White Absolution in the Bakken Oil Fields
Grace Phillips traces her roots back to a pioneer homestead in Williston, North Dakota – point of origin for the Dakota Access pipeline, and just a few hours away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Going back and forth between the two, she asks: how do we move forward from here?
When oil was discovered in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota in 2006, I was only 16 years old, but I have distinct memories of the dark images that circulated in my hometown during the six year oil boom. By 2012, Montana media painted a grim picture of this new Wild West. Sex trafficking in the “Man Camps,” Meth-addled truck drivers making $100,000 a year, and women getting kidnapped in Walmart parking lots. The Bakken was danger or opportunity, calibrated to individual desperation. And like the old extractive industries of the American frontier, the threat of a bust lurked just around the corner. The long geopolitical stand-off in energy production caused a steep drop in the price of oil in 2014, making Bakken production unprofitable for many companies. The rig count in the Bakken was 218 at its peak in May 2012; at time of writing it is 49. By the time I moved in to my trailer in near Williston in October of last year, the “Boomtown, USA” residents were reminiscing about old paychecks like former high school quarterbacks recalling glory days.
Williston sits above the center of a geologic feature called the Williston Basin – sedimentary rock layers formed over millions of years by dead organisms that sank to the bottom of ancient shallow seas. Pressure, heat and movement of Earth’s crust caused some bodies to become oil, fallen wood around these seas became coal. I moved here to research the story of my great-grandmother who ran away from a Williston homestead as a teenager, but as an environmental writer based in the point of origin and raison d’être for the Dakota Access pipeline, I began to focus on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) standoff as tension grew at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I soon discovered my two lines of inquiry overlapped and I was much closer to the protest camps than the 4.5 hour drive southeast would suggest.
All the camps – Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud, Sacred Stone – are now closed. February 22 marked eviction day for the last hundred Water Protectors at the largest camp, Oceti Sakowin. Six days later the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) cleared Sacred Stone camp. When I first went to Standing Rock in October, I wasn’t clear on the number of separate camps, even within Oceti Sakowin, or how to get to any of them. I found myself driving in a slow circle through the small town in the northeast corner of the reservation thinking, I probably should have looked this up. I finally made it to the flag-lined entrance to Oceti Sakowin (with some assistance) as the sun was setting. Every single person I spoke to during multiple stays in camp articulated what I felt as security waved me through the gate that first day – a blank moment, followed by a sharp tightening of my senses, this hyper-awareness trying to take in the flood of impressions. A mental scramble for comparable experiences came up empty-handed – no one had seen anything like this before. Throughout the occupation, livestreams from countless activists provided a window into these experiences and enabled a global audience to witness the power of racism and state-sanctioned violence summoned in defence of the oil industry in North Dakota.
In speaking to my grandpa after my first visit to Oceti Sakowin camp, I was surprised to discover that in 1890, my German and Danish immigrant ancestors were operating a hardware store in a town about hundred miles east of the Oceti Sakowin camp. 1890 was the year that famous Lakota holy man and last-standing resistance leader Sitting Bull was murdered about thirty miles south of Oceti. After decades of persecution, he was the last Sioux leader confined to the Standing Rock Reservation where his resistance to a wrongful arrest cost him his life. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan at that time publicly stated that, “It has become the settled policy of the Government to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens.” Assimilation was the official policy on “the Indian Problem.” It manifest as things like The Dawes Act of 1887 – a federal program to legally sell off portions of Indian treaty lands deemed ‘surplus’ (60 million acres by 1900) at bargain prices to settlers. Thanks to this scheme, places like Williston quadrupled in size at the turn of the century, populated by people like my great-grandmother Grace, who arrived as a toddler around 1907.
The contours of my personal story are the same as those of the American west, but these personal connections of white communities are not well articulated in the socio-political landscape. For example, it is well-known in the affluent mountain town where I was raised that the town’s namesake, John Bozeman, was a trailblazing miner who created a path to siphon pioneers en route to the California Gold Rush northward to the one in Montana. But hardly anyone would be able to tell you that Bozeman’s trail illegally cut through Sioux hunting grounds, sparking years of renewed warfare and forcing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 to be renegotiated. The resulting Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 which promised the Great Sioux Nation (banded Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota tribes) permanent rights to their sacred Black Hills in South Dakota was only upheld until miners discovered gold there too.
However, Chase Iron Eyes – attorney, activist, and mainstay of Oceti Sakowin – could probably tell you all that. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have cited these Fort Laramie Treaties all along as legal grounds for opposition to the pipeline, and their right to occupy the area. In frequent Facebook live feeds, Iron Eyes traced these histories over and over, layering territorial battles driven by gold and black gold on top of one another, in order to see the NoDAPL fight with a historical lens.
Seeing my own life with such a lens is an unfamiliar practice, but in speaking with people at Oceti Sakowin, the gaps in my knowledge felt deeply embarrassing. In the oilfields, Williston residents eagerly aided my queries into my family history because there is a palpable pride and fascination with the narrative of pioneer integrity. Contemporary Bakken life sees the figure of the hard-working homesteader or miner transposed as the hard-working roughneck. However, my attempts to talk history of Standing Rock and DAPL with these residents were met with suspicion, ridicule and apologetic racism. I was raised out here, so I can’t say I was surprised to find history feels relevant only insofar as it serves the sentimental fantasies of settler colonialism. In most of the western states, legacies of the ethnic cleansing that cleared American territory of native people are most vivid to those who the survived forced assimilation; to many white people, the reservations just seem so far away.
This mindset is why North Dakota’s police and legislative responses to the DAPL standoff have been received as appropriate and effective. North Dakota is the nation’s second largest oil-producing state and it has ranked second in FBI statistics on hate crimes per capita since 2012. The DAPL fight found itself in the middle of Trump country during the 2016 election season. Local reporting tended to frame the entire issue in terms of tax dollars “shelled out” to protect private property from “rioters.” Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who oversaw the use of water cannons on unarmed water protectors in sub-zero temperatures, was heralded for the zero-death tally during the many-month standoff. When the Sheriff expressed his disappointment that nominal federal support hadn’t translated into ‘boots on the ground’ he revealed that his terms of engagement were military – and many North Dakotans up in the oil fields accepted militarised policing as the price for securing the pipeline, which came to represent the Bakken way of life. The public conversation presented NoDAPL as a kind of collective tantrum, thrown by indulgent people that refused to work or acknowledge their complicity in the fossil fuel economy.
To paraphrase a series of Dallas Goldtooth’s tweets, a classic colonial story is at work in the Pro-DAPL narrative. The colonizers create a crisis, villainize crisis response efforts from decentralized and marginalized opposition, only to then swoop in as saviors to the plight. The plight here was the fact that Oceti Sakowin was always a summer campground situated on a massive floodplain. As unseasonably warm weather began to make camp life even more difficult, camp leaders requested more time to continue an ongoing cleanup process that relied on volunteers but were denied by the Army Corps, citing safety concerns. Local news ran with stories about mountains of trash left behind by irresponsible outsider environmental terrorists, hell-bent on wasting the resources of common-sense North Dakotans.
This public conversation resonated in the halls of power in North and South Dakota. “DAPL package bills,” criticised by some as “knee-jerk legislation,” were “fast-tracked” to be signed into law by Gov. Burgum on Feb. 23rd, complete with an emergency application clause. They include a new misdemeanour for wearing a mask or hood with committing a crime (HB 1304), an expansion on the scope of trespassing (HB 1293) and doubling maximum penalties for “instigating a riot” (to ten years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine) and “engaging in a riot” (maximum penalty of one year in prison and/or $500 fine) (HB 1426). According to testimony by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers, “individuals can be found guilty of engaging in a riot if they fail to disperse when ordered by law enforcement, even if they remain peaceful during the event.” Following North Dakota’s example to criminalize protest (anticipating resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline), South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently signed a new bill into law which gives the governor authority to designate “public safety zones.” It creates a new criminal charge for those who defy them, with penalties of up to a year in prison for first offence and two years in prison for second offence.
The fascinating thing is how far these responses to DAPL protests are willing to go, and it seems to me to be about something bigger than a pipeline and bringing money back to the Bakken. The extreme “law and order” rhetoric belies a strong nostalgia for a cultural identity made out of cherry-picked historical moments. My great-grandmother was stricken with Alzheimer’s at the end of her life, but a memory that never left her was the names of each of her 50 head of cattle, which she recited almost like a song. I am not suggesting that the respect for rural life’s intimacy with land and survival is sentimental. But the Pro-DAPL narrative cast water protectors outside of that respect and suggested that they were deserving of violence because they were Native American, or hippies, or coddled people who don’t understand how the world works. Standing in the middle of these forces I had to fight compulsions to deny my own proximity to the pro-DAPL camp. Distancing myself from these ‘bad’ white people, as liberals have compulsively done with ignorant Trump voters, does nothing more than to protect my ego. In reality the intersections of my life with the history of the American frontier, genocide, occupation, and white supremacy make that distance look pretty small.
At times, fogs of guilt and internalised colonialism were thick for white people at Oceti Sakowin, too. Camp was by no means immune to the racial and colonial powers that structure the outside world. But people were building the infrastructure to take on this difficult issue within the movement. By December, a vibrant community meeting schedule had evolved, with indigenous-led decolonization meetings multiple times a week. One meeting I attended enabled POC to have the large meeting dome to themselves in order to provide a safe space for decompressing, while white people like myself gathered in the vestibule. It was the weekend that thousands of Veterans came to Standing Rock, when the winter flared up and extreme weather made it unsafe to go outside with your skin uncovered. And yet water protectors from all over the country were stepping up to educate each other, talk about history and to decolonize in the middle of a blizzard at night on a floodplain in North Dakota. The dedication was unreal.
These attempts at building a social infrastructure for decolonization seem to me like a poignant blueprint for anyone concerned with their part in the myriad of issues connected to colonization and supporting the struggle against it. In February, a Lakota water protector posted on Facebook about a descendant of General Custer going to Standing Rock to apologise for her ancestors. It’s a difficult gesture to judge, but it seemed awkward, uncomfortable, and weird – positioning oneself to be forgiven in this context feels questionable. It also made me remember how humility and humiliation are almost the same word. For me, acknowledging our ancestors might mean a lot more if we can figure out how to build something that can properly attack the systems they built, and lay down tools made of white guilt which fail to do so.
The intersection of my life with Standing Rock exposed for me the distraction of making scapegoats out of easy targets, how self-serving and apolitical it can be. Contradiction riddles my own mental landscape but it feels crucial to work within that, not falsely attempt to smooth it over. Grace left a calloused prairie life with nothing, but I know from stories that I inherited things from her, like a penchant for running and my name. The inheritance story I share with so many white people, that the wealth my family has managed to accumulate can be directly traced to the seizure and occupation of Native American land, is not really the one we pass down. Many communities do pass on this history with clarity and power, and Standing Rock was like a new kind of rehearsal space. It is a social infrastructure I feel is so important because, as Sherman Alexie points out in a recent poem, it’s not hate that perpetuates genocide, it’s love – “Because genocidal people have mothers/ And fathers who love them. Because/ Genocidal people look in the mirror/ And see their ordinary faces. Because/ The ordinary don’t commit genocide./ Because it’s only the epic monsters/ Who commit genocide. But that’s not true./ Who are the monsters? Well, shit, it’s me/ And you. And you. And you. And you. And you.”