It’s in all of our interests to show respect for the protests now underway at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation (and nearby). I acknowledge that the pipeline company has a right to extend its oil pipeline across the Missouri River (willing buyer–willing seller, the very essence of American capitalism). I acknowledge that the state of North Dakota has a legitimate interest in seeking to protect public order and make sure that legitimate business contracts are protected. And I even acknowledge that the Standing Rock Lakota may have missed better opportunities to protest the siting of this oil pipeline on the northern perimeter of its sovereign homeland.
Still, my heart and my head are with the protesters. Here’s why.
- In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said we ought not to rebel for “light and transient causes,” but “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government….” The pipeline issue comes at the end of an almost endless train of “abuses and usurpations.” Short list: Broken treaties; treaties forced on tribal leaders who were not even aware of their contents; deliberately exploitative trade, often “facilitated” by liberal use of trade whiskey, for which Native Americans had little resistance; profound reduction of tribal homelands by Congressional action or executive orders without any consultation with tribes; the Dawes Act (1887), which permitted non-Indians to file on “surplus” lands on Indian reservations, thus checkcrboarding what appear to be sovereign tribal homelands; the Indian Boarding Schools, whereby Indian children were taken from their families often without consent, their hair shorn, beaten for any use of their native language, their religious acts prohibited, and a severe form of assimilation imposed on them; U.S. government prohibition of Native American religion, including the sun dance and peyote rituals; the imposition of non-Indian constitutional forms on tribes following the Indian Reorginazation Act of 1934; and here in North Dakota, the flooding of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara homelands, without consultation, in the 1950s, an act that the Lakota historian Vine Deloris, jr., called “the greatest act of aggression against Indians of the twentieth century.” And that is the short list. The Standing Rock Lakota and their friends and supporters join this protest after what Helen Hunt Jackson called a “Century of Dishonor.”
- A water issue has a particular potency for the Indians of the Dakotas. Garrison Dam and Oahe Dam were sited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at places where those dams did maximum damage to Indian homelands, and minimum damage to white communities. All nine of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara towns were inundated by Garrison Dam, the residents, often on short notice, forced to relocate up on the windswept bluffs at New Town, where their traditional agriculture was impossible. The Lakota writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has said that the damming of the Missouri River north of Pierre, SD, in the 1960s “cut the spiritual artery” of the Lakota people. When these post World War II dams were created, native peoples were not at the table; when they protested in a very muted way, Corps officials, particularly Lewis Pick, vowed to punish them for their refusal merely to acquiesce in the destruction of their homelands; the compensation packages offered to the tribes were pitiful, even by the standards of those times; when the tribes asked for the dams to be moderately re-engineered to do less damage to their lands, they were dismissed and derided. The pipeline issue, just north of Standing Rock reservation boundaries, does not exist in a cultural vacuum.
- Moreover, Native Americans think about natural resources and human responsibility differently from their white counterparts. They do not regard water as a mere commodity. They continue to regard non-human entities (from pronghorn antelope to water sources to trees and rocks, for that matter) as being imbued with spiritual energies and legitimacy that humans must observe, acknowledge, and–where possible–conserve. The commodification, extraction, and instrumental worldview of white Americans is understood but not entirely shared by Native Americans. It’s this simple: the two cultures do not see things in the same way. It should be remembered, too, that when Oahu Reservoir was drawn down during the last significant drought, the water supply in Fort Yates was jeopardized, until a new intake could be built. The reliability of a healthy water supply is not taken for granted on the Standing Rock reservation.
- The Standing Rock Lakota are a sovereign nation. Although Chief Justice John Marshall famously called Indians “domestic dependent nations, the judicial interpretation in recent decades has emphasized the sovereignty of Indians nations with greater and greater legal respect. Wherever pipelines approach or cross boundaries (county, municipal, state, and especially international), special care and respect must be shown by all parties. Non-Indians have a moral duty to show particular respect to Standing Rock concerns, just as we routinely show such respect in North Dakota’s relations with Canada. Most North Dakotans are unaware of the sovereign status of the tribes who live in the state, or just indifferent to those constitutionally protected rights.
- The protests at Standing Rock represent a healthy new era in white-Indian relations in North Dakota. Remember, that Thomas Jefferson said, in a letter to James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. .. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Jefferson also wrote, to his friend John Adams, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.” I’m delighted that the Standing Rock Lakota and their many allies from all over the nation (and world) have recovered sufficient confidence, solidarity, and vitality to protest what they regard as a serious injustice. I like it that the Lakota are feeling their oats. The protest is a sign that the spirit of democracy is alive and well in the United States, and that people (in this case the Lakota) care enough about their interests to put an end to a very long era of silent suffering. Those who see these protests as illegitimate are simply wrong: protest is one of the central dynamics of American life. Jefferson understood that protest and rebellion are a measure of cultural health, and a lively commitment to the protection of essential rights.
- The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 has an almost constitutional status in American jurisprudence. In a sense, the Ordinance puts finishing touches on the constitutional settlement of that same year. The Northwest Ordinance, based somewhat on Jefferson’s 1784 Plan for the Government of the Western Territories, declares: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.” I believe that any reasonable analysis of the pipeline controversy indicates that the requisite non-Indian entities, including the State of North Dakota, have not passed the test of “the utmost good faith.” I do not believe that all righteousness resides with the Lakota in this controversy, and none with non-Indian entities, but the spirit of the Northwest Ordinance requires that non-Indians bring a heightened consideration and respect to Indians concerns and rights.
My point in all of this is that the Dakota Pipeline controversy is not finally about the siting of the pipeline. Now, thanks to the protest, the whole world is watching. In a sense, this is the first great test in white-Indian relations in the twenty-first century. It is critically important that the non-Indian community inaugurate a new era of greater cultural sensitivity, cultural respect, and cultural understanding. Hundreds of Indian children are involved in the gatherings on and near the Standing Rock reservation. Hundreds of thousands are watching with curiosity and concern. The way they will come to see the white community and non–Indian governments is being formed in this historic event. It is long past time for all of us to break with the tragic past. It would be quite simple to accommodate the deep concerns of the Standing Rock nation. The non-Indian community loses nothing fundamental in bringing a new spirit of generosity to bear on this and subsequent issues important to American Indian tribes.
The whole world is watching, North Dakota. Let’s get this right.