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Know the West

Standing Rock and accountability

Standing Rock echoed violence of the past and, for many people, awoke desire for atonement.


Two years ago this month, protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline began. As with so many important things, this movement started small, with people slowly trickling toward the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on the Northern Great Plains. That trickle eventually became a torrent of protesters who stood together against the pipeline company, its private security and a contingent of militarized police. Many protesters were members of tribal nations from around the world. Others were not, and this issue’s cover story focuses on one such group.

It is not a happy story. It is a cautionary tale, deeply rooted in American conquest. As U.S. colonizers expanded westward, they erased the Indigenous people they encountered along the way, destroying entire towns, mutilating and murdering men, women and children, banning languages and customs, taking land. These now-United States, ever reaching for the horizon, were built this way, from the Ohio River Valley to the Pacific Ocean. This is a fact, and each of us who lives in this country, Native or non-, bears the psychic scars.

No wonder, then, that the protests at Standing Rock drew so much support. The standoff echoed the violence of the past and awoke in many people a desire for atonement. Among them was a group called Veterans Stand. This hastily assembled advocacy group was made up of well-intentioned military veterans, who came together to push back against the aggression faced by the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters. In a particularly iconic moment, the group staged a formal apology to tribal leaders for the past crimes of the U.S. military against Indigenous people. Veterans Stand raised $1.4 million — and then spectacularly imploded.

Editor-in-chief, Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News
What happened to all of that money? Assistant Editor Paige Blankenbuehler and Contributing Editor Tristan Ahtone, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, spent the last nine months trying to account not just for the funds that went toward the group but for the millions and millions of dollars that were poured into the #NoDAPL movement as a whole. What they learned was that people have a much greater capacity for charity than they do for accountability. A lot of money has gone missing. Some of it went to good causes, but plenty was wasted. HCN’s investigation focuses on just one group, but we could have written a similar story about many others.

Ultimately, the protests failed to stop the pipeline, but their legacy will endure far into the future. Standing Rock re-ignited this magazine’s desire to tell better stories from Indian Country; we now have a desk dedicated to tribal affairs and more stories told through Native writers and editors. Good, bad and ugly, we all live in the West together, and it is my hope that the stories we tell can help us learn from our mistakes and be more accountable for our actions.