by Priya Parrotta Natarajan, edited by Adefemi Adekunle
And here we stand, at the doorway, to this hallway life brought us
here, to this crossroads of lost hope and undeniable promise
where we choose between paths, beyond rightness or wrongness
that will bring us to the brink of the planet’s exhaustion,
or the age of compassion, where the meek become strongest,
and re-inherit the Earth, and redefine progress.
– Climbing Poetree
At Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in the Dakota region of the United States, a struggle has been taking place that has, for a year now, sent waves of shock and inspiration to people around the world. At the center of the struggle is the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172 mile-long underground oil pipeline— a “Black Snake” which, if built would cross the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Reservation. The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL as it is known for short, threatens to pollute the Reservation’s water supply. It would cross through ancient waterways and sacred ground— a physical testament to an inconceivable disrespect. The unquestionable dangers that it presents to the health and well-being of the Dakotas’ indigenous peoples have been ignored point-blank by the company responsible for its construction— not mention by the people who now hold the highest and most influential political offices in the United States.
The violence on the part of the pipeline’s supporters over the course of the past year is unspeakable— and yet it must be spoken. To date, over three hundred protestors (or rather, Water Protectors) have been injured by rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, freezing water, batons, and dogs that have been unleashed on them by the police force which was enlisted to repress the movement. Under any circumstances, this violence would be unpardonable. But it is made all the more wrenching, heartbreaking and enraging when we consider that the Water Protectors at Standing Rock are not employing violence of any kind in their struggle. On the contrary: they are affirming the values, sensibilities, wisdom and hope that is required not only to protect the reservation’s water supply, but the well-being of our planet in general. Through their words, actions and songs, they insist upon ecological well-being, spiritual wholeness, and artistic vitality. And they are doing so through a variety of means, one of which is that deepest of unifiers: music.
Music has an uneasy relationship with the values of contemporary neoliberalism. While a good deal of commercial music sends us messages of profit and of greed, of commodification and the exploitation of others, in the end music has profound spiritual authority. It can be used to connect people across borders, to remind listeners of the beauty of their natural surroundings, to appeal to a sensibility that is wiser and more sustainable than the paradigm within which we all too often live.
During a concert at Standing Rock last fall, musician and indigenous activist Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh said that “we are here to celebrate the life we have been given, to resist the companies and industries that put profits before our future, and progress before our planet. No matter where we are from, we are all indigenous to this Earth.” These words convey musical activism at its best. And at Standing Rock, musicians have joined forces to raise awareness of the struggle in a variety of ways.
Some, such as Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, are “mainstream” celebrity musicians. They have leveraged their commercial success to foster awareness of the (to phrase it lightly) environmental conversation taking place at Standing Rock. Others are highly-regarded indigenous musicians who have mobilized their artistic standing to convey messages of sustainability and social justice. And then there are the Water Protectors themselves, who devote many hours per day to drumming and dancing— and thereby, to joy and hope, and to an affirmation of the ties that bind them. This music is necessary to sustain the movement; and it is a critical means through which to extend the bounds of solidarity, to engage those who may not live on the reservation but who nevertheless feel a closeness to what the Water Protectors are standing for.
Indeed, in an age of global climate change and continued local environmental degradation and pollution in many of our homes, we all have a stake in this story. The daily affirmations that have been made at Standing Rock are ushering in a (to use the words of Climbing Poetree, above) redefinition of progress.
Though there have been a number of inspiring musical projects to come out of Standing Rock, one in particular strikes me as a forceful expression of the creativity, collaboration, and decoloniality that has defined the story more broadly.
“Stand Up” is one of the movement’s anthems. Its official music video offers an illustration of the power, diversity, and celebration which comprises the core of the movement at Standing Rock.
The video features footage of the Water Protectors, of indigenous men and women and children, of the landscape that has been endangered by the Pipeline, and of the music and dance that takes place on the reservation every day. The music itself is a combination of hip hop with insightful and compelling lyrics, and the refrain, “To all my Native people, to all my Tribal people, Stand Up, Standing Rock.” The video also features interludes with other celebrities, such as the actress Shailene Woodley. The lead musician is Taboo, of the Black Eyed Peas. Altogether, the video testifies to the different musical currents that have nourished the movement thus far.
“Stand Up” is an example of decolonial media, a response to this textbook case of environmental colonialism. It is, in other words, an inspiring example of decolonial environmentalism. In my mind, the key elements of decolonial environmentalism are as follows:
- an affirmation of the link between ecology, culture and spiritual wellness, and the value of these three to generate important observations about how we might live as members of local and global ecosystems
- the importance of place-based knowledge and activism— privileging projects that are rooted in an intimate consciousness of the places involved
- notions of diversity that are not atomized and hierarchical, but which instead affirm the ways in which people of varied cultural backgrounds and life circumstances can collaborate in the service of healthier social and environmental ecosystems
- a sense of interconnectedness that is rooted in the need to share resources evenly and live sustainably, not in being part of exclusive networks that privilege the few
In the music of Standing Rock, decolonial environmentalism clearly resonates. The music of Standing Rock gestures to what could be a much broader trend: Music assuming a deeper and more widespread place in the world’s environmental movement(s). With all of the talent and resources at its disposal, the “music world” (however this is defined) could create vast reserves of art which defends our Earth, affirms the sacredness of life, and reminds people the world over that we are here to care for our ecologies and for each other. In my mind, music holds one of the potent keys to the decolonial, harmonious, sustainable future that we yearn for, and need. Our homes, our hearts, and our spirits seek healing from the misguidedness which we must endure each day. We are searching for wise songs. And we will find them.
Because the musicians at Standing Rock are already singing.
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Priya Parrotta Natarajan is a writer, singer and activist who probes the connections between music, multiculturalism, and environmental sustainability. She is the Founder and Director of Music & the Earth (link: musicandtheearth.org), a collaborative, multimedia initiative which celebrates the role of music and dance in the global climate movement. Educated at Brown University and the University of Oxford, she is the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World (Cambridge Scholars, 2016). She also serves as a Founding Leader with The Sanctuaries— Washington, DC (the first and only interfaith arts collective in the United States). She can be reached at email@example.com.