If you are reading this post, you probably already have been following the news from Standing Rock. You likely have been reading posts on Facebook and Twitter and watching video clips showing armed police officers, or state troopers, or private security guards and their gnarly dogs, roughing up protestors who have stood against the Dakota Access Pipeline. You have probably read reports of these same police forces, doing the pipeline company’s business, firing rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and locking them up in small pens. You have likely read about how they have attempted to suppress free speech by shutting down wireless service, because they do not want you and I to know what they are doing to disrupt the protests, and how they have now started using Facebook to compile information on those gathered to oppose the pipeline. You may have checked in on Facebook in solidarity with the protestors to defeat this effort.
Much of the information about the protests comes from participants in the protests. Some of it is polemical. It is likely that some of the reports are exaggerated. But watch the videos, and read what you can. You can draw your own conclusions.
This is an important story. My students, I know, want to know more about it. It is a protest, and a movement, of significance, and it is one on which we must inform ourselves. The mainstream media has begun to cover the protests, but the #NoDAPL movement still receives little coverage relative to the presidential election and the Democratic candidate’s email problems. Still, there are good sources of information out there. The Indian Country Today Media Network has provided solid coverage. Pechanga.Net is a great go-to source for updates from newspapers across the country, as is Indianz.com.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, according to the useful primer presented by the Seattle Times, will transport oil from North Dakota to a shipping center in Illinois. From there the oil will be sent to refineries in the Midwest and along the Gulf Coast. The pipeline, which is already nearly 60% complete, was originally slated to run closer to the town of Bismark, ND, but was rerouted to pass under the Missouri River just a short distance upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation’s northern border. Residents of Bismark did not want the pipeline to jeopardize their own water supply, so it was directed to the south. The pipeline does not run through the reservation, but it does threaten Standing Rock’s water supply. It runs through lands that had been guaranteed to the Lakota Sioux in the treaties held at Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868. Lakota Sioux lived on these lands, knew these lands, and buried their dead there.
How those lands slipped from the Indians’ control is a worth noting. The 1851 Fort Laramie treaty was an agreement in which the United States attempted to secure peace between those Indian nations “residing south of the Missouri River, east of the Rocky Mountains, and north of the lines of Texas and New Mexico.” The many Indians who came to Fort Laramie to meet with American officials agreed “to abstain in future from all hostilities whatever against each other, to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.” The Indians who signed the treaty agreed to allow the United States to “establish roads, military and other posts, within their respective territories,” and in return, the United States agreed “to protect the aforesaid Indian nations against the commission of all depredations by the people of the said United States, after the ratification of this treaty.” The territories of the tribes were defined, chiefs with whom the United States would interact were to be designated, and an annuity paid by the United States for ten years. It was an attempt by the American government to sort out the players on the Plains, to control a region where its authority was still exceptionally weak.
The 1868 Fort Laramie treaty modified this agreement. It was a peace agreement between the United States and the Sioux. It was a critical component, along with the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, in achieving the American policy of Concentration. In so doing, it defined the boundaries of the “Great Sioux Reservation,” a tract mostly in today’s South Dakota west of the Missouri River where their possession would be undisturbed. The United States, however, never expected that native peoples would remain as they were, and the treaty included provisions directed towards fundamental change in how the Sioux lived upon the land. The treaty gave to the President of the United States the right to begin individualizing Indian landholdings, to move towards the policy that later would be called allotment.
Congress passed legislation in 1871 that formally ended treaty making. And, in 1888 and 1889, Congressional commissioners succeeded in breaking up the Great Sioux Reservation, depriving the Sioux near the Standing Rock Agency of the lands under which the Dakota Access Pipeline will now burrow. The state of North Dakota recites the sordid tale on its official website. The agreement to reduce the reservation was obtained through threats and duplicity. Congress, well before the notorious Lone Wolf decision of 1903, did not feel that it was bound by its own treaties, and viewed them as obstacles it must find ways to overcome.
If you have read the news reports, you will know that some of these lost lands are considered sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux, and that in the process of constructing the pipeline, graves have been dug up and desecrated. National political leaders, by and large, have been silent. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a deeply unsatisfying statement that recognized the protestors’ rights to free speech, while acknowledging as well the pipeline workers’ right to do their job. Because the protestors wanted to stop construction, Secretary Clinton’s campaign has encouraged the protests, only so long as they have no effect on the pipeline project. Hold up your signs, but get the hell out of the way, she seems to be saying.
Students of Native American history will know well that native peoples have long faced the combined power of corporate and state power. The railroads, mining companies, hydroelectric, the fossil fuel industry—all aided by state and federal authorities—have appropriated tribal lands and resources. It is an old story.
Perhaps something has changed in the country. During the presidential primaries, the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders drew upon a growing disaffection with increasing corporate wealth. Many Americans, even some of those who support Donald Trump, expressed a belief that their lives are not their own, that huge, multinational corporations call the shots. Native peoples could have told them about this long ago, of course.
I have no idea how long the protests will go. I do not know whether they will survive the brutal winter that will soon descend upon North Dakota. I do not know whether the protests at Standing Rock will call attention to other instances, going on right now, where corporate interests are seeking access to the resources in native communities, or threatening Indian lands and water supplies. These other struggles have not drawn nearly the attention of Standing Rock. Perhaps the #NoDAPL movement will force us to consider what sort of country we want to be: one in which corporations, shipping fossil fuels, are not more important than the right of native peoples to clean water and control of their lands. Perhaps we might all consider our own appetite for the products of extractive industry, and consume less, in the awareness that we are all at some level complicit in creating the demand for the fossil fuels that oil companies want to ship across and under Native Ground.