Racism and Standing Rock

Sunday, February 12, 2017

RACISM AND STANDING ROCK: Bismarck, North Dakota and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

“Race is the modality by which class is lived.”

In the case of the Indigenous Peoples of North, Central, and South America, Stuart Hall’s observation should have the word “class” replaced by “subordination.”

Racism is the permeating logic inhabiting the praxis by which the Other, who has already been dispossessed, is further subjected to a quality of life inferior to that which you believe is appropriate for those who resemble you.

On Twitter recently, John Upton retweeted @relombardo3:
“Reminder that DAPL was
re-routed through
Standing Rock because
Bismarck’s residents
feared it could poison
their drinking water.

The Sioux are literally
being forced at gunpoint
to accept ecological risks
that North Dakota’s
white residents refused.”

North Dakota’s residents overwhelmingly voted for Trump; their decision to subject the Sioux to one more degradation recalls a comment made by Michael Lally, “Not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, but every racist voted for Trump.”

Now I’m sure more than a few people might say, “Well, it’s easy for you in live in Long Beach, California, Bill, and look down on the people of North Dakota.” Actually, it’s not that easy, since I’m talking about a state in which I have had family by marriage, and I like those people. Along with my first wife, Cathay, I remember visiting Bismarck in the summer of 1985, then driving east to Dickinson, and north all the way across the border to Winnipeg in Canada. We had gone to Bismarck to visit her father, brother and nephews, and we took a vacation trip afterwards. The drive north to Winnipeg was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever experienced. The land formations were far different than I expected, and the sky that day had an ensemble of clouds worthy of a master choreographer. I remember how much we enjoyed visiting the museum in Winnipeg. We headed south to Duluth, and then visited Cathay’s sister in Minneapolis. My father-in-law and brother-in-law are dead now, but the time I spent with them has lingered in my affections.

I liked the people I met in North Dakota, and it didn’t surprise me that they would be judicious enough to elect someone like Kent Conrad to the U.S. Senate. That the people I met were all congruent to my wife’s family is the crucial qualifier, though. The color line, as DuBois pointed out over a century over, is firmly drawn in segregating Native Americans from the mainstream of civic, social and political life in North Dakota. The memorials we visited were concerned with preserving the tragedy of dispossession and subordination, and not just commemorating it.

Even given that fracture, however, my hunch is that things have changed there, and in part this is due to the wealth that poured into North Dakota due to the oil boom earlier this decade. Sudden wealth can distort one’s values, and it doesn’t take much wealth to undermine the inclinations toward compassion and community.

Perhaps resistance to the oil pipeline will give a few of those who have hardened their hearts a chance to reconsider, but I doubt it. I admire those who are resisting. It takes more courage than I have at the moment. May they survive, buffeted but unscathed.