“If you stand for nothing, Burr, then what will you fall for …”
That’s a line from the Broadway play, Hamilton. I’ve thought about that line many times over the past several months, as the 1,168- mile crude oil pipeline snaked its way closer to the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux. If we as an organization of tribal colleges and universities don’t stand up, then what will we fall for? Who will we be? What do we stand for?
A fundamental role and, more importantly, responsibility of all tribal colleges is to maintain, preserve, and revitalize irreplaceable American Indian and Alaska Native languages, lands, and cultures. We do this through strong, culturally, spiritually, and place-based accredited academic programs, as well as through community-based economic and workforce development programs; family and student support programs; collaborative partnerships with tribes, K-12 systems and schools; vital sustainability, land and natural resource management programs; and many other programs and services designed to strengthen and sustain the sovereignty of our tribal nations and celebrate the identity of our people.
So last fall, AIHEC planted our flag firmly on the rich land of the Hunkpapa Lakota and stood with Chairman Dave Archambault II and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in solidarity with the fundamental principle that a sovereign government has the right to protect its resources, treaty rights, waterways, traditional homelands, and sacred sites. We stood for sovereignty, and for sovereignty we—like so many of our ancestors—are willing to fall.
Over several months, as peaceful demonstrations grew in number around the country, the more complex principle of sovereignty sometimes got lost amid the just, and more readily relatable concern over the resources that the Standing Rock Sioux were attempting to protect: water, sacred lands, life.
It is understandable that people and groups throughout the nation and world would focus on the environmental aspects of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crosses hundreds, if not thousands of rivers, streams, and wetlands along its route, as well as lands of historic, religious, and cultural significance to American Indian tribes. Water is Life. And it is the sovereign right and responsibility of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to do all that it can to protect its waterways, its sacred lands, and the economic and social wellbeing of tribal members. The government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes, and more specifically the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, demand the opportunity to discuss, to listen, and to be heard—to work together toward a just solution to any challenge that threatens the tribe’s sovereignty.
The AIHEC board’s resolution, published here on page 51, urges the federal government to “justly collaborate with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as it exercises its sovereign right to protect its resources…” As tribal colleges—placed-based teaching institutions—it is important that we keep this focus on the fundamental principle of sovereignty.
Carrie Billy, J.D.
President and CEO, American Indian Higher Education Consortium