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Standing Rock and Place-As-Rhetoric

December 9, 2016


In terms of history, the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Cannonball, North Dakota aren’t new. Go ahead and take a moment to tab over to your local news service site, type the word “protest” in the search bar, and see what happens. If you need further proof, I’ve even mentioned pipelines protests before on this very site.

So what is so interesting about this protest in particular? Let’s talk about placeBoiled down to its most basic form, the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline stems from fears that a rupture could contaminate the local drinking water. The Army Corps of Engineers planned to run the pipeline underneath Lake Oahe, a feeder of the Missouri River, promising safety and precaution. The Standing Rock Sioux and Lakota, however, were not satisfied and felt that the project threatened sacred tribal ground.

The tribal citizens established the Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016, and for more than seven months they protested, holding demonstrations and clashing with local law enforcement. Ruth Hopkins, a reporter at Indian Country Today, helps clarify the role of Sacred Stone in this NPR article, stating, “If you don’t know very much about Native American people, you wouldn’t understand that this is something that’s kind of natural to us. When we have ceremonies, we do camps like this. It’s something that we’ve always known how to do, going back to pre-colonial times.”

For many native tribes, places and names are yoked indelibly to tribal history and tribe members’ sense of self. I’ve discussed the role of place names before during the Mt. McKinley controversy, but it is useful to move beyond the name to help understand the importance of place in controversy.

LaDonna Bravebull Allard, a member of the Lakota and Dakota tribes, eloquently describes the historical importance of Standing Rock, stating, “The place where pipeline will cross on the Cannonball is the place where the Mandan came into the world after the great flood, it is also a place where the Mandan had their Okipa, or Sundance. Later this is where Wisespirit and Tatanka Ohitika held sundances. There are numerous old Mandan, Cheyenne, and Arikara villages located in this area and burial sites. This is also where the sacred medicine rock [is located], which tells the future.”

In terms of rhetoric, Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook would define this type of description as representative of place-as-rhetoric. As the authors argue, “Unlike place-based arguments that may invoke a non-present place to support an argument, place-as-rhetoric assumes that place itself is rhetorical.” For the authors, this is due in large part to the preexisting meaning some places are imbued with, such as the National Mall in Washington D.C. And, as we can see by Allard’s description of Standing Rock, the place where the pipeline is set to cross the river is a place already imbued with meaning for the tribe.

By occupying the space, protesters at Standing Rock also occupy the history of that place and use it to bolster their own claims and to encourage others to fight for their cause. And it has worked, as more groups join in, from army veterans to Black Lives Matter. And despite threats from law enforcement and bitingly cold winter weather (at the time of posting it was -1 Fahrenheit), the protest continued on until the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to reject an easement to continue on with the project.

A victory for the tribe here is also a victory for rhetoricians. Seeing a protest carried out successfully speaks to the viability of the public to argue through action. In deploying place-as-rhetoric, the Sacred Stone Camp and other protesters harnessed the power of Standing Rock—as a symbol of history, as an embodiment of tribal abuse, as inalienable sacred ground—to push back in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressures from established sources of power. Practitioners of rhetoric should take note: voices become much louder when places throw their echo.

If you want to know more:

  • Watch this neat video timeline of the protest for some powerful images
  • Read David Treuer’s excellent discussion of protest history from a tribal perspective here
  • For a historical look at Standing Rock and tribal history in the American West, check out Dee Brown’s classic and accessible Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970)
  • For more info on place in protest as it applies to rhetoric, read Endres and Senda-Cook’s 2011 article “Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (vol. 97, no. 3)
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