Indigenous Youth, Standing Rock, and the Rise of Anti-Colonial Entropy

Entropy
(noun)
1. a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder
2. chaos, disorganization, randomness

There is a scarcity of platforms that make space for Indigenous youth to represent themselves and speak back to the stories of risk and crisis that circulate about them. While Indigenous young peoples’ lives are mediated by and through ongoing settler colonialism to be sure, they also embody and demonstrate tremendous strength and political resistance in their everyday existence—an ingenuity and creative opposition to structural violence that often goes unnoticed or is tactically downplayed by the settler state and colonial media representations of them and their communities. Situated at the intersection of precarity and possibility, Indigenous youth are makers of something I’m beginning to interpret as anti-colonial entropy—a networked set of ideas, beliefs, and organizing efforts crucial to fostering a political condition of decolonial disorder in our current reality of racial capitalism (intimately bound up with extractive industries), violent state sovereignty, and a persistent avowal of present-future where white settler power reigns supreme. Anti-colonial entropy promotes degradation of the social and political infrastructure necessary to sustain white settler society. It is necessarily unsettling, anti-hegemonic, and anchored to the political goal of Native liberation.

One of the instances where this anti-colonial entropy could be readily witnessed was in the Standing Rock Sioux’s struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The ecologies of decolonial organizing—the political strategies Indigenous youth deployed to produce chaos and disorder in the colonial present—were many, but a few stood out to me as especially noteworthy as I watched the mobilization against DAPL unfold.1

First, Indigenous youth organizing at Standing Rock involved bringing subjugated knowledges forward and elevating silenced narratives about contemporary Native life. Eryn Wise, a prominent youth organizer at Standing Rock, explained the importance of lifting up these perspectives in an interview with The New York Times where she remarked, “no one realizes what the repercussions of colonization have been, the repercussions of forced removal.” In a similar vein, youth organizer Zaysha Grinnell explained to me that “native women and girls are put into an even more risky position because of the extractive industries and this is part of how Native peoples have been treated for a long time in this country. I learned this from my dad and my grandma, it was passed down.” Through a constellation of decolonial counterscripts, Indigenous youth consistently demonstrated that the struggle against DAPL was also a struggle against the violent materialism of what it means to live and breathe—to exist—within colonial systems and structures and that these experiences are intergenerational, moving back and forth in time. Importantly, this resurrection of colonial history, as explained by youth like Wise and Grinnell, initiates a direct confrontation with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s depiction of the United States as a country founded through genocide and land theft.

Next, Indigenous young people embodied ways of being in relation to one another as humans existing amongst and within an other-than-human world. Through their embodied actions of living “in ceremony” in the resistance camps—praying; feeding the sacred fire; taking collective walks in honor of the sacredness of the land, water, and air; and holding water ceremonies—Indigenous youth reframed the battle as a battle for an ethics of living that gives equal weight to human and other-than-human relations, including plants, animals, elemental forces, and the cosmos as constituents of a collective whole. They positioned “water” as kinship instead of resource, explicitly challenging the human/nature dualism that has marked notions of civilization and progress since the colonial founding of the United States. This too, serves as a fundamental challenge to colonial relations of domination.

And third, Indigenous young people at Standing Rock were demanding a future that is accountable to them and the generations yet to be born. They made it clear that silence and complicity are no longer, and never have been, acceptable in the face of violence. This sentiment was beautifully captured in an interview I conducted with Ladonna Bravebull Allard, founder of Sacred Stone Camp. When I asked about the role of youth at Standing Rock she told me, “When things started happening against DAPL, it was the youth who ran the chants, the youth who ran the marches, and the youth that we followed. We have to listen to them. They are fighting for the right to live. They are fighting for the right to have water. They are fighting for their future. They are fighting for their children, for what comes next. I believe these young people stood up to heal a nation and that’s what I see them doing. So it is, and always has been, them and their words. There is power in these youth. There is prayer and ceremony in what they speak. When they speak, they speak truth.”

Indigenous youth organizing and political mobilization at Standing Rock can be read as stories of refusal, self-affirmation, and strategic resistance to colonial power—all of which fuel decolonial disorder and disorganization in the colonial machinery that sustains the status quo and promotes business as usual. They are at the forefront of educating and supporting their communities—as well as the public sphere—and transcending key sites of colonial trauma and violence. And more than that, they help us to decipher what it means to be an Indigenous young person growing up in the occupied United States while asserting priorities for decolonization. They live these priorities in the everyday (and this requires begin attentive to the gendered dimensions of organizing and the political undercurrents that maintain these efforts) and map pathways that chart how Indigenous young people are already actively working toward transforming their own futures.

To put it succinctly, Indigenous youth are the critical mass threading together and sustaining the anti-colonial entropy necessary for revolutionary liberation that will bring forth alterative forms of existence on the planet. In doing so, the bravery and brilliance of these young people should compel all of us to ask ourselves what are we willing to fight for.

cover image: Michelle Latimer

  1. I am aware that “Indigenous youth” does not and should not represent a homogenizing of lived experiences. Different collectives of youth at Standing Rock took on a range of issues and modes of organizing in the camps and sometimes there was cross over between them. Such differences resonate with Audre Lorde’s idea that “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” For the purposes of this short piece, however, my desire is to offer a snapshot of the possibilities for revolutionary transformation that surface when these young people come together.

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Jaskiran Dhillon

Jaskiran Dhillon is a first generation academic and organizer who grew up on Treaty Six Cree and Metis Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. Committed to the tenets of public intellectualism, Jaskiran’s scholarship is intimately connected to, and informed by, on-the-ground advocacy and direct action. Her first book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (2017), provides a critical, ethnographic account of state interventions in the lives of urban Indigenous youth. Her new research focuses on developing an anti-colonial critique of the environmental justice movement by examining Indigenous political movements working against the extractive industry, including the resistance at Standing Rock. Jaskiran is an associate professor of global studies and anthropology at The New School and a member of the New York City Stands with Standing Rock Collective.