A couple nights after the election I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At 1 a.m., I logged on to Facebook and began watching a live feed of anti-Trump protests in Portland, Oregon, where I live. The city was spasming: Police in riot gear. Trash bins on fire. Rubber bullets aimed at demonstrators. I continued watching as the stream of people passed the Pearl, a collection of abandoned warehouses turned arts district turned gentrified residential and business zone fortified with cement and glass. Suddenly, an anarchist’s foot went through the window of the Pearl’s Bank of America branch, shattering it.
Watching the feed, I was perplexed by the protesters’ fevered response. Through my work in the Portland community, it has been difficult to find that level of solidarity and support from politically minded artists and activists when it comes to issues that immediately affect the health and safety of Indigenous peoples. As is the case with all American cities, Portland has a complicated history with environmental racism and colonization, founded on the spurs of Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century and the U.S. Interior Department’s “Indian Land for Sale” program in the twentieth. Twenty miles from downtown Portland, in the Columbia River Gorge, various Indigenous tribes were relocated and sacred cultural artifacts drowned due to the construction of a series of manmade dams. And just a forty-minute plane ride away, in North Dakota, a resistance movement has been working to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred burial grounds and the region’s main water table; the project could literally poison the earth.
Yet when I ask non-Native Portlanders why they don’t engage in Native struggles, they demur with apologies, excuses, and complacency, despite the fact that the #NoDAPL resistance is a dispute with something much deeper and darker than one presidential election: the history of genocide and racialized disenfranchisement of which Trump’s ascendance is just the latest entry.
The history of struggle goes back to the European invasion in 1492, which led to the genocide of millions of Indigenous peoples through smallpox-infected blankets, forced relocation, starvation, and war. The descendants of those who survived the attempted extermination endured assimilation to Western religion, language, education, and mores covering gender and sexuality over the subsequent centuries. From the very earliest days after Columbus’s landfall, Indigenous peoples have faced the forced taking of lands and manipulation of bodies.
The Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement, like all Indigenous movements, has been organizing and gaining momentum ever since. It is in constant dialogue with the energy cultivated through previous and ongoing First Nations resistance from the Oka Crisis, #IdleNoMore, Unist’ot’en, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) movements, with roots in late-Sixties and early-Seventies occupation efforts led by Indians of All Tribes and the American Indian Movement. It is united with the Big Mountain & Black Mesa Resistance, Save Oak Flat, Save the Confluence, Protect Mauna Kea, Defenders of the Black Hills, and the Not Your Mascot campaign.
The only thing that’s new is that we have entered a technological age where activists and civilians are equipped with smartphones, topnotch digital equipment, camera-rigged drones, and the ability to post live-feed videos to social media to bring awareness from the front lines directly to our personal devices. Instead of embarking on the journey to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the digital age affords us the ability to respond to and act in solidarity with political movements within the convenience of our bedrooms, offices, and coffee shops, or while commuting on public transportation. We are able to engage in conversations with a global community and choose how to act in spite of our anxiety, repulsion, and isolation. Traveling from Portland or wherever else is no longer an excuse.
But there’s a responsibility to not joining the front lines, to making that click count — it takes a lifelong dedication to encouraging long-term empowerment for the communities immediately affected by these movements. In the case of Standing Rock, this is a humanitarian issue that delves as much into Indigenous awareness of uranium mill tailing sites, high suicide rates, death by police force, and the critical move toward sovereignty as it does with creating a society ethically responding to climate change, racism, sexism, war, and the potential threat of societal collapse. Indigenous peoples of this continent have given our lives and energy to the protection of the environment far before we were asked to cast our votes in favor of candidates who continuously fail to reach out for consultation and guidance. Moving forward, we must collectively ask ourselves how this revolution will work, and honor our relationship with the land as a sacred communion interwoven with our will to survive.