Coping with Victory: Standing Rock

By Michael N. Nagler

Even the limited victory (as it seems it will be) at Standing Rock on Monday when the Army Corps of Engineers denied access to proceed with running the “black snake” (pipeline) through Dakota Sioux territory and under the Missouri River brought tears of joy to many of us. Whatever may be the final outcome, it stands as a brilliant image of the dynamics of nonviolence for all of us. Here I would like to provide some insights from various spiritual teachers (including) my own and the great pioneers of nonviolence on how to handle success, which, believe it or not, can be a critical time for nonviolent activists.

  1. Don’t get elated. Elation is fun, but it turns out to be coupled with depression. Because I forgot to repeat my mantram (my stabilizing technique) when I heard about the victory I went down badly when I learned that there’s a lot of fine print: DAPL can simply pay a fine and go right on bulldozing, which they’re doing as we speak.
  2. Don’t gloat. Remember, in real nonviolence the goal is always to restore unity, reconcile relationships, which if anything is even more important than the external issue. “What goes around comes around,” as Martin Luther King stressed, “we must avoid taking on the psychology of victors.” Perpetuating a world of victors and vanquished is exactly what we do not want.
  3. Count your blessings. In nonviolence, as Gandhi’s biographer B.R. Nanda once said, “you can lose every battle and go on to win the war.” Moreover, there are always unintended good results from any nonviolent action (always assuming it’s done well and maintains nonviolent discipline, etc.). In this case, as David Archambault, the Standing Rock Sioux’s Tribal Chairman, pointed out some time ago: “We have already won.” Because never before in history have 300 tribes of Native Peoples gathered together like this and struggled together like this for a common cause. A new force has a risen, and will stay regardless of the technical outcome of the present standoff. Likewise the veterans who came to stand in protection of the protectors on Dec. 5th are a new phenomenon. No doubt ¾ absolutely no doubt ¾ other unforeseen benefits will emerge from the courage, persistence, and spiritual groundedness of the protectors.
  4. Learn the lessons. Even if DAPL succeeds in constructing the pipeline, therefore, much has been gained. There will be a lot to learn from what went well and what did not, and why. How, for example, did we handle provocateurs? What can we learn from other similar struggles around the world? Since Gandhi’s day great strides have been made, particularly by Indigenous communities, in communicating experiences and publishing them.
  5. Plan carefully, but be ready for anything. When Gandhi (not yet a Mahatma) led a deputation to England from South Africa in 1906 to ask that the Crown disallow the “Black Act” that aimed to disenfranchise Indians and other ‘Asiatics,’ Lord Elgin, Secretary of State for the Colonies, cabled that he would disallow the act. Gandhi writes, “our joy knew no bounds;” but they had been tricked. The Transvaal was about to become independent and the cable irrelevant. Yet under Gandhi’s leadership the community was not embittered or in any way discouraged by the “crooked policy” and carried on to victory eight years later. A good strategy (which is essential in any long-term struggle) is a balance of determination and flexibility.
  6. Have back-ups on hand. A little-known secret of Gandhi’s success was to have “constructive programme” going on from almost the first year of his activist career, 1894: rebuilding the Indian community itself, solving their own problems, alongside seeking redress from their oppressors and other outside forces. This way, whenever it became unwise or impossible to carry out direct resistance for whatever reason, the movement did not fall apart. They had their own constructive work to keep them together and strengthen them for the next opportunity for active resistance.[1]

Most protest and resistance today is carried out by people who do not have either the cultural background or the ready-made organization (like the elders) that the various Native American communities could bring to this struggle, or the courage and persistence. What they have done at Standing Rock is just what the last prophecy of Crazy Horse predicted:

Upon suffering beyond suffering, the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again. In that day there will be those among the Lakota who will carry knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things, and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.

[1] For more about constructive vs. obstructive work and other lessons learned from nonviolent struggles see my Nonviolence Handbook, available from the Metta Center, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, and bookstores.

Michael N. Nagler is the Founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program in which he taught the immensely popular nonviolence course that was webcast in its entirety as well as PACS 90, “Meditation” and a sophomore seminar called “Why Are We Here? Great Writing on the Meaning of Life” for 15 years. Among other awards, he received the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for “Promoting Gandhian Values Outside India” in 2007, joining other distinguished contributors to nonviolence as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and peace scholar and activist Johan Galtung in receiving this honor.

He is the author of The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide to Practical Action (2014) as well as The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award and has been translated into Korean, Arabic, Italian and other languages; Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005); The Upanishads (with Sri Eknath Easwaran, 1987), and other books as well as many articles on peace and spirituality.

To learn more about Michael N. Nagler and the Metta Center for Nonviolence, click here.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 21: Standing Rock Update & Shift Members' Gifts