Akinoomaagewin at Standing Rock ND

‘Maamiikwendaagziwin’ is how Barb Nolan remembers the camps at Standing Rock in North Dakota—an “awesome experience.” Not as in “That’s awesome, man;” more like the warm, spiritual awe you might feel standing on the bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment or at the Vimy Ridge memorial in France.

Demonstrations in support of the Standing Rock tribe are popping up in cities all over North America, including Toronto. Some Ontario First Nations have joined others in Canada and the US in signing a Treaty Alliance vowing to resist the transportation of oil through their territories by rail, truck or pipeline.

Briefly (very briefly) the Dakota Sioux are literally standing in the way of the Dakota Access pipeline being pushed through their traditional territory and, more horrifically, through burial grounds and archaeologically rich sites. The pipeline is owned by a consortium of companies (Enbridge, a huge Canadian energy corporation has the largest share). If built, it will carry half a million barrels a day of crude fracked from the Bakkan fields to connect with pipelines some 1,172 miles to the south.

The confrontation at Standing Rock is finally getting traction in the mainstream media, with NBC interviewing people in the camps and CNN reporting on the construction site. It’s about time, the standoff started in April. However, these are exceptions and they only scratch the surface. We have to turn to first-hand accounts to learn what’s really going on and why.

Barbara Nolan is from the Garden River First Nation in Ontario. She visited Standing Rock in the fall of 2016.

“We’d just driven into the camps at Standing Rock and people came from out of nowhere to help us set up our tents and get settled in. We stayed four days and every one of them was peaceful, even prayerful. We saw ceremonies going on here and there. We had our own pipe ceremony. Tribes and First Nations from all over North America—Haudenosaunee, Lakota, Hopi, Anishinaabe, Pawnee, Arapaho, Cherokee, Navaho—from all over were there. There’s between three and 5,000 people now living in a small city of tents and tiipiis. Everyone volunteers and there’s no shortage of work. Everything was always clean, even the port-a-potties. There’s a medical tent, places to eat, to get clothes—even a school for the kids. It felt safe.”


Standing Rock Camp at the Cannonball River – T Maxwell, http://www.yesmagazine.org 

However, a few kilometers from the camps, along a dirt road, the scene is neither peaceful nor safe. At the construction site, private security guards put their dogs onto protestors, CNN reports people are arrested, strip-searched and charged with rioting—a felony that carries jail time and fines. Journalists who turn up are also arrested and charged.

It is the head of a pipeline, or the edge of a clear-cut or the berm of a tailings pond that truly defines our relationship with First Nations.

Yes, we are blessed with people like Murray Sinclair who patiently and with much grace tell us what we have done with our residential schools and broken treaties and our bulldozers. We have learned about the consequent loss of lands, economies, culture, language—of Aboriginal agency itself—and we have expressed sorrow and apologized and said we will reconcile.

But when First Nations act on that agency, according to their own ancient cultures and their own laws, that tests our sympathy and the sincerity of our reconciliation.

Let me share with you some things I’ve heard about Standing Rock and the protectors (their word) who have assembled there. I take very seriously these comments because they came from people who are accomplished, intelligent and thoughtful, and whom I respect.

One question I hear is, who are these Indigenous groups who set themselves up like countries and block our economies?”

Who indeed? John Marshall, Chief of the US Supreme Court in 1831, called them “domestic dependent nations” because they had their own cultures, languages and jurisdiction on tribal lands over which US states still have no authority. Of course that didn’t keep American Manifest Destiny from rolling relentlessly across the Great Plains.

In Canada, our Supreme Court, has spent years ruling on cases involving the clash between our notions of progress and First Nations’ understandings of their laws and rights and claims. The Justices’ decisions recognize that they do indeed retain some sort of jurisdiction, even in traditional territories covered by treaties.

Surely there’s a middle-way some say. Surely there’s no need for protests that shut down development.


At Standing Rock – J Rivas, http://www.yesmagazine.org

Well, as it happens, there is a middle way. It’s called consultation and accommodation and, in Canada at least, it’s the law. The 2004 Haida-Taku decision of our Supreme Court is unequivocal: the honour of the Crown depends on properly consulting with First Nations about any project that may pose a threat to their Constitutional rights and their land claims.

Proper consultation means early notification, in depth discussions, and informed decisions. Yes, Dakota Access is not in Canada, but whether the company did more than hold a lot of meetings is an open question.

I’ve heard this question too: Don’t the people at Standing Rock understand that transporting oil by pipeline is a lot safer than by rail or truck?

The premise of this question is a little shaky given all the pipeline spills in the news lately. But that’s not the issue. The people gathering at Standing Rock are telling us that we need stop taking the earth for granted.

Barbara Nolan, and also former Anishinaabek Nation Chief Vernon Roote, talk about the Anishinaabe duty to protect the earth—to protect, therefore, the land, the water and the air. The word in Ojibwe for land is ‘aki’; but, as Basil Johnston once told me, the Anishnaabe idea of ‘aki’ embraces all three elements. “Akinoomaagewin’, he said, is our word for science. It’s what the land teaches.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be taking so much from the earth, especially out of land that people who were here before us consider sacred. Perhaps we should listen, especially since our own scientists are telling us we have maybe 17 years to get off fossil fuels; and to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C, global warming we will have to leave what’s still in the ground, in the ground.

David McLaren writes from Neyaashiinigmiing on Georgian Bay, Ontario. He can be contacted at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca or via @JDavidMcLaren.
Barbara Nolan’s Anishinaabemowin lessons are at

A version of this post was published in the ‘Forum’ Section of Postmedia’s Ontario dailies on the weekend of October 29, 2016.


Dakota Access Pipeline was re-routed away from Bismark ND to just upstream of Standing Rock

Other Struggles

Standing Rock is not the only struggle with resource extraction in the US or Canada. Here’s a link to 7 other major battles in the US.

Updates on Standing Rock

A valuable series of videos on Standing Rock from several points of view is at the Washington Post. And there’s another briefing here

December 4, 2016. In early December the Army Corps of Engineers refused to grant an easement to Dakota Access, effectively blocking the pipeline from crossing the Missouri River at Lake Oahe for the time being, at least until an proper environmental assessment can be done on alternative routes. The decision came shortly after a late November stand-off at a bridge that led out of the area. That stand-off resulted in some 200 arrests and serious injuries to the the water protectors. Veterans for Standing Rock had started to trickle into the camps to stand between protectors and the militarized police presence. Reports put their presence at close to 4000 vets at one point.
Raw video of the night-time battle on the bridge is here.

January 24, 2017. Newly installed President Trump signed Executive Orders to smooth the path to both the XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

January 31, 2017. Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to abandon the environmental review and grant Energy Transfer Partners the final easement it needs to complete the last stretch of the $3.7 billion, 1,172 mile-long pipeline. But the Army Corps of Engineers says approval will await the expeditious review that President Trump ordered on January 24th.

February 1, 2017. Law enforcement arrested over 70 people at the site of the protests. (Over 400 people have been arrested to date.) Those arrests prompted US veterans (Veterans Stand) to once again vow to support the water protectors. Spokesman Anthony Diggs said, “We are committed to the people of Standing Rock, we are committed to nonviolence, and we will do everything within our power to ensure that the environment and human life are respected.”
Veterans Stand saw its Go Fund Me account rise nearly $120,00 in 6 days. The donations will support the presence of vets at Standing rock.

February 7, 2017. From NPR: The US Army Corps of Engineers has granted an easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under the Missouri River north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, paving the way for construction of the final 1.5 miles of the more than 1,700-mile pipeline. In doing so, the Army cut short its environmental impact assessment and the public comment period associated with it.

February 10, 2017. FBI agents from the Terrorism Task Force have been questioning water protectors on the street and at their homes as those remaining at the Standing Rock camps urge protesters to return for the ‘last stand’. It’s starting to look like the 1973 stand-off between the FBI and the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Amnesty International reminds us that, out of that incident, the only one convicted (on very sketchy evidence) was Leonard Peltier. He remains a prisoner in Coleman Federal Penitentiary.

So … are pipelines safe?


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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