Violence on the Ground, Violence Below the Ground

From the Series: Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, and Mni Wiconi

Photo by Vanessa Bowen.

The actions unfolding at Standing Rock are among the most significant Indigenous mobilizations in recent memory. Since the establishment of the original Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí encampments near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in April 2016 to block further development of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), dozens of tribal nations, cities, and organizations have signed statements of solidarity with the efforts of Oceti Sakowin people. Meanwhile, thousands of Indigenous peoples and their allies have travelled incredible distances, sent supplies, participated in ceremonies, and created physical barricades to permanently stop construction of what has been called the Black Snake. They chronicle these actions daily, in real time, on social media. In its potent virtual visibility, Standing Rock marks a crucial and necessary intervention that foregrounds Indigenous politics in broader struggles for substantive justice around the environment, climate change, and the defense of sovereignty.

The demands from Oceti Sakowin water protectors at Standing Rock are clear: the DAPL and the capitalist structures that enable its development on unceded territory (defined in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie) must be stopped. This is not merely a request to reroute the pipeline. Increased media coverage of events on the ground has shown the stark contrast between state responses—marked by the repeated failure by politicians to take Indigenous demands seriously and disturbing displays of police militarization—and the persistent nonviolent strategies and ceremonies employed by the water protectors.

The ongoing attempts of Morton County law enforcement, with interstate support facilitated by emergency relief legislation, to suppress Oceti Sakowin and their relatives must be understood as the foundational structure of settler colonialism that the United States is built upon. The escalating violence undergirding every confrontation at Standing Rock is deeply entangled in historical and ongoing genocide, territorial dispossession, and cunning maneuvers by the state to subsume Indigenous peoples into categories of American citizenship that they neither desire nor accept. Respecting the permanent presence of Oceti Sakowin within and beyond their broad territories, the #NoDAPL movement is a bold assertion of this endurance; it is more than just a protest of resistance, which “overinscribes the state with its power to determine what mattered” (Simpson 2016, 329). Writing and thinking from the standpoint of Kahnawà:ke Mohawk political action, Audra Simpson compels us to consider instead the productive potentials of refusal as generative for action, strategy, and method. Refusing the very terms of the settler state’s engagement is a defense of Indigenous life, politics, and humanity.

A #NoDAPL map. Image by Carl Sack,

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II said:

There’s always this attempt to say, “We can make this the safest pipeline ever,” but if they can do that, then why not leave it here? Why not put it up here north of Bismarck, if it can still be so safe, but it’s no—we want to make it safe, and you won’t have to worry about anything, there’s no risk to you or your people? I can’t buy that.

Archambault’s criticism is directed at the decision by Dakota Access to reroute the original path of the proposed pipeline (due to concerns of safe drinking water and easement requests) to the south, making the pipeline pass directly along the northern edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation before crossing underneath the Missouri River. The privileging of certain spatial mappings over others reveals how environments become differentially implicated in racial and economic configurations. Laura Pulido (2016, 6) argues that “when we put together these two facts—the devaluation of people of color, plus capital acting with legal impunity— environmental racism must be understood as state-sanctioned racial violence.” For Oceti Sakowin and other Indigenous nations, this violence has been legitimated through the systematic structure of settler colonialism. In what forms is this violence enacted?

Our Indigenous relations experience this violence on the front lines through arrests and excessive use of force, but it is also dispersed slowly through laws and regulations that are applied and also experienced disproportionally by other marginalized populations (see also Nixon 2013). David Pellow (2007, 17) describes how the production of social inequalities is inextricably part and parcel of the “routine functioning of capitalist economies” that are “supposed to produce social inequalities and environmental inequalities.” Repeated failures to adequately protect our land and water are thus normalized because such stewardship is only possible when it aligns with activities that benefit capitalist systems. Although many environmental regulations since the 1970s were established to protect the environment, competing private and state interests enable differential and unequal enactments of these laws. As a result, Indigenous waterways have continually suffered many of the worst environmental catastrophes. They are rarely reported or cleaned up, because our lands have already been deemed valueless in a process that Traci Voyles (2015) calls wastelanding. One need only look at the crisis of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, the aftermath of the Gold King Mine Spill, or the 1979 Church Rock Spill on the Navajo Nation as examples of such environmental racism and settler-colonial violence. These two processes cannot be disaggregated.

The sanctioning of one form of violence, such as militarized law enforcement against unarmed Indigenous water protectors, is directly related to other modes of violence wrought by environmental racism and neoliberal expansion. These are evident in legal actions and indecisions in the regulatory enforcement applied to some populations and not others (Povinelli 2011), and the emergence of new regimes of citizenship in the aftermath of toxic exposure (Petryna 2002). We as Indigenous activists and scholars must remain attentive and accountable to these myriad forms of violence as a direct corollary of settler colonialism. Taking seriously these intersectional demands allows us to see and make clear the violent, toxic stakes of the DAPL for everyone, and most especially, our Indigenous relations who have always fought on multiple front lines. Standing Rock articulates and imagines a present and enduring otherwise; boldly defending Indigenous life is the only option we have ever imagined.

About the Author

Teresa Montoya (Diné) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. Montoya is currently working on her second short film, The Day Our River Ran Yellow/Tó Łitso. Themes of environmental toxicity and settler colonialism raised in this film are central to her dissertation project on alternative political formations within and on the borders of the Navajo Nation.


Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Pellow, David Naguib. 2007. Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Pulido, Laura. 2016. “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity II: Environmental Racism, Racial Capitalism, and State-Sanctioned Violence.” Progress in Human Geography, May 13.

Simpson, Audra. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 326–33.