Fighting to Win: the Haida's Advice to Water Protectors in the U.S.

Lessons from the Haida, who fought the government of Canada for sovereignty—and actually won.
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Lessons from the Haida, who fought the government of Canada for sovereignty—and actually won.
Guujaaw leads his tribe in song.

Guujaaw leads his tribe in song.

Between April of 2016 and February of 2017, thousands of Water Protectors and their allies faced off against police agencies, private security firms, and the National Guard at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Reservation in North Dakota. The activists' resistance to the construction of an oil pipeline crossing sacred lands was met with concussion grenades, sonic weapons, attack dogs, rubber bullets, and water cannons fired in sub-freezing temperatures. Nearly 700 people were arrested and 300 injured; one woman nearly lost an arm.

The brutality of the security forces brought international attention to Standing Rock. Politicians, celebrities, and everyday people declaimed their support. Solidarity actions were organized across the United States, and millions watched the events transpire on social media. Yet, despite the resilience of Water Protectors and their allies, as well as the outrage of spectators, the Dakota Access Pipeline is now operational. Three leaks have already been reported.

At least 97 groups across the country are fighting oil and gas projects. Standing Rock may be an inspiration to them, but it doesn't provide the best blueprint. For that, Water Protectors and their allies can look north, to the Haida people of Canada. After more than 40 years of fighting against the exploitation of their homeland—an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia—the Haida have broken the mold: They've actually won. And in light of the NoDAPL movement and other ongoing, Native-led struggles, the lessons that Water Protectors can glean from the Haida's victory are now more relevant than ever.

While the Haida have more recently directly fought pipeline construction, their wider struggle for sovereignty began in earnest in the 1970s. Expansive timber licenses covering the 158 islands that make up Haida Gwaii (which translates to "Islands of the People" in Xaayda Kil, the Haida language) were issued to transnational companies by the provincial government of British Columbia in the 1960s. It took only a decade of industrial logging before the Haida decided they'd had as much as they could bear.

"As they were spoiling the land, there were landslides into the creek, gravel being taken out of the creeks, and fish, game being destroyed," says Guujaaw, the hereditary chief of the Gakyaals Kiiqawaay moiety. Guujaaw's clan is one of two dozen that came together to form the Council of the Haida Nation.

The Haida started their first blockade on Lyell Island in 1985. For two weeks, logging roads were shut down by protesters, leading to 72 arrests—many of them Haida elders. News coverage followed the demonstrations, winning the Haida national sympathy while also motivating their opposition. Local loggers soon formed Share the Rock (STR), an organization that lobbied for new timber licenses. But rather than butt heads with STR, the Haida opened up a dialogue about how current rates of deforestation would leave the loggers out of work in just 20 years. STR ultimately agreed, going so far as to endorse the Haida's land claim to the federal government. New logging permits were nevertheless issued the following year, but the Haida had won over some of their fiercest opponents.

Working with ostensible enemies—in this case, loggers hoping to use their land—became a signature of the Haida strategy. When the archipelago saw heavy logging again in 2005, the Haida returned to militancy—blockading Graham Island and seizing $5 to $10 million worth of felled logs—but collaboration remained a cornerstone of the resistance. The Haida so thoroughly assured loggers of their common interests that 135 of the 155 logging company employees on the archipelago took up the opposition against their own employer. The mayor of a local town, dozens of non-governmental organizations, some 67 percent of British Columbia residents, and, eventually, the logging company itself came to side with the Haida. The Haida never sought secession, but rather a direct say in how their natural resources were managed. They preached harmony rather than division.

Time and again, the Haida's desire to collaborate has led them to victory. The 1985 blockade eventually led to the creation of Gwaii Haanas, a nature reserve and heritage site covering the southern third of the archipelago, which is co-managed by the Haida and the federal government. The 2005 blockade and consequent negotiations reduced the annual timber cut by almost 75 percent, while also establishing a new council to set logging quotas. The council is staffed by two Haida members, two provincial representatives, and a jointly appointed chair. And on December 12th, 2009, the CHN and the B.C. government signed a land use agreement giving the Haida rightful stewardship over all of Haida Gwaii.

The story of the Haida contains practical lessons of use to indigenous communities the world over, says Mark Dowie, a long-time environmental reporter and retired University of California–Berkeley professor who wrote The Haida Gwaii Lesson: A Strategic Playbook for Indigenous Sovereignty. In his book, Dowie shares the history of the Haida and insights from their experience that can be applied to other indigenous struggles.

In The Haida Gwaii Lesson, Dowie emphasizes the importance of what could be called a holistic strategy—one that leverages militancy and collaboration, as well as lawsuits and media relations, to strive for sovereignty. Citing the Haida's history, he illustrates that every facet of struggle must work in conjunction: blockades supporting negotiations, court cases institutionalizing public sentiment, and so on. These tactics must also be applied toward the ultimate goal of sovereignty, as either the Haida in Haida Gwaii or the Sioux in Standing Rock are "all struggling for the right to control what happens on their land," Dowie writes. By fighting for sovereignty, indigenous communities might attain victories that come with lasting rights, Dowie explains, rather than simply rebuffing the latest challenge to their way of life.

Despite blizzard conditions, military veterans march in support of the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 5th, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Despite blizzard conditions, military veterans march in support of the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 5th, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Dowie and Guujaaw both describe the Haida's decision to wait out entire government administrations, taking months or even years to reconcile the interests of the various clans. The Haida even spent a generation putting one of their own through law school to argue their case in court. Their patience not only ensured the best possible circumstances, but the greatest degree of consensus to get behind a strategy—which itself had been sharpened to a razor's edge in the meantime.

While there is no way to transpose the lessons from the Haida onto the struggle Water Protectors faced at Standing Rock, there is perhaps some guidance for future Native-led battles against pipelines. The Haida themselves fought pipeline construction extending from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, and some members traveled to the U.S. to support the Sioux during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

But the presence of the Haida wasn't enough to instill their lessons.

Rebecca Adamson, the founder and president of First Peoples Worldwide, a non-profit organization that funds development projects in indigenous communities, believes that there was something more that could have been learned from the Haida at Standing Rock.

She points to the Standing Rock Sioux's ousting of Chairman Archambault II, who led them through the NoDAPL movement, as a sign of their lack of consensus around the strategy they employed—and their dissatisfaction with where it led them. She attributes this to the ad hoc nature of the demonstration's growth, which started with the youth protesting the danger of pollution the pipeline presented and only later involved the rest of the tribe.

"It didn't have the kind of internal cohesion that the Haida would have around this," Adamson says.

Considering the Trump administration's support for oil and gas projects, as well as its disregard for Native-American culture, the NoDAPL movement is unlikely to be the last of its kind. As Water Protectors and their allies prepare to do battle with what Guujaaw refers to as "the beast," they would do well to follow the blueprint set out by the Haida: coming to consensus around a holistic strategy aiming for sovereignty, then patiently waiting to set that plan into motion.