Self-Determination and The Struggle: Kyle Powys Whyte on Standing Rock
As Donald J. Trump threatens to override the will of the landmark demonstrations at Standing Rock by executive order, David Hall shares his conversation with Native American environmental philospher Kyle Whyte about what the battle represents.
“Not one more acre” is the phrase that powered the Māori Land March in 1975. Like all great political slogans, it sizzles with decisiveness. It speaks succinctly to the exasperation of marchers, to what they had long endured but resolved to endure no longer. Enough is enough!
A similar spirit is emanating from Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Since April 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have resisted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they have deemed a threat to their only water supply. “Mni wiconi” is the rallying cry: “Water is life!”
This is a stand-off more than a century in the making, inextricable from the injustices of local history. The demonstration grew as large as 11,000 people, including representatives from some 300 Native American tribes, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world (Māori included), environmentalists and climate activists. It also came to include some 2,000 war veterans and first responders, who symbolically counterposed the hundreds of police and security officers who used an arsenal of weapons - water cannons, rubber bullets, sponge rounds, bean bag rounds, teargas grenades, pepper spray, Mace, Tasers, even a sound weapon - against the protestors.
A tentative victory emerged on 4 December, when the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline’s route would not be granted. But this week, the newly-inaugurated President, Donald J. Trump, revived the project by executive order – so the resistance may not be over yet.
Kyle Powys Whyte is a Lansing-based environmental philosopher who belongs to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, now located in Oklahoma. He cut his teeth in professional academic philosophy (currently, he is one of only three Native Americans with tenure system jobs in philosophy departments) but over the years his research has steered toward the same indigenous issues that lie at the heart of the Standing Rock resistance: decolonisation, traditional ecological knowledge, and the ways that climate change and climate policies impact on indigenous peoples. He holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities at Michigan State University, but he also has links to Aotearoa through Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, for which he’s on the International Advisory Board.
I caught up with Kyle in November last year – he was in Tāmaki Makaurau to speak at the International Indigenous Research Conference – to learn more about the No DAPL movement. I was conscious that most of what I knew about Standing Rock, I knew from the kaleidoscopic projections of my Facebook wall, jostled up against various fantasies and false hopes, not least the illusion that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would win the presidential election. Now more than ever, it seems, we need to touch base with the things we wish to be real.
DH: What are the values driving the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline? In Aotearoa New Zealand, some of us are familiar with kaitiakitanga as an environmental ethic, but what are the indigenous values involved at Standing Rock?
KW: There are a lot of different values and motivations that are driving the No DAPL resistance. This is something that's very specific to Standing Rock tribal members, but it's also something that's bringing in tribes from all over the United States, as well as indigenous people from all over the world, and of course non-indigenous environmentalists who are concerned with issues like climate change.
Let’s start specifically with Standing Rock. Like many tribes, they historically had a governing system that gave rise to what their culture is today. It's based on values of stewardship that were very sensitive to environmental change, that enabled their society to adjust and alter throughout the year to adapt to seasonal change. In many indigenous societies, these conditions gave rise to a way of life where people didn't value the things that are valued in dominant societies today, like the accumulation of money. People were much more concerned with incentives and values that would ensure that they conserved the plants and animals and protected water and habitats that they needed. These societies functioned very differently and indigenous peoples today still embrace many of these values. At one level, then, there is this spiritual and cultural aspect…anything that threatens water is considered bad, in a way that cannot be overridden by financial considerations. Expressions like “water is life” come out of time-tested indigenous governing systems.
At another level, the very heritage and political self-determination of the Standing Rock Tribe is at stake. This is a tribe with treaties that secured a large area of land in 1851 and 1868. But the United States became more aggressive and wanted to open up more land for gold in the sacred area of the Black Hills and for farming. So they reneged and renegotiated those treaties by force, eventually shrinking that Tribe's land to a very small area. The Standing Rock Indian Reservation is not only a fraction of the size of what was originally in the agreements made in Fort Laramie, but then the US did further things like construct a dam [on the Missouri River]. The dam created a reservoir that not only flooded the Tribe’s capital but flooded some of the best land that they could've used for farming and agriculture and timber.
The Standing Rock Tribe has been dealing with this constant reduction over time. Meanwhile, members of the settler population forget that the reservation is not the only area that's significant to the Tribe. It's this much larger historical area, the treaty area. So the Tribe is constantly having to defend the protection of land that they don't control in the eyes of the US. If you look in detail at how the Army Corp of Engineers consulted the Tribe about the pipeline, it was a process that didn't enable the Tribe to inform and exercise control over activities that would damage burial sites and other sacred locations. So treaty rights are another value.
For indigenous people generally, stopping this particular pipeline is not the end. This is going to keep happening as it has in the past, where tribes are constantly having to deal with being dispossessed of their land, then being asked to host these pipelines and mines. It's this constant barrage of people wanting to do stuff on your land that you don't have the governing capacity to fend off.
"Simply portraying indigenous peoples as resistant to practical energy solutions, such as energy independence, or solutions to climate change, such as natural gas or hydropower, is usually misguided."
As well, many allies of these tribes…associate stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline as equivalent to stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline. This is a way to make a statement to the US and other global dependents on fossil fuels.
DH: To pick up on that last point, I’m intrigued by the way that No DAPL is framed – perhaps opportunistically – as a turning point for climate justice. Yet as you say, the tribe's concerns are very specific, local, and historically connected.
KW: That's right. One of the things that I've been trying to bring out in my writing is the difference between how many environmentalists understand climate mitigation and climate justice, and how indigenous people do. For indigenous people, climate justice is not only about saving humanity, because many responses to climate change will harm indigenous peoples too.
In the US, a lot of people say that those who want to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline are being unreasonable if they suggest all fossil fuel burning is bad, because we need to switch to natural gas first – which isn’t as bad for the climate system – while we transition into more renewable sources of energy. But DAPL is not a natural gas pipeline. It’s a business venture by its investors to make a profit by cutting down the cost of transport of oil versus other modes of transportation, especially rail. There are good reasons to believe that simply putting in a pipeline will not change the supply and demand for oil, so DAPL is really just a for-profit venture with no connection to any larger, noble visions.
Simply portraying indigenous peoples as resistant to practical energy solutions, such as energy independence, or solutions to climate change, such as natural gas or hydropower, is usually misguided. Consider solutions to climate change. It turns out that whether it's the United Nations or particular nations, some of the non-carbon based global solutions to climate change happen to be some of the most damaging to indigenous peoples too.
A good example is hydropower. Dams are coming back after being phased out for a long time; we’re seeing major dam projects that are displacing indigenous people. The UN-REDD programme – which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – depends on notions of biodiversity and payments that are highly problematic for some indigenous people. Also, these programmes are controlled by nation-states, which are supposed to follow norms of Free, Prior and Informed Consent and commit to the UN Declaration of Rights to Indigenous People. Yet these states, as colonial states, aren’t set up to discharge those responsibilities faithfully to indigenous peoples. Many indigenous groups that are part of REDD programmes are quite upset by how they've been treated and some have been displaced.
Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their land to make way for the industries that contribute to human-caused climate change. So why should indigenous peoples continue to sacrifice for the sake of U.S. and corporate needs, whether those are immediate profit ventures, or solutions to save humanity from problems caused by the braiding of colonialism, capitalism and industrialisation? From an indigenous perspective, it's not just about saving humanity from catastrophe, but also sticking up for indigenous groups that are dealing with climate change right now, and trying to stop the cycles that are going to perpetuate this. Because if you fast-forward 50–60 years from now, what will make the Standing Rock Tribe more vulnerable to climate change is the land dispossession via disrespect of treaty rights; the reservoir and the loss of land from the dam; and whatever pollution might arise from the pipeline itself.
DH: Do you take lessons from this about climate policy design? Because it sounds like the problem is partly due to top-down policies, which don’t necessarily pay enough attention to the impacts on people whose voices aren’t in the room.
KW: One of the points I make is that, if I say climate change justice is about decolonisation, I'm not suggesting that decolonisation is some radical ideal. Actually, if you look at what makes indigenous people vulnerable to climate change impacts as well as the proposed solutions for mitigating climate change, it is land dispossession, and disrespect for treaty rights and indigenous self-determination under colonialism. If we're going to have any hope, there has to be decolonisation that occurs.
What I go back to is this philosophical understanding of what colonialism is. Colonialism is a very particular form of domination in which one society not only inflicts harm on another society, but it inflicts harm by reducing the resilience of that other society over time. That is, colonialism reduces their capacity to adapt to change, without incurring harms that would have previously been quite preventable.
"Indigenous stewardship ethics come out of very practical forms of governance which indigenous people used to survive (and many still use). Many other societies, including European societies historically, had these as well back in the day. Indigenous people very acutely saw those governance systems threatened through colonisation."
Under colonial conditions, indigenous people are in a situation where they are now vulnerable to changes that, historically, they wouldn't have been vulnerable to. Most climate change impacts that threaten tribes are ones that once wouldn't have been a problem for them to adapt to.
So, bottom-up climate change policy would look at adaptation and mitigation of climate change as a matter of bolstering a community's capacity to adjust to change.
DH: Yet when it comes to undoing colonisation, this operates in very subtle forms. Like these romanticised conceptions of indigenous peoples as "green", who should be willing to bear the burden, to do the heavy lifting in climate mitigation, because of their environmental ethic.
KW: That's right. There's a couple of misnomers about what decolonisation means. One you rightly mention is this romanticisation of native environmental ethics. But these romanticised views – that indigenous ethics are just prescriptions for improving individual behaviour – are highly problematic.
I think that indigenous environmental ethics are actually collective ethics, or ways of governing society, that decrease the chance that your society is going to overwhelm its resources. Now, we don't think that these systems are perfect. We don't necessarily think that they would solve all problems. But indigenous stewardship ethics come out of very practical forms of governance which indigenous people used to survive (and many still use). Many other societies, including European societies historically, had these as well back in the day. Indigenous people very acutely saw those governance systems threatened through colonisation.
A lot of tribes have lost that information about what those systems were like, because of Native American boarding schools and other aspects of colonialism. We do have enough information and access to elders to rebuild contemporary forms of these kinds of governance. This means that you can't really be an indigenous environmentalist if you only advocate for the ethics themselves. You actually have to advocate for the restoration of the land base required to experiment again with these forms of governance.
Another misnomer about decolonisation is that it is some clunky and unreasonable form of autonomy. There's a couple of funny things about that. One is that, actually, not all kinds of decolonisation are good. The United States, after all, is technically a decolonial society, right?
It's also the case that, historically, tribes were not autonomous entities. We had massive local and regional networks. We were highly interdependent through trade. But what we did have was more control and power in our diplomatic relationships with each other. Today tribes have almost no high-quality diplomatic engagement with the US; the cards are always stacked against us. Decolonisation doesn't mean an absurd disconnection or withdrawal from the world; it means the reestablishment of proper forms of diplomacy.
DH: And isn’t it the case that these kinds of sovereignty needn't exclude existing forms of sovereignty, like state sovereignty, as it is often framed? In New Zealand, it’s often presupposed that rangatiratanga and state sovereignty are a zero-sum game, that the one excludes the other.
KW: Exactly. We have to think harder about what decolonisation looks like in today's context. Consideration alone can rid us of some of these strange and unreasonable views about what decolonisation actually means, which are usually used against indigenous people – as if when we talk about “decolonisation”, or “self-determination”, or “sovereignty”, these are highly bizarre and unreasonable demands.
DH: The recent US presidential election resulted in a shock result, possibly even a shock to the President-elect himself. His victory has created uncertainty for many minorities throughout the United States. But I wonder, given the historical experience of Native Americans, whether there really is this sense of disruption, or whether there is a sense of continuity? How has Trump’s victory affected peoples' reception to the news that the pipeline could be rerouted?
KW: The current available information about the incoming Trump Administration is very threatening indeed. Some of us remember, or have researched, Trump’s comments many years ago in relation to gaming [tribal-operated casinos and gambling], which demonstrated both disrespect and ignorance for indigenous identity and self-determination.
More recently, we found out that Trump has at least historically had an investment in Energy Transfer Partners [who operate the Dakota Access oil pipeline]. Emerging information shows that a Trump administration would seek to explore policies that make it easier for extraction to occur on tribal lands. Some of the options on the table involve privatisation of tribal lands, which sounds a lot like historic allotment to private property and termination of tribal sovereignty, policies that were devastating to Native American well-being in the past.
Given that a single party will soon control the major levers of power in the US, and given also that the US Congress has plenary (or absolute) power over tribes, this makes it all the more possible that there will be new anti-tribal laws, policies, and programs in a context where there are fewer opportunities for opposing viewpoints to be voiced meaningfully.
Again, though, anything the Trump Administration or Republican Congress does will be some restored version of colonial laws or policies that we have seen before. Colonialism is cyclical. As indigenous peoples we are always shifting our approach from one colonial situation – in which the US supports forms of tribal sovereignty that are really false solutions – to another colonial situation – in which the US seeks to completely liquidate tribal lands into private property. I’m betting the Trump Administration may foist us back into the latter situation.
DH: So tell me a little about where you’re from – your land and your people.
KW: I'm Potawatomi and I'm an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomi Nation which is a federally recognised tribe in Oklahoma.
Potawatomi people are part of the larger Neshnabé group, which is from the Great Lakes region, and includes Odawa and Ojibwe people. Most Neshnabé people still live in the Great Lakes region, both on the US and Canada sides. But my tribe was relocated in the 1830s and '40s to Kansas and then to Oklahoma.
We have about 30,000 members in our nation in Oklahoma but we maintain annual meetings and gatherings with about eight or nine Potawatomi tribes that are still in Michigan, Ontario or Wisconsin. I work now in Michigan State University, so I work in the area that some of my ancestors ceded to the United States.
"These countries have a greater incentive to brag, albeit disengenuously, about their treatment of indigenous people, because it's a bigger political issue. I mean, the Māori people in New Zealand can actually influence an election, given their size, whereas in the United States there might be 3-4 million indigenous people compared to over 300 million in the total population. We're relatively invisible."
What the United States did, essentially, was a national relocation for tribes. They usually targeted the tribes that were either putting up resistance to US settlement, or who had succeeded in adopting industrialisation or farming like the Cherokees. They made new treaties with each of the tribes, then those tribes took land in a completely different region and moved there overnight. The Cherokee had the Trail of Tears; my tribe had the Trail of Death. Then they had to figure out how to rebuild from scratch in that new land.
So Oklahoma, which was originally called Indian Territory, has the highest percentage of Native American people after Alaska, about 10 per cent of the population. There's thirty-nine tribes in Oklahoma that have their own boundaries and borders, just like a tribe in their homeland would. But what's interesting – and I talk a lot about this in my work – is that the tribes in Oklahoma retain a lot of their own culture and maintain connections to those areas. This comes from different ecosystems, but tribes have also adopted entirely new economies. There's a very strong pan-Indian powwow culture and religious culture in Oklahoma, so it's a fascinating place.
DH: So are there any special exemptions or rights to the land?
KW: Tribes in Oklahoma, on average, have more governing capacity than tribes elsewhere, which, by the way, I’m not arguing for as a recommendation to other tribes. My tribe, for example, we run a utility, we run a bank, we have a $600-700 million annual economic impact, primarily based on our assets. Also, some of the biggest tribes are in Oklahoma, like the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations which have hundreds of thousands of enrolled members. We have massive bureaucracies in the tribes in Oklahoma and are very influential in the political system, because we're a huge sector of the economy.
Of tribes in Oklahoma, all but one do not have reservations. They have instead what are called Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas where a tribe has jurisdiction. It can have its own police, its own judiciary, and so on. But it's not the “closed reservation” that some other tribes have, like the Red Lake Tribe in Minnesota, where if you're not a member you cannot live there, or cannot go to certain parts.
So tribes have different types of powers. There are tribes in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest that wield treaty rights and have large treaty organisations. There are tribes in the Southwest with large reservations, like the Navajo Nation, who control all the land within it. There are tribes in Oklahoma with tremendous governing capacity. It's very complex.
DH: This is very interesting because New Zealanders often tend to think – Pākeha especially – that the arrangements made in New Zealand for Māori are exceptional.
KW: You know, I’ve had the chance, not only to travel to many places where indigenous people are, but to attend events with indigenous people from all over the world. And what I've come to understand is that countries like New Zealand and Canada – where the indigenous population is a large proportion of the total population, or where indigenous people are more visibly perceived to be in the way of resource extraction – these countries have a greater incentive to brag, albeit disengenuously, about their treatment of indigenous people, because it's a bigger political issue. I mean, the Māori people in New Zealand can actually influence an election, given their size, whereas in the United States there might be 3-4 million indigenous people compared to over 300 million in the total population. We're relatively invisible.
I think people are surprised by the types of governing capacities, or control over land, that tribes actually have in the United States. That being said, I've found that in each of these different settler states, there are pros and cons, so it's hard to say which is worse.
For example, the Māori language revitalisation is in a far better position than tribal language revitalisation in the United States, but in the United States many tribes are still able to engage in subsistence practices given treaty rights that a lot of Māori aren't able to do. So when we compare these things we find that all settler states are highly problematic, but indigenous peoples have been able to carve out different spaces for liberation despite settler states’ oppression.