In Case You Thought Racism Was Dead

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

October 27, 2016 will go down as one of the saddest days in a very long time for Indian country, and for the United States more broadly. The events of this day—the violent police crackdown on the Standing Rock water protectors and the acquittal of Ammon Bundy et al for their armed occupation of a national wildlife area—taken altogether point to a much larger reality that still exists in twenty-first century US: the settler state is here to protect settlers and settler institutions; Native problems are not important enough for the press to be concerned with; which all points to the unavoidable conclusion that white supremacy is still the unspoken law of the land.

The announcement of the Bundy acquittal hit the mainstream media toward the end of the day after hours of a brutal standoff on North Dakota’s highway 1806. People were exposed to pepper spraying, sound cannons, concussion grenades, tasers, rubber bullets, the shooting (and killing) of horses, the confiscation of sacred items, and violent arrests. There was even a narrowly averted incident with a DAPL employee armed with an automatic weapon who was thankfully apprehended by BIA police.

As the aggression unfolded throughout the day, virtually the only live coverage on the ground came from social media. None of the major media outlets appeared to be there to document what may amount to the worst civil rights violations since those of the 1960’s. I sat and watched on facebook all day, in horror, as one live feed after another was jammed and then re-established in my effort to bear witness to the crackdown.

The scene can only be described as pandemonium as the unarmed water protectors stood their ground while police literally swept them from the ground with the aid of high tech weapons and maximum intimidation. The singing and praying continued unabated, and a sweat lodge ceremony commenced through it all.

At the end of the day, I heard of an eyewitness report that tipis and the sweat lodge were burned down by police.

While the attack on the protectors occurred away from the watchful gaze of the national media, a contingent of Native youth brought a message to Hillary Clinton’s office, asking for her help. After months of silence from her camp about DAPL, she sent a message saying only that she supported the right of all voices to be heard and that all parties involved should find a way forward that “serves the broadest public interest.”

In other words, it was a refusal to speak out against the endangering of the water of millions of people and this latest in a long line of treaty violations. It amounts to tacit complicity with corporate oil interests.

The violence could all have been avoided with more decisive action from the Obama administration. Instead of merely requesting that Energy Transfer Partners voluntarily halt construction while the details about the legality of the pipeline get ironed out through appropriate tribal consultation (which should have been done in the first place), it could have ordered it with punitive consequences attached. But ETP continued construction, without all the necessary permits, digging up sacred sites, and violating the protectors civil rights, without impunity.

For all the support the Obama administration has claimed to give Indian country in the last eight years, on October 27th it utterly failed us. What happened instead was a shameful repeating of a past that didn’t die with Custer. Indian country was traumatized yet again with a show of aggression that reaffirms the unilateral authority of the settler state in its project to eliminate Native people, all for the states’ “broader interests.”

What are those “broader interests?” First it was land for a superior race of people (manifest destiny). Then it was railroads and dams (broader interests delivered by industry, which would require the removal of the racially inferior Indians). Then uranium mining to win the Cold War (remember those deadly national sacrifice zones given to us by Jimmy Carter?). Now Indian country is again expected to risk their future–this time the water supply–to accommodate the broader interests of an energy infrastructure that is killing the environment we all need to survive.

Meanwhile, the armed takeover of national lands (stolen Indian land) by a crazed group of militia movement devotees with white supremacist ideologies gets off scott-free.

Make no mistake, the events of October 27 sent the message that social science experts have been saying for decades: the US is built on a system of racial privilege where whiteness still reigns. Violent white supremacists win, peaceful praying Indians lose. The facts speak for themselves.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s

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