Both day and night, in the heart of North Dakota, a testament to humanity is being consecrated. Trenches are being dug, camps are being set, and the bugle-cry of justice wafts over the plains. A battle, both peaceful and violent, is brewing. It’s impossible to ignore. Unless you try not to listen.
You can go across much of the West and find the monuments of past battles and ‘great men’. Counties and rivers wear the nomenclature of tribes and chiefs, their names sounding like a haunting whisper over the unsteady roads of the past. And you’d almost believe that all of the first peoples had left. That, after three centuries of effort, America finally erased the song of a colorful history that had existed prior and learned to peacefully coexist with its lingering echo.
What’s transpiring at Standing Rock, from the peaceful protests of tribal nations to the undignified and violent response from the opposition, proves otherwise. It shoots a poison arrow into the façade of Western History. It undermines the great mythology of our culture: that progress, in whatever form it may arrive, will come. That the ‘white man’, men like me, have evolved from the prejudices of our ancestors and unequivocally swallowed the true teachings of European Enlightenment.
Standing Rock strikes at the base nature of America. It reveals the dirty underbelly of our ‘wheels of progress’. It’s a place where most public school American-History textbooks are unwilling to go. It’s a reality that even I am afraid to admit exists.
In the shadow of the protests at Standing Rock is an intersection of two crucial fights. One is over our history, over America’s never-ending hunger for a Manifest Destiny that subjugates any corner of society’s fabric that is not lucidly-white. The other is the fight over Planet Earth itself.
The integrity of the natural world has been under attack for centuries. Even before the modern world, many looked to the forests and wilderness and saw ‘fear’ staring them back. It was only the tools of the Industrial Age that gave us the instruments to finally roll back the edge of the wild. Western Civilization, from Europe to America, bought into the idea that nature was a world of the unknown to be ‘tamed’, like a wild animal. Yet at the doorstep of technological and social progress arrived a demon of our own making: Climate Change.
Humankind’s incessant lust for complete control over nature has finally caught up with us. Climate Change, the fruit of our pouring of pollutants into the air, is now posing a direct threat to human vitality. The question of humanity’s future, and whether or not it will thrive or flounder, is not just an intellectual exercise meant for the ivory towers of academia. The essence of our species, and our ability to adapt and persevere in an ever-changing world, are directly threatened by global climate change.
Our species has reached the point of ‘no return’. We are living with climate change, whether we like it or not. The ship of a ‘miracle cure’ has long set sail from port. We are truly, as a species, on our own. As long as we live here on Earth we’ll be dealing with the persistent ramifications of human-caused climate change.
The history of humanity is so rooted to the planet, in its relationship to the soil and the land, that its current detachment from the natural world risks the very survival of our species. Our pure ignorance of the natural processes of the planet and the ways in which healthy ecosystems interact undeniably makes us the most environmentally ignorant species on planet Earth. This ignorance doesn’t just threaten our pride. It threatens our ability to survive. Climate Change has been named by many scientists as an ‘extinction level event’, one that could jeopardize the ability of Homo-Sapiens to live healthy lives on this planet.
It’s in extinction-level threats like these where we should expect all people to come together. If not even the kindness of our hearts can push us to action, certainly self-preservation should.
There’s no organization in the world that has the power to be leading this global effort quite like the nation-state. Nation-states have means at their disposal that, unfortunately, ordinary citizens do not yet have. Countries and governments like the United States could, with a slice of the fervor that they apply to warfare, organize their societies into a coordinated battle against Global Climate Change.
Yet the United States, and many of the world’s most influential powers, have shown little care for the protection of the planet.
The United States is the clear hegemony and most influential nation on Earth. America’s place could have been as a leader of responsible ecological governance, focused on an international effort on climate change that would have curbed the oncoming power of global warming. We could have used our insurmountable wealth to protect the Earth and to safeguard our shared future. And, yes, America has admittedly made small but consequential gains over the past eight years. Under President Obama, we have attended climate treaties in good faith. We sat down with our international neighbors in half-attempts to make the globe a cleaner place. But none of these things were ever enough.
Instead, we are squandering that opportunity. America, the most powerful nation in world history, has instead leveraged its power towards the continued destruction of the planet for material gain. We still allow corporations to have indescribable control over the ecological health of the continents and the oceans. We have consistently placed material wealth over biological health. Yet this should not surprise anyone.
As much as the United States was built on the foundations of slavery and the annihilation of indigenous peoples, it was similarly fueled by the systemic destruction of the natural world. The health of the native nations and the natural integrity of the wilderness went hand-in-hand. As the Cherokee, Injuns, and Seminoles fell, so too did the old-growth forests and the herds of bison that roamed the Dakota plains. Only with the heroic voices of conservationists and political activists were we able to save the last remaining specks of our once spectacular natural heritage.
We are living in an age of colossal uncertainty. Yes, the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency will undoubtedly hinder national environmental reforms. But our inability to accept the dangers of climate change, and to mitigate them effectively, go far beyond simple party labels. The vast majority of America, from leaders in Washington to the ‘average citizen’, has simply not shown planet Earth the dignity it deserves. The protection of the Earth’s natural resources and the safeguarding of her natural beauty has been a side issue in political elections for decades. And now we are reaping what we have sown.
In this vein, the future of both the America and the world look bleak. Maybe the best that we can expect is piecemeal change, lurching onto climate change like a tortoise towards the finish line. The worst that we can anticipate is another American History, one in which a new Manifest Destiny is called in to plunder the last remaining wilderness.
In the void that the nation-state has left with their inability to save the planet, the activist must step in. The activist must make progress where the nation cannot. They must push back against the uncertainty of the times and forge a form of ‘Promise’. Both national and human health rest on the shoulders of people who stand on the periphery of ‘the system’.
I’m reminded of a wonderful piece that I read recently from Bronson Koenig, a Division-I basketball player at the University of Wisconsin and a man of Native-American descent. After visiting the protest site at Standing Rock, he wrote:
“That night on the road, I wondered what the future would bring for the Standing Rock Sioux. Would the presidential election in November help or hurt Native Americans? Would the oil company continue to ignore the warnings of climate scientists? Would banks continue to fund the pipeline against the wishes of Native people? Would the government that had confined Sioux warriors like Sitting Bull and his descendants to reservations have a change of heart and protect the water resources of Native Americans?”
I wish I could answer him with a resounding ‘yes’. “Yes, of course, America will ultimately account for its mistakes. It will finally, after centuries of breaking treaties and encroaching on sacred spaces, respect the sovereignty of North America’s tribal nations”. No one in good faith can proclaim that. Our past is no indicator of such introspective revelation, and the current situation at Standing Rock isn’t remotely comforting.
It seems, in reality, that Standing Rock is merely another instance of history stuck on loop. Our history isn’t a thing to be admired as much as it is to be feared. Yet it’s worth noting that history, though resounding in our own contemporary world, does not really ‘repeat’. It merely rhymes. We hear the old chants and songs of the past; the same yells of tribes that fought for the land of yore while an impatient America ignored their pleas. But we hear them from new faces with young dreams. And this new generation of activists and leaders is poised to write its own history.
The protestors at Standing Rock are loudly demanding a different future. They are standing and praying in the bitter cold, diligently defying a system that has ignored both the Earth and her indigenous peoples for centuries.
Standing Rock is American history. It is human history. It is the child rebelling against a society taught to admire its inherent ‘progress’, yet groomed to blatantly ignore who and what was destroyed in the process. This is the peaceful yet strong rebuke of a political culture that, when analyzing the citizens of this nation, never consider the first peoples.
Standing Rock is a legion of people not taking their world for granted. We are still a culture that eats from the table without ever considering where the food grew. We are still a people that write about saving nature on tree-pulp. But these protestors, from the tribal members to outside political activists, are etching the possibility of what ‘could be’ into the minds of all Americans. It continues to be the activists and dreamers that give humankind its melody for radical change.
Humanity is still, and may always be, an experiment in selective hypocrisy, one in which we care for the health of people but not for the planet that gives us life. But in the words of the protestors, and their valiant actions through adversity and opposition, I see hope. It’s not a blind hope. It’s not just campaign-slogan hope. The people of Standing Rock are signaling, both to America and to the entire world, that there is still something on this planet worth fighting for.
We have a moral obligation, both as Americans and citizens of the world, to constantly grow and work to right the wrongs of our past. Here we have an opportunity. Here, because of the hope that rises off of the protestors like steam in the cold, we have ledges of potential to grab onto. We can make our grand dreams of human equality, and an ecological balance between humans and the planet, a reality.
And it begins there, in the frigid December air of North Dakota.
Please consider donating your time or resources to the thousands of activists and tribal communities working to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Donations can be made here to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Thank you.