A brief disclaimer: As a relatively young white man, I am not an expert in white allyship for native causes, and am in no way a spokesperson for any indigenous movement. I was inspired to write this piece only because of painful mistakes I have witnessed continuously repeated in native spaces by people like me. In fact, virtually all the actions one can unintentionally take to hamper indigenous movements, I have personally committed. I am writing this so that others can avoid common pitfalls and step into what I see as effective allyship within native movements.
1) Work towards the ultimate goal
Everyone knows that the immediate goal of the protests are to stop the pipeline, but what many outside observers seem to fail to realize is that the ultimate goal is for unified indigenous peoples themselves to stop the pipeline.
The last time that many of these tribes came together was for what the Lakota know as the Battle of Greasy Grass, and we know as Custer’s Last Stand. They are well aware of this fact at Standing Rock, as flying all over camp are exact replicas of the flag captured during that total defeat of the US army. This gathering is even more significant than that famous battle in terms of unity, because never in the history of this continent have so many tribes come together to work as one for a single goal. If this action against the pipeline is accomplished via grassroots indigenous support, native unity is gaining a track record of successfully fighting for their equal treatment.
What this means for us on the ground is that our top goal is to strengthen the peace and unity of the indigenous factions within the camp, and to support natives stepping into positions of leadership and influence in this movement. Non-indigenous individuals attempting to assist the protests by leading, organizing, and coordinating natives are actually harming the long term outlook of this movement.
2) Understand the different ways you can help
There is a lot of need on the ground in North Dakota, and there are many ways you can support. One is by simply donating. There are several different funds for the various camps out there. If you donate in this way, the money will likely be used for legal fees, central kitchen supplies, care of the children and elderly, winter gear for the protectors, and more.
At Standing Rock, we met a lot of impoverished individuals who had been camping for weeks or months, and were prepared to spend the whole winter there, despite not even having sub-zero sleeping bags. These groups are often small, autonomous, traditional, and too proud to ask for the help they need when there are so many elderly and children present. I believe that distributing aid directly to the people who are in it for the long haul has a powerful impact on ultimately stopping the pipeline. To read more about how aid on the ground can help, please look at this document we compiled, tracking how our money was spent.
There is also need on the ground. Kitchen volunteers commonly worked up to midnight, started feeding people at the crack of dawn, and could certainly use extra help. There is a school on site that may still be looking for teachers. First aid skills, manual labor, trash clearance, minor landscaping, balanced media coverage, running errands: All were required from what I could see. If you feel comfortable contributing in these ways, are willing to navigate the complexities of race and colonialism, and are able to be self sufficient, I think your presence would be valued and appreciated onsite.
3) Know how not to contribute
Since returning, I have seen a few fundraising efforts online that I thought were well intentioned but potentially problematic. One was of a Los Angeles based art director who was trying to raise $6,000 to fund her dance company to travel to Standing Rock, so that they could make an art documentary and choreograph a modern dance piece of the protests. Another was of a Brooklyn based alternative healer who had raised $1,750 to fund her travels there so she and her coworkers could give free acupuncturist sessions to the activists. Both of these funds advertised the needs of the protesters on the ground and promised that excess money would be donated to the activists.
There is a painful history of indigenous personal struggles being appropriated for someone’s artwork, personal validation, or new age experience, and they are rightly sensitive towards these forms of well-intentioned exploitation.
Native communities have a long tradition of powerful art that resonates with individuals from all backgrounds, and alternative healing that supports their people in the absence of modern medicine. From what I can tell, this movement is about strengthening indigenous culture, not diluting it. Most people who are not part of the tribes that are unifying should be paying their own way out there and fundraising for the activists.
Some people may say it’s better to donate money you would use to travel there, to the organizers. Essentially, I view simply writing a fat check as one of the downfalls of western solidarity. There is a strong tendency to donate out of guilt and then move on from the struggle. This is a budding movement and needs individuals from all walks of life in this country on the ground, interacting with, and trying to understand the complexities of the challenges facing Native Americans. The camps themselves are asking for empowered allies, willing to do the hard day-to-day labor that this space requires.
4) Work to Build Unity
Much white activism is built around generating outrage and anger, so as to better rally support for a specific cause. This is a fine strategy for many protests, but when these habits are brought to Standing Rock they fall oddly flat. This is because there is already plenty of conviction (and anger) on these reservations whose residents are turning up in force. There are hundreds of Natives prepared to camp through the winter if need be, and Standing Rock has turned into a village at this point, with all the politics and natural divisions that a village would have.
What this group of people effectively living together needs, is to have peace amongst themselves and to celebrate what they are accomplishing, so that they have the emotional stamina to thrive for the long haul. Unleashing a bunch of dramatic agitators in this space does nothing to relieve these essential problems facing the various camps stopping the pipeline. If anything, it exacerbates them. If you are going with the assumption that this protest is a place for theatrics, costumes, ironic signs, and anger, think again. The rules of activism there are fundamentally different, and revolve around building cohesion, unity, and mutual solidarity rather than incitement and dramatic education.
5) Trust native competency
This is a particularly challenging thing for many newcomers to this struggle. First Nations do things a bit differently than we do, and at times it can feel grating. Often you may wonder if any Indian you meet will ever reference something specifically in time and space. You will even see individuals with critical jobs sitting around the whole day appearing to do nothing. Ignore your frustration and do not try to step in and save the day. If you feel the need to assist, simply ask how you can help and do whatever is asked of you, no matter how trivial. Just know that things happen on their own time out there, and remember that there is only one group to ever extract an unconditional military surrender from the Unites States of America: the Lakota nation. You are around highly competent individuals doing what they do best: protecting their lands, culture, and way of life. Take this opportunity to learn from the experts.
6) Understand the cultural context of the situation
Before you go, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and read up on two things: Basic statistics on the quality of life on the reservations in South and North Dakota, and the activism of the American Indian Movement around the 70s.
You will find some things that surprise you. Alcoholism rates of up to 80%, 15% of high schoolers have attempted suicide in the last 12 months, and a life expectancy that is lower than any other country in the world. No you didn’t read that wrong. If your goal was to live as long as possible, you would be better off being born in Sub-Saharan Africa than on many reservations next to Standing Rock. You will encounter poverty and hear stories to rival, and likely surpass, anything else you have ever seen or heard. Brace yourself and check your privilege. You may have things stolen from you. Remember that for many youth on the reservation, a dollar is powerful, a nice pair of jeans maybe comes by once every few years, and a gallon or two of gas opens up a world of possibility. Protect yourself from theft and false promises about what offered goods will be used for, but respond to such events with compassion.
Remember that the last time serious activism was occurring on these reservations, it resulted in great loss of life. Know that despite the peaceful nature of these protests, many are prepared to die for the good of their people, and personally know people who have.
7) Be prepared to experience race as the racial minority
This is the thing I was least prepared for, which changed my life the most. I had been in other contexts where I was a racial minority (say Latin America or Nepal), where I was celebrated for my race or at least acknowledged as neutral.
This is different on “The Rez”. The reality is that most whites coming onto native land over the last 100 years have been exploiting, whether intentionally or not, these indigenous communities. Additionally, the last time there was serious activism on these reservations many of the whites trying to get involved were FBI informants. While all races are genuinely invited to all the camps at Standing Rock, as a white person you will find yourself having to prove yourself to be an exception to the rule. Ironically, this is how I imagine what it is like being a racial minority in America in general, where you have to continuously prove yourself to be the exception to stereotypes imposed on you by the majority culture. If you are paying the slightest bit of attention, you will experience what it is like to be a racial minority with an attached sense of “otherness”, and this will likely change how you view the world.
8) Be aware of the importance of symbolism
It was commonplace for Natives to recount intimate details of some historical massacre in casual conversation. It was normal to see someone carrying around a jar of water, or other item, from a piece of land where hundreds of their people had been massacred by colonialists. Why is there this intimate connection to the past when our own culture swiftly forgets details about anything that happened to our family before our grandparents?
In my opinion, natives have a greater closeness with the history because many view themselves not as wholly individuals, but also as a part of a larger tribe, with the trials and tribulations of those communities not being completely separate from theirs. It is important to try to navigate these difficult waters so that you aren’t accidentally rubbing someone’s face into an incident that seems like ancient history to you, but might as well have been yesterday for many of your companions.
I made plenty of mistakes when I was out there. One time, I suggested to the people who I was distributing funding and materials with that perhaps we should get some old army surplus wool blankets, as these are cheap, extremely durable, can fit both needs of cold weather garb and sleeping gear. I was gently reminded that many traditionals simply wouldn’t accept blankets from a white man, as the bio-terrorism of our shared history is still remembered quite clearly.
Try and avoid obvious pitfalls like these but also know that while you are there you will make mistakes, I guarantee it. Don’t let a gentle reminder hurt your feelings, as no one is questioning your intentions. It is important to not be defensive, but simply apologize and correct whatever you can.
9) Avoid ceremony unless you are explicitly invited
I imagine nearly everyone has the desire to participate in a Native American ceremony, held by some powerful medicine person which facilitates a unique and authentic experience. These protests are not the place to come looking for that.
Moreover, I am sure many hold a desire to gain some kind of spiritual connection with these ancient traditions, and develop a relationship with these ceremonies such that you could hold them with as much power as any Native American you come across. These protests are not the place to demonstrate that.
There is something that can only be described as a deep hunger in white people for authentic, earth-based spirituality. Unfortunately, this hunger is often combined with an unfortunate combination of feeling entitled to be taught these traditions, and a complete lack of cultural awareness. Coming into native space with charged religious symbols, attempting to participate in ceremonies uninvited, or publicly leading new age rituals, patched together from the mutilated parts of other divergent traditions, makes you as complicit in cultural genocide as the racist cops arresting activists at the checkpoint you will be going through.
On my last night camping next to the Missouri River, I was talking late past midnight with one local young man who seemed pretty traditional. I asked him if he was learning the old ways. He replied that he was trying to, but it took a lot of time. His elders and grandparents would often wait months or even years in between teaching or sharing with him aspects of his people’s religion, waiting for the moment that was just right to impart a specific piece of wisdom.
10) Leave your costume at home
I am incredulous that this actually needs to be said, but apparently a bunch of people feel that they need to literally dress up at this occupation. I would like to ask these people, seriously, if they would consider wearing their sparkle pony fox-eared hat and matching mittens to the marches for women’s suffrage occurring in the 1920s. We are here to support quietly in the background, not flaunt a radical-ragamuffin style that our privilege affords us.
11) Don’t take up space
One odd but unsurprising thing I noticed was that although the protectors were ~95% native, 50% of the individuals who sat closest to the central fire were white. We have a habit of taking up inordinate amounts of space, and often can attempt to make a situation or movement about our own struggle and personal exploration. Move back and help from the edges so that others can step into the center.
12) Check out this small recommended reading list
Neither Wolf Nor Dog, by Kent Nerburn. This book was recommended to me by my native family when I was first going to help on a reservation years ago, and I found its perspectives indispensable.
Additionally, Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet provides important information on what you need to know before going to Standing Rock. This includes guidelines on joining camp culture and Oceti Sakowin Camp Protocols.