Teach Standing Rock With Purpose

This educator—originally from North Dakota—shares two reflections that inform how and what she teaches about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.


When water protectors* first started to organize against the Dakota Access Pipeline, I took notice. As a social justice educator raised in North Dakota, I was struck by how closely the situation mirrored broken treaties and land grabs that I’ve taught my students about. I’ve learned from the prairie, from my students and from Native people and history about why this struggle is about much more than water protection.

At the same time, I must acknowledge the painful irony that I may someday directly benefit from the oil that is extracted in North Dakota, as my parents own some mineral rights attached to their land. This truth reminds me of the conflicts inherent in many political stands and reinforces the importance of teaching about the value of non-monetary concepts: sacred spaces and collective history.

We, as educators, have a responsibility to teach about Standing Rock. And to do so, we must critically reflect on the crisis that unfolds before us and determine how and what to teach. Here, I offer two reflections that inform my approach.

We must teach our students to honor the sacred spaces around them, within them and within others.

When I was a child growing up on the northwestern North Dakota prairie, there was a large rock out in the pasture that I called my “thinking rock.” I would often head there when I was feeling overwhelmed and needed space or when I wanted to enjoy the quiet of the prairie. As an adult, I have told my own daughter and my students about it, knowing that they need to find their own safe spaces to think and reflect.

When I returned to that pasture this past summer after a long absence, my daughter—now 9 years old—and I looked for my thinking rock. It was nowhere to be seen. The pasture, which sits upon the Bakken Shale Formation, has shifted as wells and pipelines have been drilled and dug into the land. Somehow, in the changing landscape, my thinking rock was removed or shifted to a new location. I felt such a sense of loss. “I’m sorry, Mama. I know your thinking rock is special to you,” said my daughter. Simple as that; even young children recognize that objects hold value that cannot always be understood or measured by others.

It is difficult not to think of that rock right now, and more important, of the many indigenous feet that walked upon the land prior to my footsteps. My sense of loss is miniscule compared to the many losses of sacred natural spaces experienced by Native American and First Nations people. To watch the September 2016 footage of bulldozers removing topsoil from a site the Lakota identified as sacred is horribly painful. To read such comments posted online as, “It’s just a bunch of bones,” shows a level of insensitivity and a lack of capacity to honor what is sacred to a group other than one’s own. We need to teach our children to think critically about race, class, gender and oppression to help nurture these capacities.

We must teach our students the significance of history and collective memory, even when the memory is not from their own cultural background.

There was silence when my 14- and 15-year-old students moved through the Wounded Knee Museum in Wall, South Dakota. The museum was one stop during an eight-day camping trip called Westward Bound—Forge Further, which I designed with Minnesota teachers Angel Salathe and Randy Bauer. Our curriculum focuses on learning about Westward Expansion history through a social justice lens. Different groups of students and I have traveled from Wisconsin or Minnesota through parts of South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming, meeting with Native artists, activists and musicians along the way. The Wounded Knee museum always provokes similar emotions of shock, anger and sadness.

Visitors to the museum are guided through displays documenting the loss of tribal lands, beginning with the time of Columbus and ending at the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. The students read the content—including quotes from survivors—with respectful, quiet whispers. At the end of the exhibit, students have a disorienting experience: They see, hanging on the wall, medals soldiers received for their parts in the violent deaths of Wounded Knee victims.

Afterward, students often need time to think, time to journal and time to express their emotions. Each year, at least one student will say, “Why doesn’t everyone know about this?” to which I ask, "Do you think things would be different if they did?" They discuss and formulate their ideas, some believing in the hope of learning from our history, others dismissing it and believing that the gold or oil, or whatever drives the dollar, will still win out.

I could not—and cannot—stop thinking about Wounded Knee when I watched with horror as the rubber bullets began to fly in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

To many people, the military tactics being used in North Dakota are reminiscent of the tactics used against protesters during the civil rights movement some 50 years ago. And I believe that there are similarities there. But to us, there is an additional collective memory that comes to mind. This country has a long and sad history of using military force against indigenous people—including the Sioux Nation. I would like to think that those days are past—and that today Tribal rights cannot be ignored and military force cannot be used to suppress Indian people. But when I see the militarization taking place in North Dakota against Indian people, I am genuinely concerned.

—Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Dave Archambault II to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch

Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers delayed the construction of one section of the Dakota Access Pipeline until further environmental review can occur. This is a sign that activism is raising awareness. However, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, has filed a lawsuit stating that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has no right to enforce the delay. This is not the time to rest. The next weeks are crucial. Make them critical in your classroom, too.

*The demonstrators participating in the Standing Rock protest prefer to be called “water protectors.”

Bintliff is a language arts and reading teacher currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in educational psychology. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. Bintliff was raised in a tiny town in northwestern North Dakota. She stands with Standing Rock.

Additional Resources

Helping Students Connect With Standing Rock

Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock

Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (See this resource for more about the Westward Bound—Forge Further program.)


The Wounded Knee Museum

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