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StandingRockSyllabus: Learn From It, Teach With It

The battle at Standing Rock to defend Native lands and waters offers a great opportunity for teachers in a range of disciplines.

Fortunately, a number of academic groups have prepared teaching materials about Standing Rock and made them available on the Internet. The New York City Stands with Standing Rock Collective has produced #StandingRockSyllabus, the most thorough and deeply researched set of materials on the topic.

Teachers often look for current events to enliven their classes. But a danger lurks when current events are taught without full historical and political insight. The teacher must prepare the ground and insist that students dig beneath their immediate opinions.

Standing Rock as a current event can only be understood against the background of a long history of Indigenous resistance to nation-states and corporate invasion.

Current events discussions that devolve into superficial "opinion" exchanges fail to teach anyone anything—and may even lead students to think that discussions and facts don't really matter—that opinions are all there is.

The history of the world can be told on the backs of stories like Standing Rock, starting even before the violent colonization of the 'New World' by the Christian powers of the Old World—when Christendom fought the 'pagan' peoples of what we now call Europe.

Standing Rock raises the crucial issues of 'modern' civilization's centuries-long war against Indigenous Peoples. The Dakota Access Pipeline project exemplifies everything that characterizes that war: treating Earth as a set of "resources" for extraction and "private profit"; insisting on human "dominance" of Earth and all other creatures; imposing centralized forms of organization on all life.

Dakota Access Pipeline—the name gives the story away: the corporation wants access to Dakota Territory—represents a pinnacle of extraction: a project to connect oil "fracking" to oil burning, in the name of economic 'growth' and 'profit.'

The aims and goals of modern civilization have taken deep root in peoples around the world—who have gotten hooked on the promise of ease and have only begun to see the emptiness of the promise and the devastation caused by falling for it. Around the world—even as the global promise-makers keep shouting their wares—people are jolting awake to their real situation as victims, rejects, and left-overs of the empire of extraction.

Some teachers respond to the difficulty of teaching current events by taking a disengaged approach—as if to present a "neutral" perspective. In my view, the way to respond to the difficulty of teaching about current events aims at deeper engagement—to investigate the roots of events.

The authors of the #StandingRockSyllabus proclaim their intention "to advance the historic work of the Sacred Stones Camp, Red Warrior Camp, and the Oceti Sakowin Camp to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which threatens traditional and treaty-guaranteed Great Sioux Nation territory."

The syllabus contextualizes DAPL "within Sioux and settler history so that those who seek a deeper understanding of the territory and the conflict might learn and teach." Most importantly, the syllabus starts with a timeline of events within treaty history in the Plains, and specifically Sioux Treaty history.

The syllabus does not simply restate conventionally available materials. It organizes materials in what the authors describe as "a deliberative curatorial exercise in radical accountability to Indigenous thought and politics." In other words, Indigenous perspectives govern the presentation.

The authors acknowledge their limitations and the need for scholars to take seriously materials beyond the ordinary academic canons. Thus, for example, they state, "we take Sioux notions of history seriously but came to impasses with certain materials that we wanted to include, but felt inadequate to interpret. So we direct educators and students to the crucial archives of Lakota Winter Counts. One of the founders of the resistance camps at Standing Rock, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, has devoted her life to the interpretation of these counts and any responsible curriculum will point to them and invite students to think about and with them."

True to the purpose of digging to the roots of events, "#StandingRockSyllabus places what is happening now in a broader historical, political, economic, and social context going back over 500 years to the first expeditions of Columbus, the founding of the United States on institutionalized slavery, private property, and dispossession, and the rise of global carbon supply and demand. Indigenous peoples around the world have been on the frontlines of conflicts like Standing Rock for centuries."

Importantly, #StandingRockSyllabus aims for audiences beyond the standard academic world: The authors built it for use "in K-12 school settings, community centers, social justice agencies training organizers, university classrooms, legal defense campaigns, social movement and political education workshops, and in the resistance camps at Standing Rock and other similar standoffs across the globe."

The syllabus opens with an emphasis on treaties—"The Pipeline violates the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and 1851 signed by the United States." By positioning Standing Rock first as a treaty issue, the syllabus avoids the problems some have run into by emphasizing U.S. laws, such as environmental and historical preservation regulations.

Standing Rock involves environment and preservation, but emphasis on the Treaties makes clear that independence and self-determination are at the heart of struggles for Indigenous Peoples' existence. The United States has colonized Indigenous Peoples lives and lands. To pretend that U.S. law will somehow sustain Indigenous existence marks a failure to see the truth of the situation.

The syllabus shows clarity in its treatment of the 'Marshall trilogy' of U.S. Supreme Court cases that form the basis of federal Indian law. Rather than presenting federal Indian law as somehow benevolent toward Indians—the so-called "trust doctrine"—the syllabus describes the actual decisions in the three cases: "Indians had no right of soil as sovereign, independent states"; "Indian 'tribes' are 'domestic dependent nations'"; and "the United States federal government had the authority to govern relations between Indigenous Nations and states."

In short, the syllabus presents a critical and accurate history of U.S. laws, including laws that many people think are "pro-Indian." Thus, the 1924 Citizenship Act "further[ed] the project of assimilating Native nations into the United States rather than recognizing their sovereignty." The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act "replace[d] traditional governance structures with Western, electoral system…tribal constitutions." The 1944 Indian Claims Commission was "the beginning of the termination era."

What Sterling HolyWhiteMountain (Blackfoot) recently said about "the great failure of the Indian-mascot debate" applies to all the issues affecting American Indians—the need to "connect the issue to something other than racism and the self-esteem of individual Indian people."

HolyWhiteMountain's diagnosis and prescription deserve repetition here: What needs to be addressed "is the true history of Indian Country, which is to say the true history of the United States: a story of abrogated treaties, of tribal sovereignty limited by Congressional law and of specious Supreme Court decisions, all of which have either hampered or destroyed the ability of tribal people to govern themselves as political sovereigns on their own land. It is this history that created a set of systems that keep tribal nations locked in a suffocating political and economic limbo. American Indians are not minorities in any traditional sense. We are the descendants of the original majority, citizens of over 500 distinct tribes, and holders of special legal and political status resulting from the treaties we signed with the U.S. government, the same government that broke every one of those agreements."

The #StandingRockSyllabus meets this need. Learn from it. Teach with it.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhii?na be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.