A white ally to standing rock: confronting white privilege
December 4, 2016
Filed under Letter to Editor
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The hills of North Dakota are very brown this time of year. I closed my eyes for an hour during our road trip out West, and swear I woke up passing by the same scatterings of deadened hills. After hours of this, the first glimpse of the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock brought sudden relief. This tent city, surrounded by a fence smattered with a series of anti-Dakota Access Pipeline and Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) signs, was greater in size and color than I could have ever expected.
The next few days passed in a blur, as the incredible peacefulness and unity of the camp eased all anxieties I held before my travels.
A group of us attended a transformative talk on decolonization one evening. The discussion opened my eyes to the real thoughts and concerns Native Americans at camp held about what was happening at Standing Rock and the increasingly white support for the movement. I left the talk enlightened yet more uncertain than ever. I began to question my presence at the camp and my role in the movement. Was my very presence at the camp an act of colonial violence? Was I subconsciously acting on entitlement to Native land and knowledge by traveling to Standing Rock and attending a lecture on decolonization? I frantically phoned my father, an Islamophobia scholar who dedicates his life to speaking out against the injustices imposed on a group of people he is not a part of, to ask for advice. I told him I was questioning my role in a movement I could never truly empathize with but cared deeply about nonetheless.
After some self-reflection, I realized I was making the movement more about myself than the Lakota people. I had become engulfed in my own insecurities with the movement and it was getting in the way of what mattered: helping the people at Standing Rock who would be affected long after I left camp.
It’s difficult to self-diagnose white liberal guilt, and what’s even harder is addressing it. Do you throw yourself into social justice movements to help yourself sleep at night in a white-washed world? Do you want to go to Standing Rock so you can experience the historical glory of civil disobedience? If yes, fine. But own it, change it and do something about it. Figure out how you can work towards becoming a selflessly useful ally for the people at Standing Rock.
No one can speak on behalf of Native Americans besides Native Americans, but it is possible to speak out about the injustices at Standing Rock without assuming that these injustices affect you in the same way they affect Native Americans.
To do nothing—to remain silent—is to side with the oppressors. For me, to remain silent about the atrocities committed against the Lakota people in Standing Rock because I have anxiety about how to correctly be a white ally, is to side with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the military forces violently terrorizing the water protectors. I do not have to believe in, or even fully understand ,Sioux religion and spirituality to know the pipeline would be a devastation and violation of the sacred burial sites and other sacred grounds the Lakota have lived on for centuries. Living on the reservation, drinking their water and exploring their land is not necessary to know the Dakota Access Pipeline poses great threats to the Lakota’s water source. A history degree is not required to know this encroachment on Native land and the brutalization of water protectors is yet another repeat of America’s historically consistent refusal to support and recognize Native sovereignty.
You don’t have to go to Standing Rock to be a helpful ally. Speaking out, educating local communities, donating money and supplies and writing letters to political representatives to protest the pipeline are equally powerful. In time, more may be required of us in this struggle for justice. We may sacrifice our bodies and time, or perhaps we’ll speak more loudly and uncomfortably than ever before. No matter what, we would do well to listen less to our guilty consciences and more to the voices of those whose lives are most affected by the injustices taking place at Standing Rock.
Rebecka Green (‘19)