Dancing Indigenous Resistance to Big Oil on Native Lands

Not just water, land, air being violated. Women are being murdered. That's why we're activists. That's why we dance.

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Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Photo: Erin Tapahe.

Indigenous communities across North America continue to unite in resistance against oil pipeline construction. These actions take many forms and demonstrate the pride, collective cohesion and resilience of our First Peoples. Thriving in various social and political contexts, they point to countless human rights and treaty violations associated with the construction of pipelines.

Dance plays a central role in this type of artistic and cultural activism. Whenever asked to focus on dance alone in my writing, I know better than to attempt it; dance does not and cannot function properly on its own in Indigenous cultures: the song and the music that accompanies dances, and the people embodying them, are all vital to the movement itself. All parts function together as one artistic system — in this case, to raise awareness of the importance of establishing and maintaining social justice.

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One example is Round Dances, which span generations in North America and evolved over time to serve both ceremonial and social purposes. The Idle No More movement — a Canadian grassroots effort to build allies supporting Indigenous sovereignty and protection of land and water — often hosts rallies and demonstrations featuring Round dancing. To that end, a wave of Round Dance flash mobs swelled across various Canadian provinces in 2012. This example broke out at North America’s largest shopping mall in Edmonton; it was strategically planned during the heavily-trafficked Christmas season:

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In the US, a recent example of dance activism was the protest by thousands of Jingle Dress dancers at Standing Rock. These dancers, as reported by Tiffany Midge of Indian Country Today, “gathered on the main highway and took to the front lines, dancing about 150 yards away from where roughly nine armored police vehicles remained behind a wall of concrete barriers.” Their appearance was timely: it occurred shortly after the Morton County Sheriff’s department’s brutal altercation with the Standing Rock protestors on Oct. 26, 2016, resulting in injury from their vicious use of rubber bullets and tear gas, leading to a mass arrest of 141 Water Protectors.

Jonelle Fast Elk is quoted in Midge’s article:

…That was a terrible, terrible day and our hearts were sick and weak, but when we saw the Jingle Dress dancers rising at the hill’s crest, it gave us hope and our spirits were lifted.

This is empowering. This is healing. A soothing of physical and emotional wounds from unjustified violence inflicted on a group of human beings dedicated to protecting water resources not only meant for themselves, but for the entire planet.

After the dancing, two tribal elder women offered an explanation of the Jingle Dress dance to non-Native observers at Standing Rock. As reported by Antonia Juhasz in the Pacific Standard, one of the tribal elder women explained:

All the Jingle dancers understand the power of the dress and the feeling that we get when we dance the Jingle Dress dance — this is how we say our prayers, send our prayers up.

She then offered a passionate and heartfelt declaration:

we have come to dance for our people.

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In addition to traditional dance, different forms of contemporary fusion techniques are also playing a role in this resistance. Social-justice choreographer and Ananya Dance Theater founder Ananya Chatterjea defines her company’s work as responses to global issues, and has been working in partnership with Native Americans in the US. She was invited directly by Dakota friends and relatives to create a danced offering at Standing Rock.

In a recent phone interview that I conducted with Chatterjea, she called her contribution “a meditation offered in great humility.” She explained that it was an act of support in 100% solidarity with the Water Protectors rather than a performance. As a non-Indigenous ally, she was very clear in expressing that she would not have contributed in such a manner without having been specifically invited to do so.

Chatterjea mentioned that she was dealing with a long-standing foot injury during this danced demonstration in the freezing North Dakota winter temperatures, yet she did not experience pain. How could this be? She explained that prior to her offering the ground was prepared with prayer, allowing her to fulfill her purpose without distracting discomfort. She also continually dropped jewels of wisdom into our talk — for which I am incredibly grateful. For example, she characterized her perception of the role of dance in activism as a “pathway into a greater purpose.”

Another visionary and humble powerhouse in danced activism is Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Creations. (I previously wrote about her and her company in January.) I remember attending a riveting performance of her work, Walking at the Edge of Water, years ago at Stanford University. It starts with dancers wearing gas masks. According to Tangen, Walking at the Edge of Water was,

motivated by the urgings of Native grandmothers and invokes powerfully relevant water themes of creation, destruction and renewal.

In an email exchange, Tangen also shared with me that after returning from Standing Rock, numerous activists remarked that it reminded them of the first scene of Walking at the Edge of Water:

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Dancing Earth has a well-deserved reputation for giving their audiences a wake-up call. It inspires us to pay closer attention to the contributors of our planet’s demise, while offering a window into how positive our future could be if we decided to make the right choices.

There are too many problematic impacts that oil pipelines have on Indigenous communities to list them all comprehensively, but let’s start with water, land and air pollution, illness and disease, and blatant disregard of land and water rights. Such rights are supposed to be secured via treaties with tribes, but these treaties have never been fully honored according to the terms under which they were established. The resistance we see now in North America is to be expected. It’s nothing new, unfortunately, from a historical standpoint.

But one issue that doesn’t frequent mainstream headlines is the number of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in communities impacted by pipelines. Yes, this is real. When I first learned of this, my jaw hit the floor in disgust and horror, but tribal communities have been experiencing pain, grief and loss over this for a long time. There are “man camps” that serve as a temporary home for men who relocate to construct the pipelines, and some of the men infiltrate the surrounding areas occupied by Indigenous peoples. There’s been a drastic rise in abuse, abduction and murder of Indigenous women from varying age groups. Many are sold into sex trafficking.

In May 2017, I attended the Annual UCLA Powwow in LA. At one point during the event, all women, Native and non-Native, were asked to enter the arena to dance in unity and to pay respect to missing and murdered Indigenous women. It was a Navajo woman sitting near me who invited me to enter the arena. The tears welling in my eyes and streaming down my face as I danced were a testament to how powerful and important that honoring was (even for a non-Indigenous woman, such as myself). We were moving together, enveloped in and connected by drumming, song, solidarity, hope and love. The experience also ignited a fire within me. It encouraged me to join many others in drawing attention to this crucial issue and to the crisis facing our Indigenous sisters and their families.

And so I look to my fellow dancing colleagues, friends, family and social justice allies, and I ask: Why do you dance? What change do you want to see in this world? We want to hear your stories. We want to watch you dance your visions of justice into existence.