Standing Rock and the Battle for the American Soul

Right now there is a battle being fought for the American soul. Its not on the political stage, an imploded and hollow spectacle, or on the increasingly out of touch economic front. And while climate change is certainly the most wide-reaching issue of our age, its not there either.

Its being fought on the cold prairies of the Dakotas, where long ago our country buried a part of its humanity that, in order to move forward together, we must all face.

Currently, there is a historic gathering happening on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where thousands of people are standing in solidarity with local indigenous groups to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line. Even recently, 500 interfaith and clergy leaders showed up to stand in solidarity with the indigenous protectors fighting the construction of a lethal oil pipeline through their land.

Word of Standing Rock has even reached the black sand shores of Aotearoa, also known as New Zealand, far across the Pacific, where I have recently traveled while leading a student group.

Throughout this time I’ve spent time with both indigenous Maori and Pakeha (white) people, and have witnessed attitudes and policies that make New Zealand perhaps the most progressive country in the Euro-colonial world regarding indigenous culture.

New Zealand today offers a refreshing example of what a post-colonial nation looks like when it takes the steps to integrate, embrace, and heal its indigenous legacy.

Compared to my own country, the contrast couldn’t be starker, especially considering the events currently transpiring at Standing Rock. 

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

By now, many who were unaware of the situation at Standing Rock have become, in some part, informed. While mainstream media coverage of this issue has been conspicuously scant, a recent viral social media trend that swept Facebook several weeks ago, calling people to collectively “check in” to Standing Rock in order to show support and to potentially confuse the arrest tactics of North Dakota police, has potentially created the awareness that this issue so deeply deserves.

I’ve followed friends and people in my community who have taken the journey towards that neglected heart of our country to stand in solidarity with the indigenous people who’s land and heritage is in jeopardy. I’ve see images of a nightmarish, militarized police force, news of harassment, mass arrests, and intimidation tactics being used on people peacefully defending their own land, their own heritage, which is sacred.

Looking closer, I see a country still celebrating “Columbus Day,” an ill-conceived holiday enmeshed in controversy and indigenous opposition. I see a country that still supports the sports brands of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians- offensive depictions of native peoples which would be harshly condemned were they to represent any other ethnic or religious group.

Simply put, I see a modern nation still refusing to recognize the rights of indigenous people in the 21st century. Perhaps this has always been the case, but it is through the events currently taking place at Standing Rock that many Americans are now more able to understand the scope of oppression that indigenous people face in the United States.

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

Let’s take a look at New Zealand, a small, remote country known mostly for its population of sheep and Hobbits. However, here is a country which honors its indigenous inhabitants by printing their language on its currency. Here is a country which, upon arriving in the Auckland International airport, I walked through a traditionally carved Maori waharoa, or gateway, listening to a powhiri welcoming song- a potentially appropriative use of Maori culture, but ultimately a profound acknowledgement of this traditional custom.

Here is a country who’s national museum, Te Papa, has every single line of text rendered in both Te Reo Maori, and English. Leaving the museum, its hard not to notice the profusion of Te Reo being used in signage all over the country by both businesses and the state.

The inclusion of indigenous culture in all aspects of a national museum conveys a deeper truth, which is that Maori people and culture are an integral part of New Zealand’s identity.

These symbolic, yet significant acts would seem utterly outlandish in a place like the Natural History Museum in New York City, where Native American regalia, weaponry, and sacred objects are presented as artifacts from a soon-to-be extinct strain of mankind, much like the Neanderthal or Homo Erectus, located only a short walk down the hall. 

In Aotearoa, both white and indigenous schoolchildren often study Te Reo for years, learning traditional kapa haka (dances & performance,) and waiata (songs,) alongside Maori peers of the same age. I’ve met young New Zealanders who are fluent in Maori, despite the fact that they don’t have a drop of indigenous blood. In the United States, for a non-Native person to learn Lakota, Diné, or Abenaki, it would be a marginal and eccentric pursuit at best.

In New Zealand, as one friend put it, “every Kiwi kid knows how to count to five in Maori.”

New Zealand is not a perfect story by any means. Ask most Maori people and they can easily recount a narrative of violence, betrayal and colonization that can invariably be told by any indigenous culture across the planet. The treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840- the initial agreement between the colonial New Zealand government and a scattering of Maori Iwi (tribes)-recognized the Maori as having “sovereignty” and ownership of all lands and natural resources, and even being accorded the same legal rights and protection as any other subject under the British crown- an openhanded, though ultimately broken, agreement.

What transpired in history, however, is different. The treaty was written in both Maori and English, and unsurprisingly, the two translations did not entirely match up. The Maori version guaranteed “sovereignty over all lands,” while the English version did not- a distinction which resulted in decades of conflict in the 1800’s, known as the “Maori Wars,” which, in many regards, they won.

During the same period in the latter half of the 19th century, a burgeoning American nation would enact a campaign to exterminate the buffalo, and in turn, eradicate the native people who depended on its seemingly inexhaustible bounty. As Wade Davis illustrates in his book, The Wayfinders, “As late as 1871, buffalo outnumbered people in North America.” He goes on to mention the outlawing of the Sun Dance in 1890- a religious cornerstone for thousands of people- as one of the last pivotal blows against the peoples of the plains.

These are the same tribes now present at Standing Rock, the same tribes who’s sacred lands and burial places are being desecrated, and the same tribes who are being arrested and harassed in mass by the police.

According to the Avalon Law Project from Yale University, 30 treaties were signed between the American government and Native American tribes during the late 18th and 19th century alone, the last one of these being the Fort Laramie treaty, signed in 1868 by the Sioux Nation. All, effectively, have been broken.

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

Photo by @FishMakesPhotos

It may be safe to say that the default American image of Native American people starts and ends with a caricature of the frontier wars- with the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, fought by the likes of legendary figures such as Sitting Bull, General Custer, and Crazy Horse. Perhaps reeling from our own Civil War, or perhaps infected by a psychotic bloodlust the Iriquoi called Wetiko, Euro-American civilization blazed a trail through our thriving continent which created ethnic and ecological disaster in its wake.

In Aotearoa and the United States, treaties were broken, as one culture inevitably sought to dominate the other. Blood was spilled, and the trauma that results from the experience of colonization worked its way into the genetic memory of a people, resulting in a myriad of issues which continue to effect indigenous populations the world over.

This is an old and bitter story. Yet today, New Zealand is perhaps the best example we have of a Euro-colonial nation coming to terms with its indigenous legacy. At the risk of oversimplifying, and making claims on behalf of people that I do not represent, these are the concrete steps I have seen that have contributed to this:

  1. Recognizing the need for mainstream society to initiate steps to bridge of the gap with indigenous people, while not requiring the dissolution of their culture and language. Essential to this is an official apology on behalf of the United States government to all indigenous nations and people.

  2. Educating young people about indigenous culture, language, and history in a national and state required school curriculum.

  3. Healing the betrayals of the past by supporting active court tribunals specifically for the purpose of returning stolen land, recognizing indigenous cultural heritage, and intellectual property rights.

It is vital to note that all of these initiatives are responses to the fierce resistance exhibited by Maori and their allies in the face of the colonial machine. These steps toward reconciliation did not come about because of the good nature of Kiwi settlers. They are the result of collective acts of defiance, strength, and solidarity- exactly what is happening now at Standing Rock.

Clearly, we in the United States have a long way to go.

How many Americans can utter a single word in an indigenous language from our country? How many of us know the native names of our mountains and rivers? How many of us know the myths and creation stories of the land we call home? My guess it not many- myself included.   

Imagine, for a moment, an America in which one is welcomed to the Grand Canyon both in English and the Havesupai language. Imagine our national parks and emblems like Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Mt. Rushmore (aka the Black Hills, a Lakota sacred site,) stewarded by local tribes, and recognized as the sacred sites they are. Imagine an America where kids in upstate New York learn how to count in Iriquoi, and where drums and singing ring though airport terminals to greet passengers in every major city of the Great Plains. 

This is not a utopian or idealistic vision of the future, because it is a living reality in New Zealand today.

This is the first step. Only then we can move toward a day when indigenous creation stories, languages and perspectives are part of our country, and each of our lives. Now is the time to stand with Standing Rock.

To get involved, start by visiting, 

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Photos courtesy of the talented Louis Fisher (@fishmakesphotos





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