In days of fake news, no news, or merely inconsequential celebrity news, it seems one way to hear of the vital activities of our world is to go back to the old traditions- those of the wandering storytellers.
In a collaborative event between The Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool School of Law & Social Justice and Liverpool Hope University. Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez, a young Chicano Native American who played a key role in the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, stood before us to share his story; the story of Standing Rock.
He begins with an apology for speaking in front of his elders, an opening that is customary for young people in Native American tradition, and lights a stick of sage, blowing the flame out and taking the moment to pause. ‘These stories are heavy’ he shakes his head and exhales as on screen we get a sense of what he means. Black and white photographs stream in a slow side show of Standing Rock; militarised police like out-of-the-future aliens, embattled in riot gear, line up amid the silent open plains of North Dakota. Plains, open to assault apart from the line of water protectors, standing eye-to-eye with the police.
Details and images of protectors being brutalised, kicked to the ground, arrested, stripped, young and old- boys, girls, men and women- thrown into dog kennels naked with numbers written in black markers on their arm. The slide show continues with a series of portraits of blank faces staring dead at the camera holding up forearms of inked numbers. Memories of previous peoples, stripped of dignity, spirit and humanity rise collectively in the audience. The echoes are clear. Investigations are on-going into police brutality with photographic evidence that, in freezing conditions, the police sprayed icy water laced with chemicals so that icicles formed immediately, mixing with blood, on the skin, face and eyes of the protectors.
And so it is with awe and respect that we hear how, despite such vicious treatment, a group of young indigenous Americans, who later formed the International Indigenous Youth Council, led the way in maintaining a non-violent stance of integrity in the face of brutality. Thomas’ insight is commanding, ‘the opposition wants you to feel anger and malice, like they do’, he states, continuing to recall his grandfather’s proverb, ‘No matter which way the wind blows, the mountain will not bow to it’.
Thomas informs us of the victories of the #defundDAPL campaign which has divested millions of dollars so far from the project, and I later read that the Dutch bank, ING, after meeting with the Sioux tribe in February, sold its $120m stake in the $2.5 bn loan financing the pipeline. A Norwegian pension fund, KLP, followed, selling $58m of shares following lobbying from the indigenous Sami tribe who live in the far north of Norway.
With over 3300 leaks and breakages in oil and gas pipelines since 2010, even the smallest of splits will reek irreversible damage to this water supply of half a million people and additional wildlife.
Nor is it a one-off concern. From China’s mining and dumping of nuclear waste on sacred Tibetan ground to fracking in Lancashire against the will of the local people, corporate violence for profit is everywhere. For those in the North West, it is significant to point out that it was fracking which released billions of gallons of new oil in Dakota which has resulted in this pipeline.
And it is behind the indigenous communities we need to unite. As Noam Chomsky stated recently, ‘Indigenous communities have begun to find a voice for the first time …all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to [environmental] disaster are the indigenous communities".
Even more, what lingers as one of the most prevailing messages to emerge from the evening is the importance of youth, and specifically indigenous youth. Coming from communities often racked with drugs, alcohol and suicide, these young people are a powerful inspiration for those wishing to reclaim a more authentic identity. Deep respect is owed to those of them who are engaging with some of the most difficult issues of our time and arming themselves with knowledge, history, courage and integrity.