“Water Is Life” Teaching for Solidarity with Standing Rock

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade

Joe Brusky/Overpass Light Brigade

Mni Wiconi—”water is life.” That has been the cry of one of the most inspiring struggles in modern U.S. history. The Standing Rock Sioux—along with Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies—have been waging a campaign against construction of a $3.8 billion oil pipeline that threatens sacred sites and fresh water.

By September, “water protectors” from more than 300 tribes had joined the Standing Rock in several camps at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers in North Dakota—in tipis and tents, with prayer meetings and ceremonies, marches and demonstrations.

As we go to press in December, the Army Corps of Engineers has denied a key permit to Energy Transfer Partners, the outfit building the pipeline and, for now, the pipeline is stopped. With Trump’s arrival in the White House, the pipeline’s future is still uncertain, but this is a stunning victory, a testament to the tenacity and courage of the Standing Rock water protectors.

It’s been a struggle that binds elders and youth. A letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Anna Lee Rain YellowHammer, a 13-year-old Standing Rock tribal member (published at rezpectourwater.com), illustrates this connection: “My great-grandparents are originally from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where the pipeline will cross the Missouri River. They lived along the Missouri River all their life. They raised gardens, chickens, and horses. I want to be the voice for my great-grandparents and my community and ask you to stop the building of the Dakota Access pipeline.”

The outpouring of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux has been remarkable. And educators have joined this struggle—contributing money and supplies, and books for the Defenders of the Sacred Water School; showing up to join the water protector encampment; promoting the struggle through social media; writing letters of protest and solidarity; helping organize demonstrations in support of Indigenous rights—and teaching about what’s at stake at Standing Rock.

The nonviolent protests at Standing Rock have been met with terrifying brutality. In September, goons hired by Energy Transfer Partners unleashed vicious dogs at demonstrators—captured in a disturbing Democracy Now! video, showing snarling security dogs, their mouths red with demonstrators’ blood. Other assaults on Standing Rock protectors included the use of water hoses in subfreezing temperatures, rubber bullets, and explosive tear gas grenades. People were hospitalized with serious injuries.

Regardless of the outcome of the courageous defense waged by the Standing Rock Sioux and allies, the struggle’s significance is immense, and educators have a key curricular role to play.

Writing at the Code Switch blog—”race and identity, remixed”—National Public Radio’s Leah Donnella observed that two narratives have emerged during the Standing Rock struggle: “1. We have never seen anything like this before. 2. This has been happening for hundreds of years.” Both are true, and our teaching needs to illuminate these truths for our students clearly and imaginatively.

On just his third day in the Americas, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal how easy it would be to exploit Indigenous people: “With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” This European impulse to dominate—and when that fails, to eliminate—Indigenous peoples is a fact that needs to be central to our curriculum. Of course, the other side of this narrative of domination is resistance—and this too has been “happening for hundreds of years,” and is another fundamental fact of American history that needs to feature prominently in our teaching.

Without learning this long history of decimation and defiance, our students have no way to appreciate the meaning of what is going on at Standing Rock; they become vulnerable to elite notions of justice that undermine Indigenous rights—e.g., that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be the ultimate authority on the use of the land. As historian and activist Howard Zinn reminded us, “If you don’t know history, it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”

A curriculum of solidarity needs to help students understand the meaning of treaty rights—not as “gifts” to Native people, but sovereign rights. It’s impossible for students to make sense of the events at Standing Rock without considering how these treaty rights have been violated—especially the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which established the Great Sioux Reservation, and was unilaterally and illegally violated by Congress.

“We Have Never Seen Anything Like This Before”

The struggle in North Dakota, between a greed-infected oil company and heavily armed government agents on one side and Indigenous people and their supporters on the other, has many antecedents, but in important respects, “we have never seen anything like this before.” Never before have so many social movements recognized how their own interests intersect with those of Indigenous peoples. A statement from Black Lives Matter exemplifies this solidarity:

In the state of North Dakota, there is a movement for all of us. . . . Environmental racism is not limited to pipelines on Indigenous land, because we know that the chemicals used for fracking and the materials used to build pipelines are also used in water containment and sanitation plants in Black communities like Flint, Michigan. The same companies that build pipelines are the same companies that build factories that emit carcinogenic chemicals into Black communities, leading to some of the highest rates of cancer, hysterectomies, miscarriages, and asthma in the country. Our liberation is only realized when all people are free, free to access clean water, free from institutional racism, free to live whole and healthy lives not subjected to state-sanctioned violence.

Similarly, climate activists recognize the intimate connection between enforcing Indigenous rights, preventing greenhouse gas pollution, and the increasingly horriffic consequences that accompany that pollution. As Naomi Klein points out in is Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, “the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims.” When we support those Indigenous claims, we support climate sanity.

One of the most moving acts of solidarity came in early December with the arrival of as many as 3,000 veterans. This was a gesture steeped in history. Wes Clark, Jr., son of Wesley Clark, Sr., the retired U.S. Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO, knelt before Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota spiritual leader who had been at the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, and said:

We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. And we took still more land. And then we took your children. And then we tried to take your language. We tried to eliminate your language, that God gave you and that the creator gave you. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your earth. We’ve hurt you in so many ways. And we’ve come to say that we are sorry, we are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.

Bring Standing Rock to Class

Through stories, articles, poetry, imaginative writing, role plays, simulations, and other lively curricula, educators need to find ways to bring these and other connections to life—to help students see how diverse issues, and history, tie us together. When students begin to explore these relationships and come to see that “everything is connected,” it can be exhilarating. But too often, our teaching has left Native Americans in a distant past. A 2014 study by Penn State University Altoona professor Sarah Shear, described by Alysa Landry in Indian Country Today, found that “A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context.” Teaching about the historic Standing Rock struggle is an opportunity to help students overturn the cartoon images of American Indians they’ve absorbed throughout their lives. Standing Rock has touched our heads and hearts, because the struggle there is about everything that matters—about water, about standing up for each other, about survival, and especially about the rights of Indigenous people. As LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, tribal historian for the Standing Rock Sioux, wrote in Yes! Magazine: “We are the river, and the river is us. We have no choice but to stand up. . . . Today, we honor all those who have survived centuries of struggle. Today, we stand together in prayer to demand a future for our people.”