Helping Students Connect With Standing Rock

The Sioux Nation protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline is taking on greater significance each day. Don’t miss the opportunity to teach about history in the making. 


Sovereignty. Water. Government treaties. Power and privilege. Solidarity among nations. These are the best starting points for digging into the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s protest over the construction of an oil pipeline under the Missouri River near the boundary of their reservation in North Dakota.

The protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been ongoing for two years, but it recently grabbed national media attention after thousands of Native Americans from different nations began showing up at the pipeline construction site. They have set up two camps and more people arrive daily. News stories have appeared all over, from Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC and The New York Times to alternate media outlets such as Common Dreams and EcoWatch, and Native American media outlets such as Native News Online and Indian Country Today Media Network.

On September 9, a federal judge ruled against blocking work on the DAPL. Later that day, the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called for a voluntary halt to construction while plans were revisited. Protesters from around the world—indigenous people and non—continue to flock to North Dakota to stand with the Sioux Nation.

High school teachers can introduce students to this story through lessons on the environment, government, history, journalism and media, culture and capitalism, or through broader concepts such as identity, solidarity and activism. Students will find relatable connections to make within their own experiences and with other stories of environmental degradation and market-driven decision making that privileges profits over the health and welfare of people—often marginalized people. This series of events is also an opportunity to highlight the ongoing mistreatment of Native peoples by our government and to question why this practice continues. Some students may even find personal connections with the protesters themselves and the idea of defending what is sacred and valuable to them and their communities.

For art and photography classes, take a look at photographer Matika Wilbur’s (Swinomish/Tulalip) photos of the protests, and read her blog post about the experience of being at the camps. She writes, “The expensive 3.9 billion dollar pipeline received its permits from the Army Corps of Engineers on July 25, 2016. If built, massive volumes of crude oil will wind through the ancient burial and ceremonial grounds of Standing Rock Community, disrupting the culture, water supply, ecology, and safety of its people.” Consider asking students to read her words, analyze the photos and then find a connection to their own communities: When have their communities, sacred places, cultures or water supply been disrupted? Have their communities ever fought back against the local, state or federal government’s imposition of a law, a process, a change of any kind? This would make a fantastic research project with interviews, secondary research, writing and photography. If your school has the technology, this might be a multimodal project or a public event where students present their findings.

In history classes, it is worth highlighting the DAPL protests as a current example of the power of collective action—and of the risks involved in standing up for what you believe in. Another important element of that collective action is solidarity among groups for a cause. The Navajo Nation has shown its support of the Sioux Nation, as well as indigenous Hawaiians from the Big Island and over 200 other tribal nations. Much has been made of the similarities between the pictures of protesters being hosed and attacked by police dogs in Birmingham in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and images of the DAPL protesters being tear gassed and having dogs unleashed on them by private security companies.

Drawing students’ attention to a story and a people they may not be familiar with changes their perspective and broadens their critical and cultural lens. Engaging deeply with this story requires some creativity on your part as an educator, but it is important for students to recognize themselves in this story and to draw connections to the importance of considering identity, diversity, justice and action when reading the news. Even more than that, it’s important that students consider their own values and think about what they are willing to stand up for.

Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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