White Capitalism, Settler Politics, and The Dakota Access Pipeline

(James MacPherson/AP)

I woke up this morning feeling very moved to write about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). All I’ve been able to do is smudge for my brothers and sisters protesting its construction; because, rather than being at a loss for words, I’ve had too many.

For the most part, I can’t even begin to sort through my thoughts and feelings towards the DAPL logically. I start with rage, the historical rage of an East Coast Native whose relationship to her land has been subverted by white capitalism and settler identity politics for nearly five hundred years. If you haven’t heard, the Dakota Access Pipeline would transport as much as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota across the Missouri River to Illinois through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Needless to say, its proponents in Washington and in corporate board rooms could not be less bothered that the DAPL would contaminate the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water, and that it would cross sacred land, including burial sites.

Part of the reason I have been unable to write about DAPL is because it hits so close to home. When I first heard about it, I immediately thought of Mashapaug, an ancestral Narragansett freshwater pond on the southern edge of my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Essentially, Mashapaug has become a dumping ground for urban waste, including the industrial waste of the factories that line its western banks. The pond is now (in)famously polluted, flanked also by signs reading, “Mashapaug is sick.” The last time I visited last fall, I cried there, and for days afterwards. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to describe what it’s like to go to an ancestral site that has been so blatantly disrespected.

And that’s why my heart breaks for the Standing Rock Sioux. At the same time, though, I can’t imagine what my sisters and brothers are going through having to fight for their right to clean water, for the protection of the earth and their ancestors’ burial grounds. In 2016. In an unprecedented age of information, in the most “civilized” country on earthy, human beings have to fight for basic human rights.

It’s mind-blowing. But at the same time, the DAPL is very much in line with white capitalism. In other words, it is fundamentally about whiteness, because whiteness has always treated nature as a commodity and indigenous people as disposable. I’ll be the first to attest to this, as my people have been colonized and our land disrespected since the 1600s. The idea that resources are limited is a tenet of neoclassical economics; it’s at the core of white capitalism. Was this not one of the basic principles of resource-poor Europe’s age of (dique) “exploration”? Is this not why indigenous people from Africa to Asia to Turtle Island have been displaced, our lands disrespected, our livelihoods and lives deemed secondary to white people being able to make a profit?

And to that end, we would be amiss not to acknowledge the global dimensions of the DAPL. One of the purposes of the pipeline is to encourage the United States’ “energy independence.” This is another facet of maintaining the world order with white capitalist America on top. The pipeline’s proponents are (unsurprisingly) touting economic development along the pipeline—essentially, some tired trickle-down economics. But when in American history have communities of color truly benefited from American economic hegemony? If trickle-down economics work for us, why are reservations and ghettoes plagued by horrible and oftentimes Third World poverty? Am I supposed to think that it’s a coincidence that the Standing Rock reservation has a staggering poverty rate (43.2%)?

The Dakota Access Pipeline is the latest chapter in a long history of white capitalism brutalizing Native Americans. This has been going on for hundreds of years, but it is no less disrespectful and no less painful. I mentioned Mashapaug earlier, but I’m also thinking the Shinnecock fighting for access to their ancestral beaches against structural, racialized economic discrimination in Southampton, New York, and of National Grid’s proposed Liquefied Natural Gas project in my hometown of Providence. This is not to draw a one-to-one correlation between these struggles, because I do think what’s going on at Standing Rock poses real and immediate danger. My point is that white capitalism seeks not only to exploit our lands, but also, to continue the dislocation of indigenous people from our lands, and thereby our identities. The Dakota Access Pipeline is the child of white capitalism and settler politics. Its work is not only to make money at the expense of the Standing Rock Sioux, but also to subvert their relationship to the land. Because, as settlers learned early on in the East, if you can disrupt that relationship, you can begin to subvert Native identity. This is about further exploitation. This is about white supremacy.

And this is also a moment I will speak on behalf of my communities in the East. From Mashpee to Mashantucket, Pokanoket to Seaconcke, Mohegan to Narragansett, we oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. We stand with you, Standing Rock.

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