Wes Studi Sees Beginning of Indigenous Movement
American Indian actor talks about Dakota Access Pipeline
Posted Jan 03, 2017
Wes Studi is no stranger to protest.
An acclaimed actor and member of the Cherokee Nation, Studi has had roles in classic movies, such as “Dances with Wolves,” “Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat” and “Geronimo: An American Legend.” For the latter, he won a Western Heritage Award for his portrayal of Geronimo.
Studi began his long history of protesting the treatment of American Indians by joining the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participating in the Trail of Broken Treaties march in 1972, where hundreds of American Indian activists marched on Washington.
Studi was also one of the protesters who briefly occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building during that protest. And in 1973, Studi was arrested for his participation in the occupation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which was a protest of the United States government’s failure to honor treaties with American Indian tribes.
So it’s no surprise that, more recently Studi also joined the “Water Protectors” at the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The Dakota Access Pipeline is being built on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which Studi sees as yet another example of disrespect for American Indian sovereignty.
“This is a clear violation of the Standing Rock Tribal Government. They were not adequately consulted about what was happening around their land — especially the river, which is their immediate source of water,” Studi said. “There are areas around the reservation and state land boundaries that are still in some form contested. Something that has never been resolved.
“It just seems like another in a long line of actual broken treaties.”
Not only does the Dakota Access Pipeline represent a violation of sovereignty, but it also presents a potential environmental hazard. This unfortunate fact was demonstrated most recently as a leak in the pipeline spilled an estimated 176,000 gallons of oil into a nearby creek, risking severe water contamination.
“It’s a dangerous thing to build pipelines underground … and there’s also the danger of actual contamination of the water of the Missouri River,” Studi said. “It’s having a huge effect not only on the outer environment, but within. All the earthquakes that are happening, and more so the sinkholes, there’s something absolutely going wrong with the natural cycle of the earth.”
For Studi, the ongoing violation of treaties and risk to the land also takes a heavy psychological toll. “I myself as an American Indian feel like a failure in a way. I have not been able to do anything about the fact that these large corporations are taking so much natural gas and oil out of the soil,” Studi said. “It seems like we’re always involved in fighting something. It’s tiresome.
“It would be summed up in one word, and that would be ‘frustration.’”
So when Studi arrived at the Oceti Sakowin camp to “Stand With Standing Rock,” he was prepared for another protest. But what he found was something very different and unexpected — a peaceful, prayerlike gathering.
“Being a veteran of the old days, of the civil unrest that happened back then, I was completely taken aback by the peacefulness of it all. The gathering is not a protest. The people there are simply here to unite and show their displeasure with what’s going on with the pipeline,” he explained. “They are in prayer mode … This is a gathering to pray for the water, more or less. I think it’s a peaceful demonstration, showing their lack of enthusiasm, to say the least, for this pipeline going through an area that endangers their water, as well as water for many other people.”
And it is perhaps in part the tone of this gathering that is now bringing attention to the issue of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And Studi thinks that he is seeing this as an opportunity for a broader “indigenous” movement, whereby people from around the world who feel that their land is being exploited are rallying to this cause.
“We have people coming from as far away as the Amazon, from Norway, from Tibet. This has the potential to become an indigenous movement – a worldwide indigenous movement calling for an end, an end of fossil-fuel use,” Studi explained. “What I think we are doing is gathering indigenous people from throughout the world to show how and why so many of these oil-extraction operations that are going on all over the world are contaminating so much of the water in our life.
“It’s inherent in indigenous people because we live closer to the environment. It’s like the people down on the Amazon and how their rain forest is being destroyed and how their rivers are being polluted,” he added.
“It can serve as an iconic symbol for the beginning of a new way of thinking about energy.”
Studi feels that there’s tremendous potential in this type of movement. “I really think it’s incumbent on all human beings to take another breath and begin to think, ‘There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a better way to power our automobiles. There’s got to be a better way to power our houses. There’s got to be a better way to have the things that we have now in a different manner … and give the Earth a break,’” he said.
And he is already seeing progress. Recently, thousands of U.S. veterans arrived at the gathering to support the cause. And most recently, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the construction of a key aspect of the Dakota Access Pipeline, halting its construction.
“Whether the latest development is an actual cease-work order or just a delay tactic until the next administration takes over, the brilliant Water Protectors at Standing Rock deserve to and should celebrate a milestone victory in the recognition shown the sovereign nation of Standing Rock,” he said, “Unity among the Indian Nations and American environmental allies, as well as indigenous peoples from around the world should send a concrete message of solidarity with the movement toward alternative-energy development, and the lessening of dependence on fossil fuels.”
And he feels that young people are energized to perhaps think that they can make a difference. “I think it’s been helpful already in terms of getting so many young people involved,” Studi explained. “It’s been a growing experience for many young people to become involved in something that’s larger than themselves, as well as providing them with something that can be used for their identity.”
Ultimately, Studi encourages people to be optimistic and ambitious. “I think they can dream big. I think they can continue to work towards a utopia,” he said. “It’s a pretty large confrontation to take on. But it is taken on.
“We have a responsibility to Mother Earth to protect it as much as possible.”