Non-Indians have a very hard time understanding and recognizing the concept of tribal sovereignty. No matter what the U.S. Constitution might say, or Chief Justice John Marshall, most non-Indians see Native Americans as a poor, ghettoized, and dysfunctional people living on the fringes of American society. They are aware that Indians license their vehicles with special plates, according to the reservation, not the state in which that reservation resides; and that Indians sometimes have hunting and fishing rights that are not available to their white counterparts. This is a source of great frustration to non-Indian sportsmen who think that Indians are getting special treatment. Some non-Indians know that the criminal justice system has jurisdictional overlays that create difficulties if an automobile accident or a crime occurs within the boundaries of a reservation.
Most non-Indians regard tribal sovereignty as a kind of polite fiction. To humor Indians, we allow them to pretend that they are “sovereign,” as if they were an actual country or something. In some relatively harmless areas we permit them to insist that they are sovereign, but most whites feel the effect of this is to keep them locked into poverty and lawlessness. They’d be better off if they just got with the program, assimilated fully into the broader society, and jettisoned their broken sovereignty for the much more effective software of standard American white civilization. White people generally regard Indian sovereignty the way they do monopoly money—they don’t really think of the Crow or the Choctaw or the Navaho as foreign nations within the boundaries of the United States, but they are willing to pretend such a state exists so long as it doesn’t affect anything non-Indians really want or need in Indian country.
When Indians actually assert their sovereignty in ways that hold up the “progress of white civilization,” non-Indians become enraged, and their true contempt for Indian lives, tribes, laws, and traditions burst through their usual indifference.
The dynamics that have governed this situation are pretty simple. From the moment that white people encountered the western hemisphere (1492), they began the process of taking it from the aboriginal inhabitants. In most moods they did not believe that they intended to take all of it, at least not yet, but they intended to take whatever they immediately needed and worry about the rest later. They were willing to do the taking by way of legal due process (paying Indians pennies for land worth a fortune to white folks) if Indians would only cooperate, but if Indians resisted these friendly approaches, whites were determined to use whatever force would be required to achieve their aims. Beginning with Lewis and Clark (1804-06) white representatives sought to meet the “great chief” of this or that tribe, or sub-tribe, or band, or wandering family, and to conclude some sort of agreement with the sole responsible representative of that clan or band that had binding authority. When Indians tried to explain to white visitors that things really didn’t work that way—that there was no single king or chief of the Mandan or the Shoshone—the white people expressed derision or frustration, and proceeded to appoint or anoint a “great chief” for the purposes of whatever agreement they were seeking.
At no point in the history of the United States did the white government, or any official representative of the white culture, acknowledge that Indian sovereignty was final or definitive, that if Indians refused to cooperate with white purposes they would have to be respected, even if that denied non-Indians access to some resource: land for settlement, a corridor for transportation, access to gold or other minerals. When negotiators for non-Indians ventured into Indian country to win some concession from tribal populations, and those negotiations ended without getting white people what they wanted, the result was not sober acquiescence, but the creation of a second negotiating team who offered more money, or war, or some other threat or emolument that was more likely to achieve success. In other words, non-Indians have never permitted themselves to stop whatever they were doing at the border of the Indian nation. Indians were treated as sovereign until that got in the way of the white conquest of America. Then they were forced out of the way.
In other words, at no point in white-Indian history did non-Indians acknowledge tribal sovereignty in a serious (“the game is up”) way.
Sovereignty as funny money. Monopoly money.
Most white people have always assumed that the “Indian problem” would work itself out over time, that Indians would eventually get on board, assimilate, realize that they would be so much better off if they simply accepted the superiority of the American dream as white people defined it; that reservations would eventually disappear; that Indians might retain some quaint and admirable cultural traditions (beadwork, pow wows) but that they would otherwise be indistinguishable from their non-Indian counterparts. The fact that Indians continue to refuse to be fully assimilated is a source of bewilderment to white people. Sometimes it is a source of contempt. Occasionally it is a source of rage. During the fishing and hunting rights controversies involving the Menominee people during the 1970s, a “joke” circulated among white people outraged by the “special treatment” the Menominee were receiving from the U.S. court system: “How do you starve a Menominee? Hide his welfare check under his work boots.”
At no point during a K-12 education in America does a non-Indian actually learn about Native American sovereignty. At no point does a young white person hear that Indians are legally separate nations living within the boundaries of the United States of America, and that their separateness is protected by the U.S. Constitution, by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and by a long series of U.S. court opinions that clarify and interpret the meaning of the Constitution. So when, as an adult, a non-Indian in America hears that the Hopi or the Nez Perce regard themselves as a separate nation, with the full panoply of rights, opportunities, duties, and legal authorities that pertain to a sovereign nation, that non-Indian is generally as outraged as he is surprised, and his immediate reaction is that something is fishy, unfair, unacceptable, or un-American. Because we make no effort to educate ourselves about the constitutional status of American Indians, it is not surprising that non-Indians have so little capacity to think straight whenever Indian sovereignty becomes an issue. We need mandatory K-12 education about American Indians and white-Indian history.
If the Dakota Access Pipeline Company or the State of North Dakota or the ND Industrial Commission or the North Dakota Public Service Commission actually respected the tribal sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux, they would not have determined to place an oil pipeline just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, any more than they would have place the pipeline a mile south of the U.S.-Canadian border through the Red River of the North, which flows south to North into Manitoba. Any reasonable acknowledgement of the actual significance of tribal sovereignty would have meant that no important infrastructural act would have been contemplated without official representatives of North Dakota initiating high-level bilateral conversations with the tribal government, and doing nothing without getting official tribal recognition. It is not enough merely to invite the tribe to the negotiating table, any more than it would be OK to make decisions about NATO in Europe while merely inviting France, Germany, and Italy to the table, or to contemplate industrial activity on the borders of Manitoba and Saskatchewan by merely inviting provincial governments to the table. One nation state does not get to make up all the rules of the game, and then extend courtesies to another nation state about rules that one nation created and the other was merely expected (in a relationship of naked power domination) to conform with. Nor would North Dakota ever have contemplated treating Canada in this way, because for all of the occasional frustrations of sharing a border with a true other sovereign (in other words, Canada and not merely Minnesota or South Dakota), the American people actually respect the sovereignty of Canada. But it is clear that they do not truly respect the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux or the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.
If the pipeline might have been situated a few miles north of Bismarck, but careful public servants reckoned that would be a potential hazard for the water supply of the 140,000 people who live in Bismarck and Mandan, and therefore determined to move the pipeline to a place that would spare the inhabitants of Bismarck in the unlikely event of a breach, then surely it was nothing more than pure cynicism to locate the pipeline precisely on the border of a foreign nation, however small its population by comparison. And no foreign nation worthy of nationhood would have stood for such an act of industrial aggression, even if it had been invited to the negotiating table and for whatever reason had not decided to sit at that table. The fact that most of the non-Indians of North Dakota don’t understand that siting the pipeline on the edge of the reservation was an act of aggression, arrogance, contempt, and even racism indicates how much education is needed if we are ever going to find a way to live on the Great Plains together as mutual sovereigns.
However hard it is for non-Indians to do so, we must begin to think of the Standing Rock Sioux as a foreign people worthy of our full respect, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation as no different from France, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, or Germany. We may not always like the way they do business, and we may not understand why they seem to resist things that we regard as uncontroversial and even beneficial, but we need to remind ourselves, every time there is a conflict in Indian country, that we are dealing with a foreign nation, one that has suffered grievously from the habits and official policies of our country, one that is getting more assertive about its sovereignty rights, and one we can no longer treat as a quaint and subordinate ethnic enclave within the boundaries of OUR country or state.
A little respect goes a long, long way. That respect has not been shown to the Standing Rock Sioux nation—in this case and in countless other moments in the last 200 years. Until that respect is shown, in precisely the same way we would show respect to Canada or Brazil, we cannot expect things to improve.
The Dakota Access Pipeline should be moved back north of Bismarck as an act of respect to the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline company should be compensated for its losses. A blue-ribbon commission should be created with equal members of the Standing Rock tribe and the white governments of North Dakota and the United States to work out protocols for future decisions that involve the tribe and the reservation. The North Dakota legislature should institute mandatory Native American studies programs at all K-12 schools. A series of grievance/reconciliation events should be created throughout North Dakota and the United States so that American Indians can state their historic and contemporary frustrations with the ways of non-Indian America. At these events, non-Indians should listen and not talk much. A fund should be created from oil revenues to be used for tribal re-purchase of lands that were historically those of the Lakota or Hidatsa or Ojibwe or Assiniboine. Cultural restoration programs should receive at least equal funding as any other cultural events on the Great Plains. Scholarships should be created to guarantee full funding for any American Indians who wish to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in the colleges and universities of North Dakota.
I acknowledge that many non-Indians feel sympathy with the Sioux and other tribes, that they feel genuine compassion for the difficult conditions on the reservations of America, and that they are more bewildered than righteous in the face of the problems that seem to beset Indian America. In other words, many non-Indians have a measure of good will that they don’t quite know how to “spend” in their thinking about Native Americans. But good will is not the same as enlightenment or even understanding. We need to go to special lengths to understand.
All non-Indians should undertake to inform themselves about the history of white-Indian relations in America. A rich literature, some by Native Americans, others by non-Indians, exists. It would be easily possible for every non-Indian in North Dakota to come up to speed on these questions in three months of reading. To refuse to become better informed, when the mass of non-Indians remain abysmally misinformed now, is an act of cultural arrogance and smugness.
The whole world is watching. It’s time for a new enlightenment in Indian country.