December 14, 2016

Reflections from NODAPL

by Joseph Santos-Lyons
APANO Executive Director

The North Dakota Access PipeLine (DAPL) is being built from the Northwestern corner of the state to the American Midwest, delivering fuel produced through fracking from the Bakken Oil Fields. Opposition has grown through every stage of construction. The intensity has peaked after the DAPL was suddenly re-routed away from Bismarck, ND- predominately White racial neighborhoods, to cross Standing Rock Sioux Nation lands where the Missouri River meets the Cannonball River. The NODAPL movement is grounded in Tribal and Native leadership who are protecting the water and sacred lands from the desecration and exploitation wrought by the pipeline. Tribal sovereignty, White colonization and relentless corporate power are at the center of the struggle, manifesting as environmental racism and contributing to climate impacts. A standoff has ensued with corporate security and law enforcement aggressively harassing and assaulting nonviolent Water Protectors, and taking steps to block media and public scrutiny.

As one Water Protector shared:

“The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are being forced at gunpoint to accept risks to their water supply that Bismarck's white residents rejected, in violation of a treaty that allowed them to keep land they were already native to. They are being told that their water supply doesn't matter, as Bismarck's white residents are told that theirs does.”

Over the Thanksgiving/Thankstaking holiday week, I had the opportunity to lead a delegation of People of Color to North Dakota to join Tribal and Native organizers in prayer and in protest. 12 of us came together to bring food, winter clothes and visible support to NODAPL, and strengthen our local solidarity with Tribal and Native communities. We created space to question our own purpose, deepen our relationships and understanding of colonization in ourselves and in the work we do, and energize broader direct action within communities of color. We raised and contributed $5,000 in addition to our own time and treasure in dedicating ourselves to the weeklong journey.


Looking back, I’d like to share three reflections.

First, racial justice needs to reevaluate and strengthen our understanding and meaningful engagement with Native and Tribal communities. My discernment and journey were influenced by reading and talking with Native and Tribal friends and colleagues, and revealed my ignorance and areas to improve. There is work I can do better to name and frame how colonialism, that is in short, the settlement of another people’s land in order to gain profit from it. How my work at APANO demands a continuously accountable to Native and Tribal communities to respect that we operate on stolen lands, and to end the cycle of silently erasing indigenous people.

Second, is the power of showing up and cultivating our own ability to be a veteran follower. We don’t need to lead or show up on the frontlines in every situation, and we should think carefully about whose leadership is needed in the struggles we work on. We sought to use what influence we had to create opportunities for more Native and Tribal voices to be heard, through the media interviews we did, and through our own social media. It was really meaningful to be part of a 12 member group, that created a collective place for reflection, support and shared resources. We quickly adapted to shared leadership, and as a group deferred to Native and Tribal leadership to influence our priorities and how we showed up at NODAPL.

Lastly is committing ourselves to a process of clarification, to seriously ask ourselves why am I going, what is my purpose, who am I serving, and how am I planning to transform my own beliefs and practices. Don’t expect to have perfect answers, but do make time to dialogue and develop the best sense that you can for yourself.

APANO has a powerful new set of values that guides our work, and two that come to the forefront in the NODAPL struggle are

  • The health, well-being and survival of our communities and the natural world are understood as more important than individual profit, and supported through equitable distribution of wealth and resources.
  • We stand in solidarity with communities who experience oppression and recognize that our liberation is directly linked to theirs.

I am grateful to APANO and our partners for grounding and supporting our #ORNODAPL trip, and for the friends and colleagues who joined together to make real our act of solidarity. The NODAPL campaign has won a significant victory with the December 2016 Army Corps of Engineers announcement that an easement would not be granted to drill under the Missouri and Standing Rock Sioux Nation lands, however we must remain vigilant. The global corporations have tremendous resources and the influence of a new US President who has pledged to fast track the pipeline. As of this writing, NODAPL groups are continuing their presence at #OcetiSakowin camp where we stayed, and monitoring the developments closely.

Looking ahead, our collective is planning an Oregon report back, and I’m working with students at the Coalition Against Environmental Racism to support their annual Environmental Justice conference April 8th, 2017 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, to incorporate Tribal and Native voices on NODAPL. I also welcome opportunities to support other People of Color who are interested in solidarity with NODAPL.

I want to thank Candi Brings Plenty, Se-ah-dom Edmo, Jacqueline Keeler, Two Spirit Nation Camp, Oceti Sakowin Camp and so many more for taking time to educate, organize and build our movements to realize the world we dream of. Check out the resources below for more links and information.


10 Discernment Questions for NODAPL Solidarity:

  1. Why am I going? What is my purpose? Who am I serving? What do I hope to gain? How can I gain what I hope for in my local community?
  2. What are the resources I'm using to go? What support do I expect when I arrive?
  3. What concrete support am I generating in support of Standing Rock Sioux Nation?
  4. What is my relationship with Native American and American Indians in my congregation and in my community? How will my going strengthen these relationships?
  5. What is my long term vision for better understanding and acting in support of Tribal Land Sovereignty, Colonialism and Environmental Racism in my congregation and in my community?
  6. How am I accountable to Native/Tribal people who face racist and colonial attitudes and beliefs in our communities and organizations?
  7. What work am I doing to build relationships with my communities to better understand Tribal issues and colonialism?
  8. Have I made a commitment to being part of a justice centered group or organization? To not just be an individual activist? If not, why not?
  9. How does going, or taking local action, reshape my role and long-term commitment my local community?
  10. Who will I look to, and how can I lead or support collective leadership in my congregation and in my community to address the root causes in our own state, center the experiences of those most affected, and work to shift the balance of power?