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To Talk About Standing Rock, We Must Talk About Cultural Appropriation

We Can’t Talk About Standing Rock Without Talking About Cultural Appropriation

The Standing Rock fight isn’t just about the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s also about cultural theft, colonialism, and white supremacy.


Despite the bitter cold, thousands of First Nations people, environmentalists and others gathered in D.C. on Friday, March 10, to fight for native sovereignty, and protect the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who own the land the Dakota Access Pipeline would cut across. The #NativeNationsRise march and rally come roughly a month after the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota was forcibly removed, and they prove that although the protest stronghold is not longer there, the resistance is far from over. Four days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, he signed executive orders that nullified Obama’s temporary construction halt last fall. Now, indigenous Water Protectors and their accomplices have brought the fight to him.

The environmental concerns regarding the pipeline are obvious: Part of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be built beneath the Missouri River reservoir, threatening the drinking water supply of the entire Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In the last year alone, there have been reports of multiple oil leaks from pipelines located in cities across the country. One leak, spilling more than 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a hillside and a river tributary, happened a mere 150 miles away from the Standing Rock protests. But taking an environmentalist approach to the conflict is a cop-out, and considering the urgency of this moment, we cannot afford to settle for a surface-level analysis of the powers at play. The water protectors and allied protesters at Standing Rock aren’t just fighting against the DAPL. They’re fighting against white supremacy, resisting its centuries-old colonialist and capitalist impulses.

The water protectors and allied protesters at Standing Rock aren’t just fighting against the DAPL. They’re fighting against white supremacy.

At the core of the injustice is the same white supremacist nationalist arrogance that prompted early American colonialists to rationalize the displacement and genocide of millions of indigenous people. To be clear, as Kelly Hayes perfectly laid out in an essay re-printed by, “This moment is, first and foremost, about Native liberation, Native self-determination and Native survival.”

In order to develop stronger, more effective tactics to combat state-sanctioned white supremacist violence, we have to be willing to deconstruct the sources of its power, beginning with even the seemingly mundane. In the case of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and indigenous liberation more broadly, the question I wrestle with is this: How does cultural appropriation empower white supremacy?

It may seem off-topic, or even superfluous, to discuss cultural appropriation in this politically violent moment. I wince to even mention it; the media space has definitely been saturated with the topic in the past. But cultural appropriation — which I prefer to call cultural theft — is the exact kind of drawn-out cultural violence that makes room for the literal violence we’ve witnessed against the indigenous people at Standing Rock.

Midwives At Standing Rock Aren’t Going Anywhere

Using the more accurate word “theft” helps to highlight the way that cultural colonialism enables physical harm. In the mainstream American imagination, the term “appropriation” has been dulled, often placed alongside less threatening words like “borrowing” or “adopting” or “appreciating.” Cultural theft, however, is a more active term. More importantly, it also implies that the act involves a renegotiation of power, visibility, and more, which is why cultural theft is so harmful to marginalized communities of color in the first place.

If we don’t understand cultural theft as a derivative of white supremacy, then calling out some carefree, trendy lifestyle brand for selling dreamcatchers and Native-inspired accessories on its website quickly becomes an oversimplified argument about cultural ownership. Without a proper analysis, challenging a “bohemian” white girl for wearing a misappropriated native headdress at a music festival will always turn into a reductive, patronizing playground back-and-forth about sharing. But cultural theft is an extension of white supremacist power specifically, not just power in general. It is, at a base level, a white supremacist project.

Cultural theft is an extension of white supremacist power specifically, not just power in general.

Over the last few years, the constant gaslighting by opponents has somehow managed to turn the mainstream narrative about “cultural appropriation” into its own isolated battleground. For those invested in maintaining the status quo, having drawn-out arguments about whether or not something counts as cultural theft is much less threatening than talking about how their team mascot or Halloween costume relates to the genocide of an entire population. People who deliberately debate the significance of cultural theft effectively minimize the issue, forcing the rest of us to expend a ridiculous amount of time and energy on each instance.

Understandably, the whole thing can be emotionally and mentally draining, but the debate about cultural theft takes up more space than it should. In reality, white supremacy is the battleground; cultural theft is the fallout. It’s one very visible and particularly painful symptom of a power imbalance that is both systematic and directional. The minute a people’s attributes are reduced to fodder, substance, material to be culled and used at the whim of a dominant group, power shifts. When we normalize the cultural theft of indigenous traditions, decorations, images, histories, language — the very details that facilitate identity — indigenous people are reinforced as the playthings of white supremacy.

For the Lakota Water Protectors at the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp at Standing Rock, the threat of theft was real and imminent, just as it had been countless other times before across history. After holding the camp for more than 9 months, the Governor of North Dakota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an evacuation order, stating that the camp would be forcible removed, and any remaining protesters arrested. But the land that the resistance camps stood on belongs to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, according to the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. It is literally, legally, their property — making the evacuation order in violation of the treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

When we normalize the cultural theft of indigenous traditions, decorations, images, histories, and language , indigenous people are reinforced as the playthings of white supremacy.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, whose construction has continued steadily since Donald Trump’s January order, will travel beneath Lake Oahe, putting the entire Tribe’s water supply at risk. And according to a U.S. Internal Department memo written by Hilary C. Tompkins, the Interior Department’s top lawyer, the pipeline’s route also infringes on the Sioux Tribe’s federally protected hunting and fishing rights. “The Corps’ reasons for rejecting the Bismarck route also largely apply to concerns regarding tribal treaty rights associated with the Lake Oahe route. As such, if the Bismarck route is impermissible, the Lake Oahe route should be equally impermissible,” Tomkins writes.

Map of Dakota Access Pipeline Route with Sioux Tribal Lands By Carl Sack

The actual land that the pipeline would cut across belonged to the Sioux Tribe as of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, but was supposedly ceded in the 1868 Treaty. The legitimacy of that Treaty, though, should be called into question, considering several Sioux chiefs didn’t sign the document, and at least one chief who did sign claimed he was misled, according to the Huffington Post. Since the United States has a long history of misleading, manipulating, and deceiving indigenous leadership into signing Treaties and documents, this should come to no surprise.

We’re witnessing the contemporary iteration of American colonialism — now armed with rubber bullets and tear gas, but perpetuating the same anti-indigenous aggression as before. The forced removal and displacement of indigenous peoples is both a historical and contemporary violence. The violation of the Treaty rights of indigenous people is an occurrence of both the past and the present. The restriction of resources and the violent theft of land first belonging to the First Nations people is a horror that has continued for centuries. If cultural theft is a child, then domestic colonization — this country’s history of indigenous erasure and genocide — is its proud mother.

If cultural theft is a child, then domestic colonization — this country’s history of indigenous erasure and genocide — is its proud mother.

White supremacy is not a simple thing. Its multiple branches and varied faces all serve to bolster its power, strengthen its reach, and ensure its survival. Cultural theft is a deceptively normalized, sinister part of that. If we develop the narrative that cultural theft is a symptom of white supremacy, then perhaps a sense of urgency will alter the mainstream conversation around “cultural appropriation,” revealing just how far-reaching and many-sided white supremacy actually is. And of course, the better we can understand white supremacy — its shape, its habits, its strategies and derivatives — the more effectively we can challenge it and threaten its stability.