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Protectors of Mother Earth and regional water resources demonstrate near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. (Photo: Andrew Cullen/Reuters)

Learning from the Standing Rock Sioux

Emelyn LybargerBen Price

Heartbreaking, inspiring, and galvanizing images and voices are coming from the Standing Rock Reservation. These are more than five minute clips on social media or a quick skim of an article on the internet. Our native brothers and sisters have something to teach us – white people of European descent. Don’t turn away.

What is it that makes a culture devour itself and teach its young to take what it can get today – robbing future generations of health and hope? How does a majority of people settle for toys, entertainment and “convenience,” while a minority keeps them in their office cubicles and behind fast food counters as that minority wreaks destruction: raping Mother Earth by drilling holes miles down and wide; poisoning waterways that run like veins and capillaries through this world; making the air venomous with toxins that infuse our bodies and turn the atmosphere into a toilet; and crushing any people who stand in their way?

"What is happening at Standing Rock is a profound action by the people who are still human, taking a stand to protect Mother Earth and end the destruction wrought by a diseased culture."

We are letting them kill us and the planet in exchange for debt financed iPhones, McMansions and “reality shows.”

Wetiko: the Colonizer’s Disease

Some Native Americans call the epidemic disease ravaging the colonizer culture “Wetiko.” The symptoms of Wetiko include the delusion that the dominator society is separate from nature, rather than part of it. The scourge can be identified by the display of insatiable greed that is never satisfied among its sufferers. It can be identified by the will to terrorize, enslave, murder and deceive in order to accumulate more and more and more without concern for Mother Earth and her children – or their own.

The Standing Rock Sioux and their indigenous supporters from around the world know the ravages of this mental disease all too well. They have suffered genocide, seen their numbers and their traditions decimated, and witnessed for hundreds of years the trashing of the continent. They have witnessed the spread of Wetiko from generation to generation, and even among some of their own.

What is happening at Standing Rock is a profound action by the people who are still human, taking a stand to protect Mother Earth and end the destruction wrought by a diseased culture.

This, the Standing Rock Sioux teach us.

Mother Earth’s Rights   

Communities in the U.S. began adopting laws securing the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish in 2006. Some of our Native brothers and sisters wonder at those of us supporting the codification of Mother Earth’s rights in law. Perhaps establishing legal protections for the rights of nature seems odd to them, not because it’s false, but because it goes without saying. Why would there need to be a law to protect so obvious a truth? Mother Earth has rights. How could it be otherwise?

It was the rationalization of the barbarity of empire-building that converted generations of Christian “settlers” to believe that God had set them above and apart from nature, which is only a collection of exploitable “resources” that must be owned as property by a privileged minority. Faith in this unscientific, irrational, and diseased delusion has allowed an unprincipled minority to become powerful and wealthy by “sharing” those resources with the masses in exchange for their labor and obedience.

Today, the fact that Mother Earth is a living, breathing entity, and that all beings are an integral part of her, is denied by the lawyers trying to protect corporate privileges from the witnesses of conscience at Standing Rock.  It is denied by the court system, the public and mercenary “security” personnel, and the clueless “media” gossiping about the standoff. Judges and lawyers assert without blushing that corporations – pieces of paper chartered into “existence” with ink and official sigils – have rights. But Mother Earth, rivers, and trees?  Not in this empire.

That’s why some municipal colonies of the empire write laws codifying Rights of Nature.  Because in European-rooted imperial culture, law is a tool of power over people. If it is not written in law, it is not enforceable.  But to many Native Americans, the truth of Mother Earth’s rights is so deeply known that it need not be codified.

But it must still be lived and defended.

Mark Clatterbuck went to Standing Rock with his daughter to support the Standing Rock Sioux. Clatterbuck is from Lancaster County, PA, where communities are battling the Atlantic Sunrise Project – a proposed pipeline cutting through commonwealth’s farmland, forests, waterways, and neighborhoods. Like communities and ecosystems facing the North Dakota Access Pipeline, communities and ecosystems facing the Atlantic Sunrise Project are threatened with poisoned water supplies, devastation to land, and toxins in the air.

“The Standing Rock Sioux have a reverence for the land and water that is palpable. They recognize "water is life," or Mni-wiconi. They understand that without the land and water, we have nothing. They are Protectors, not ‘protesters,’ taking action because they are called to do so by their ancestors and their way of life,” shared Clatterbuck after returning to Lancaster County last week.

He continued, “Their grief for the destruction of the land and the threat to their water is equaled only by their deep sense of commitment to stand with the land and with each other. They are moving in prayer, in reverence, and in solidarity.” Only uncivil people require law to coerce them into moral action.

This, the Standing Rock Sioux and their Native allies teach us.

Communities are Sovereign

Many of the Native people and their brothers and sisters converging at Standing Rock are not pleading for better regulation of the Black Snake, as they call the Dakota Access Pipeline. Rather, they are protecting themselves and the land. They are declaring there will be no Black Snake. They are demanding recognition of their sovereignty. And they are putting their lives on the line to do so.

Without Protectors, communities – Native and non-Native alike – will continue to be the sacrifice zones of the oil and gas industry, and every other industry that sets its sites on ruining for profit the places where we live. White people are just learning now that we are not above being prey to corporate predators. They are learning what red, black, and brown skinned peoples have known for centuries: they are expendable.

The lessons of the Standing Rock Sioux to their white brothers and sisters: Water is life. We are all Protectors. We must act in solidarity.

Illusion of Democracy

Most white people in the U.S. grow up believing they are a self-governing people. They believe they live in a democratic republic. They believe their elected officials are public servants, obliged to act on the will of the white people. For some, it’s such a “given” that they can barely tolerate criticisms of “the system.”

And yet the propaganda that passes for general education is not true. Not only Native Americans and minorities, but white people are denied community self-government. Instead, they elect their jailers as they beat their chests and proclaim they live in the freest nation on Earth – while corporations poison us; profit from the destruction of whole species, oceans, and the climate; and our children’s future is made precarious.

A Pine Ridge Lakota woman once smiled to learn how little power people in U.S. municipalities and counties have to protect the places where they live. She said, “At least we know we live on a reservation.”

And so we are inextricably linked with our Native brothers and sisters. The sovereignty of Native communities is not recognized by the wealthy and powerful, nor by the governments that rule them – just as the rights of non-native people to local community self-government go unrecognized, unsecured, and unprotected.

But these rights are true beyond question by any government or law, as are the rights and responsibilities we owe to Mother Earth. At Standing Rock, many are answering the call to defend and enforce these higher laws. And, for the sake of Mother Earth, our children and theirs, and all who live in community with us, we have a solemn duty to stand in a similar way, right in the places where we live. We have a solemn duty to protect these values against the madness and the moral sickness of Wetiko, which cannibalizes nature and human communities to feed the addictions of greed.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Emelyn Lybarger

Emelyn Lybarger

Emelyn Lybarger is  Outreach Coordinator for Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

Ben Price

Ben Price

Ben Price is the National Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and author of the award-winning book How Wealth Rules the World: Saving Our Communities and Freedoms from the Dictatorship of Property.

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