Asian American Cowboys and Native Erasure

Cowboy riding across grassland with moutains behind, early moring, British Colombia, B.C., Canada.

By Guest Contributor: Dr. Beenash Jafri

In 2021, a prominent billboard featuring the photos of three Asian cowboys was erected in Norwalk, Los Angeles, next to the busy Santa Ana I-5 freeway. It was emblazoned with the declaration: “Asians have been here longer than cowboys.” 

The image was created by the activist coalition Stop DiscriminAsian (SDA) in collaboration with artist Kenneth Tam, and commissioned by For Freedoms. The supplementary analysis by prolific artist Astria Suparak drew necessary attention to Asian migration in the context of larger and longer histories of labor, empire and trade. It concluded by stating that: 

Asians are more American than apple pie, which is derived from an English recipe featuring a fruit that originated in Central Asia. And the iconic cinnamon and nutmeg flavors? Courtesy of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. 

The billboard and text were powerful public reminders that Asians are wrongly perceived to be perpetual outsiders to the US. Yet, a crucial fact was left by the wayside: the billboard was erected on Tongva (Gabrieleno) land. As freeway drivers glanced up at the billboard, they were invited to reflect on Asian American history – but absent in that reflection was any discussion of how it relates to Native peoples and their sovereignty. 

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Asian Americans, We Cannot Be Silent on the Dakota Access Pipeline | #NoDAPL

Protesters demonstrate on August 11, 2016 against the start of construction for the Dakota Pipeline Project. (Photo credit: Tom Stromme / Associated Press)
Protesters demonstrate on August 11, 2016 against the start of construction for the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. (Photo credit: Tom Stromme / Associated Press)

A war is being waged right now to defend Native lands and people from fresh exploitation by the United States government, and yet it rages to virtually no mainstream coverage.

This week, protesters entered their fifth month of peaceful protest against the proposed $3.8 billion dollar, multi-state oil pipeline that would when completed transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The Dakota Access Pipeline is being constructed by private developers, and will intersect through ancestral lands once held by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as well as running under the Mississippi River and within half a mile of current reservation land borders. Earlier this year, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the US Army Corps of Engineers denouncing the Corps’ fast-tracked approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline plans, saying that the Pipeline’s construction will threaten sacred sites and risk contamination of the Tribe’s water supply.

The Tribe further argues that the Corps ignored its own policies requiring it to consider the impact of construction projects on the environment and on Native lands in order to “meet the pipeline’s aggressive construction schedule.” Dave Archambault II, leader of the Standing Rock Sioux, added:

“The Corps puts our water and the lives and livelihoods of many in jeopardy.”

Last week, the Standing Rock Sioux filed a temporary restraining order asking that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline be halted pending discovery of multiple cultural and historic landmarks that will be destroyed by the project’s continuation. And yet, over the weekend, protesters were met with violence by private security forces. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux, including Archambault himself, have been arrested for trespassing while standing upon the Tribe’s own ancestral lands.

The Corps’ overt disregard for the many concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux in this matter is well in-keeping with this country’s long history of physical, cultural, and economic violence committed by American settlers against the many indigenous peoples whose resources we assert our entitlement over, whose histories we erase, whose sovereignty we ignore, whose blood we shed, and whose lands we callously now occupy.

Right now, hundreds of Native protesters hailing from multiple tribal nations have come together with non-Native allies to form a united front demanding a halt to construction of the Pipeline. As Asian Americans, we must add our own voices to this mix.

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