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Standing Rock is a Fork in the Road: Recent Reflections by Winona LaDuke

By David Zander


December 8, 2016 The news that the Army Corp of Engineers has not given permission for the Dakota Access Oil Company to take the pipeline under the Missouri River upstream from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and that that they need to find an alternative route was seen as a victory for the thousands of protesters who have been trying to block the construction of the pipeline. However, more cautious analysts see that although this might be seen as a battle won, the confrontation is not yet over.


Thousands of protesters, including Native Americans from over five hundred tribes including the Lakota, Ojibwe and Navaho , and recently joined by Veterans have been protesting the route. There is a fear that any oil lead would contaminate the clean water needed by the reservation and that the pipe line transgresses on sacred land with burial mounds. The issue has become a clash between two opposing ways of moving the whole future of America forward. On the one hand is the oil company that represents our dependence on fuel to drive our economy. On the other hand there is the attempt to move America away from such dependence. Ironically, the native Americans with their believe in protecting the environment point the way forward to using new technologies such as wind and solar power. The confrontation has been described as cultural sustainability. The issues around threats to water have also triggered off centuries of tribal despair at broken treaties and forceful acquisition of Native American tribal land and resources. The Native Americans are attempting to lead us forward to a new culture not that respects the air and water and land and not just economic capitalist profits.


The underlying issues of the conflict were recently addressed in Minneapolis by Winona LaDuke .in her speech to students at Dunwoody College., in her talk entitled a Graceful Transition – Doing the right thing for the future:  Winona LaDuke is a well-known author and Environmentalist and Political Activist.  In the context of the new presidential politics, Trump represents a new threat to environmental protection. The protests by the tribes gathered at Standing Rock attempt to protect water quality and show a new way forward. There is much reason for anger at the way Native American people have been abused by the US government, but Winona LaDuke spoke calmly and authoritatively on the problems facing us regarding our use of energy.  At a time when political analysts argue about what would make America Great again, they would do well to listen to her guidance. It is economics that will make American great again. Her talk was a blend of economic analysis and of indigenous wisdom. An Anishinaabe community leader living on the White Earth Reservation in Northwest Minnesota, Winona LaDuke is an economics graduate from Harvard, and has twice been a presidential candidate.  She is focused on culturally based sustainability. In her culture she says her elders will not give her much credibility unless she also knows how to grow corn. That she has done, as well as protecting wild rice. She posed several questions to the students.


What is it going to look like fifty years from now?

What is it going to look like in one hundred years?

How will we get our energy and food for everyone?


She quickly established a rapport with the students. She says she has four sons; two of them would be good students in technology, two not so handy.  We are going to need all their skills in solar energy and wind power. ‘We need everyone’s knowledge/


The brutality experienced at Standing Rock Reservation by protesters resistance to Fracking and Pipelines


Winona spoke of the atrocities being inflicted on Anishinaabe people from the Standing Rock Reservation North Dakota. She cited the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and showed a picture of an elderly woman who was arrested and put in dog kennel. Indian sacred tribal mounds have been bulldozed.  She cited ways that $3.9 dollars spent on the Dakota Excess Pipeline could have been spend differently to bring about energy efficiency outcomes on local housing.


Winona showed students examples of beautiful Native American art and also gave students a very vivid reminder of how the American constitution is indebted to the Iroquois Nation for ideas on how to draft a constitution. Women in Iroquois culture had power, centuries before white women got the vote. A metaphor that stays with me is her description of two paths into the future. The first is well worn and scorched; the paths we need to take are green. Standing Rock is a fork in the road. It is my hope that the protesters succeed in moving American forward but the reality is grim given the news of Trumps EPA appointments. Time will tell.


This article is based in part on the speech by Winona LaDuke as guest speaker at a cultural diversity forum at Dunwoody College of Technology Nov 14th, 2016, honoring Native American Month. David Zander is an anthropologist and worked as a researcher for the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans until 2010.