovereignty between American Indians and Central Europeans in the Late Cold War (SUNY Press, 2016). His profile is at

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