#NoDAPL: Teaching the Value of Protest

The protests at Standing Rock offer four valuable lessons for students of all ages.


Women marching in prayer to confront militarized police positioned behind razor wire. Nonviolent protesters continuing their resistance while being blasted by water cannons in below-freezing temperatures. Indigenous peoples from around the globe coming together in solidarity. These events, along with dance, song, ceremony and other forms of peaceful, nonviolent protest, have all happened within the last few weeks—and before—at the Standing Rock Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps in North Dakota. Educators should use this moment to teach students about standing up to governmental injustice and the degradation of our environment. And the #NoDAPL movement offers four valuable lessons for students of all ages: persistence, presence, planning and provocation.

Persistence. The #NoDAPL movement began in June 2014, when Energy Transfer Partners announced its plans for an oil pipeline route across lands and waterways of cultural, spiritual and environmental significance to the Lakota Nation and other communities downstream. Public hearings were scheduled for May and June 2015, and the pipeline was approved in January 2016. Sacred Stone Camp was established in April 2016 to protect the water. Since then, thousands of indigenous and settler¹ supporters have traveled to the camps to stand in solidarity against the pipeline and in support of the preservation of the Lakota Nation’s sacred lands. The state of North Dakota, Energy Transfer Partners and the federal government have responded violently and forcefully. Students may be reminded of the civil rights movement, perhaps Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” or attacks on nonviolent youth protesters in Birmingham. Witnessing the persistence of people facing down traditional power structures can teach students how to stand up for themselves and what they believe in, no matter the opposition and no matter how intense the pressure.

Presence. Students can learn the importance of showing up by investigating the Standing Rock protests. Too often, people stop at filling out an online petition, sharing a few stories with an outraged tone and then going about business as usual. The #NoDAPL movement has been successful so far because of people’s willingness to show up, to stand in the way and to use their bodies to pressure state and federal authorities and a profiteering corporation to change. Showing up has always been necessary to creating change. As longtime civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis advises young people, “If you see something that is not right, that is not fair and not just, you have to speak up. You have to speak out. You have to find a way to get in the way.”

Planning. Starting with this video calling for people to help establish the Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016 and the #NoDAPL timeline, students can learn the importance of planning and how social media, video, websites and other networking resources can be used to develop a grassroots movement or a protest gathering of any kind. A review of the First Amendment would be appropriate to contextualize why protest is a valuable American right, especially in light of our president-elect’s recent comments about free speech. This look back is a valuable way to connect the past to the present.

Provocation. Sometimes, taking action or using words that anger people in power is necessary to move the bar forward on a particular issue. In the case of #NoDAPL, Facebook Live sessions have documented the actions of police and pipeline company-paid security personnel. The sessions have held the government and company publicly accountable. Getting in the faces of those who abuse their authority—or otherwise enact injustice—and spotlighting those actions can open the door to holding people accountable and making a difference.

Students should feel empowered to say no and stand up to anything or anyone that hurts or divides us. Teachers are in a unique and powerful position to encourage their students in this way and to place it in a long history of acting collectively to create necessary change. A good place for teachers to educate themselves—and to send advanced students—is the comprehensive Standing Rock Syllabus, developed by the NYC Stands for Standing Rock committee. This group is made up of indigenous scholars and activists and other supporters.

Protest movements have a long history in the United States of redressing grievances and righting injustices, so students can learn the value of protest from the #NoDAPL Standing Rock movement. Let us stand together as educators and remind our students of their fundamental right to protest.

Editor’s note: As of yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Army prohibited the Dakota Access Pipeline from being constructed near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a testament to the power of protest.

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

¹ A term that refers to people who settled what is now the United States, or whose ancestors settled here and who continue to benefit from that initial colonization. Click here for more information.

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