Star Phoenix – Doug Cuthand
As Bob Dylan wrote in the Ballad of the Thin Man: “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?”
Mayor Mike Seminary of Bismarck, N.D., this week told the water protectors at the Standing Rock camp to go home and be with their families at Thanksgiving. Instead, there has been a steady influx of people arriving at the camp to show their support.
Our elders and religious leaders have held that our people would come together at some time in the future and there would be a great awakening that affects not only aboriginal people but society as a whole.
The Anishnabe prophesy of the seven fires is one example. The story is that seven prophets visited the people long ago and gave them seven prophesies. The first six laid out the struggle and dysfunction that the newcomers would bring upon the Anishnabe people, but the seventh prophesy was that new people would emerge and would retrace their steps; there would be a rebirth of the Anishnabe Nation and the people would once again be free.
This legend exists among many tribes across Turtle Island, and many see the camp at Standing Rock as the beginning of when our people stand together to create the new people and the new world.
This story stands in stark contrast to the heavy handed police tactics, the lack of media coverage, and the insistence of the Dakota Access Pipeline Corporation and North Dakota state leadership to push ahead with this project.
The water protectors tangled on Monday with the police at a roadblock and were met with water cannon, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. About 160 people received varying degrees of injuries, including a young woman who was severely injured when a concussion grenade exploded beside her. At last report she was in danger of losing her arm.
As I write this the water protectors have set up a Thanksgiving table, blocking the main highway through the city of Mandan that’s adjacent to Bismarck. They have gone into the city instead of protesting at the pipeline, which will be hard for the media to ignore. It will also be harder for the police to attack them with the public looking on.
I have been to Standing Rock and found the sense of commitment and respect overwhelming. This truly is a place of change and positive energy.
The camp has been growing and the protests increasing in spite of the oncoming winter. It’s becoming obvious that the water protectors will not go away but will dig in for the long haul.
Also, this is not a single-issue event. The water protectors are standing up to the pipeline construction, but it is also a place where the line has been drawn against colonialism. People from Hawaii, New Zealand and South America have visited the camp to pledge support. While the protests at Oka, Que., and Wounded Knee, S.D., were watershed events, they didn’t have the widespread support that Standing Rock is receiving.
While the events at Standing Rock are receiving wide coverage on social media, they are virtually ignored on the national news. Local Bismarck television covers the confrontation, but from what I have seen they are failing to get both sides of the story and broadcasting only comments from the local sheriff.
If you want balanced reporting, both Maori Television and APTN are a better source of news from the site despite their distance from the action.
The ongoing action is beginning to wear on the state government. It has overspent its police budget, and the legislators and local politicians are getting fed up with the ongoing disruption. The pipeline corporation has taken both a financial and public relations hit. The close relationship between business, the North Dakota legislature and the police has been exposed.
As for the water protectors, they have created a movement. Our people have not benefited from resource development except for some employment. There is no resource revenue sharing, and our communities have been reduced to poverty.
Indigenous people are now the de facto leaders of the environmental movement. Standing Rock may well be a dress rehearsal for the future across North America.
As summer comes to a close, while BBQ’s are being flamed up one last time, the media wants many of us to get caught up on choosing sides about the appropriateness of athletes sitting down during the playing of the national anthem, or trading “worst-ever” conversations about the upcoming Presidential election. A topic few are being encouraged to discuss is the issue that inspired hundreds of Native American tribes across the USA to unite and take a stand: the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is the first time since the Native American movement of the 70s that tribes have come together for a cause.
For those not following the protests, the Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion project that would cross four states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, with 1,168 miles of oil pipeline. It would stretch from the oil-rich fields known as the Bakken Formation near Canada, and carry an estimated 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the project, granting final permits this past July. But on July 27, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Corps, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to stop construction. The lawsuit claims the Corps has violated federal law and that the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.” [Complaint here; Motion here; recent Declaration here].
There is no doubt that countless sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, containing great spiritual, cultural and historic significance, are in dire threat of being destroyed. So why is this not receiving the attention it deserves?
This is not just another battle against big oil companies. We have waged the Keystone battle already on many of the same issues. It is because those affected this time are not just Native Americans, but some of the most persecuted and forgotten of the Native American tribes. It is not only an uncomfortable return to the horrors of Wounded Knee, but a “Native Lives Matter” reminder that the United States was built in large part on the genocide of Native Americans and the use of Natives as slave labor. This is the story you were not taught in grade school. It’s the story of our nation that many feel is taboo, and not open for discussion. But here it is. Again.
For years, I have maintained the silence and learned to keep my mouth shut about the true story of Native American history in America. I have loyally served our country as a U.S. Navy 9/11 Combat Veteran, but as a Native American from the North Fork Rancheria (Mono Indian) tribe located near Yosemite, I am well aware of our people’s generational struggle. (My Native American name is Pia (pronounced Pi-Ya), which means water). And, despite the harsh treatment of Natives for centuries, the U.S. Native American population claims the greatest number of people per capita who have served in uniform. We, yes, WE, stand when the national anthem is played and WE stand together at “Standing Rock” because this was our land before it was confiscated.
Why does it matter? Why are so many tribes coming together for this cause? One reason is because many tribes share the same issue regarding Native American land rights. These Native American land rights are tied into treaties that were signed over 100 years ago with the US government, treaties made with over 500 tribes. Within these treaties, the government set aside land for Native Americans to live on, known as “reservations.” In reality, the term “reservation” was just a fancy way of saying, “the least productive, least attractive piece of land we’re willing to give you.”
One of those treaties signed by the U.S. was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which is tied to “Standing Rock” reservation. It was signed with the Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes. This treaty gave a permanent reservation for the Sioux in all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, and the Indians in turn released all lands east of the Missouri River, except the Crow Creek, Sisseton, and Yankton Reservations. In this treaty, the government promised that “non-natives” would not enter the Sioux reservation without Sioux permission, and that further negotiations must be done with the approval of Sioux leadership. Yet, ever since the discovery of gold in 1874, that treaty has remained broken for decades.
Many of these sites that non-natives are destroying at Standing Rock are burial grounds and are sacred. These are places of prayer as well. Native American sacred land defines who we are as Native people today. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), in which Congress recognized its obligation to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise Native American traditional religions.” This would include preserving Native American sacred ground and allowing the right to practice prayer and Native American spirituality. This reversed the 1883 original government policy prohibiting the practice of Native American spirituality.
The reality is that Tribal Country (reservations) are far away from society, jobs, good healthcare and education. Also, in many cases, like my tribe, we have no access to electricity, sufficient plumbing and almost always no access to cell towers & Wi-Fi. We are completely isolated. So why would anyone want this undesirable land? The answer is, natural resources like gold, natural gas, oil and water. Simply, the U.S. government has broken treaties because of this, allowing oil companies to desecrate Native American burial sites across America.
This story is mirrored in the lives of many other Native Americans. This is why Natives are standing up for “Standing Rock”. This has been our story for centuries. We have fought and will continue to fight to protect our land. We will do this despite centuries of broken promises and lopsided treaties.
We Native Americans have suffered to protect the land the U.S. government and big oil is now trying to destroy. This land not only has cultural significance to us, it provides a lifeline to our people: clean drinking water. As we have seen time and time again, building any pipeline almost always means polluting clean drinking water. To name just a few recent catastrophes, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the Yellowstone and Ventura County oil spills come to mind. Once that water is polluted, it will be gone forever. That water will not return, ever.
This is what’s happening at Standing Rock. Clean drinking water sources are being destroyed and we will never get those back. Sacred Native American burial grounds are also being destroyed at Standing Rock and throughout Native reservations across America. Without action, we will never get clean drinking water, or our sacred sites back. It’s a travesty and a tragedy.
Such great sacrifice begs us to ask ourselves, our friends, our families some hard questions:
Isn’t it way past the time we weaned ourselves off of fossil fuels? It’s 2016! Isn’t it time to stop thinking like a dinosaur?
Do you believe having clean drinking water is a basic human right?
Would you be okay with building a pipeline through national treasures, like one of the California Missions? How about a pipeline through the Ford Theater in Washington D.C.? Would pipeline construction right through the Alamo in San Antonio be okay with you?
Truly ask yourself these and many related questions.
So to me, this is personal. From the time I was a child, I was taught to protect and respect our precious Earth. It is difficult to explain to Non-Natives that I was actively taught as a child by my Mono grandmother and tribal elders to listen to Mother Earth because she does talk to you. I was taught how to see and listen to Mother Earth at an early age, similar to learning a second language as a child. I was taught to respect sacred land.
In 2013, I was honored by The White House as a Champion of Change (Veteran Advancing Clean Energy and Climate Security). I founded a veteran-run green energy company and have brought my childhood lessons to bear in the business world.
So I ask, respectfully, as a Native American, United States Veteran, clean energy advocate and business woman, for all of us to pay as much attention to this issue as we would a millionaire athlete, a Hollywood movie star, or the latest reality TV special. This is more than just a pipeline. This is about protecting clean water resources; building on sacred burial sites; centuries of broken promises. This is about caring for a truly important issue to all Americans, and about protecting this Earth that we all share.
Liz Perez-Halperin (Aviation Logistics Specialist, U.S. Navy) is a Senior Correspondent for Lima Charlie News. Liz served in the Navy for over eight years with several deployments in the 5th and 6th Fleet, before founding GC Green Incorporated, a veteran-owned “Green Build” general contracting and consulting firm. In 2013, Liz was honored by The White House as a Champion of Change – Veteran Advancing Clean Energy and Climate Security
Every protest contains a contradiction: people stand up — through speech, demonstration, violent or nonviolent action — and urge the state to change. They break the rules in order to convince the rule-makers that they need to change the rules, which is itself a kind of state-approved process. However, at Standing Rock in North Dakota, Indians from all over North America have been protesting for seven months in some ways never before seen.
Protest in this case is related to process. The Dakota Access Pipeline — a nearly 1,200-mile-long pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to Illinois — has been in the works for some time. Part of the process was for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that approved the pipeline, to consult with tribes about how the pipeline would affect their reservations and treaty lands, sacred sites and cultural areas.
According to documents filed in federal court, the Corps did just that numerous times. In response, officials adjusted the pipeline route. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe chose not to fully engage with pipeline officials until late in the process. When it did, a tribal official declared that the tribe objected to “any kind of oil pipeline construction through our ancestral lands.”
Here is where the tribe’s legal battle against the pipeline and the protest diverge. The Standing Rock Sioux sought an injunction on the basis of federal laws protecting the tribe’s interest in preserving sacred sites. The protest, called the Mni Wiconi, or “water is life,” demonstration, is primarily over the danger the pipeline poses to drinking water for everyone.
The legal and ethical argument is about tribal sovereignty and the protection of natural resources.
There is nothing new about such issues. However, what is novel is that the tribe and the outside protesters are working together. The Standing Rock reservation set up a protest camp and made a stand with the protesters. By September, more than 300 tribes — including my tribe, the Ojibwe — were physically represented at the protest camp, at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers.
There is no “leader,” no titular head. The protest doesn’t have a face or a personality as much as it has faces and personalities. Many of the water protectors have day jobs — as lawyers, environmental activists, filmmakers and even drone pilots. An overwhelming number of them are women.
This all stands in contrast to the American Indian Movement, which flourished in the early 1970s, culminating in the takeover of the Wounded Knee trading post on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the shootout with federal agents nearby. That movement had few specific aims, a violent tendency and little non-Indian support.
The Standing Rock protesters are making the argument that the pipeline threatens not just tribal land and resources but American land and resources. The protesters are making a stand on behalf of all Americans for better decisions for our energy future. This is their sacrifice and this is their new Thanksgiving gift.
A non-Indian friend asked me recently, in response to protests about Indian mascots for sports teams, where is our Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? And what do we want exactly?
I said that we don’t have a Dr. King. I grew up on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Indian reservation in Minnesota, in a household where we listened to Dr. King’s speeches on records, and this always struck me as a gap. But maybe it’s not.
Maybe we don’t have one because we both don’t need and can’t have a singular leader like Dr. King was. We Indians are a plurality. There are more than 500 tribes in the United States and we all have different cultures, histories, landscapes and ways of organizing politically. We are united by the legacy, and current practices, of colonialism. But we have always been more than what the government has tried, and failed, to do to — and that is to mainstream us.
Like African-Americans, we have fought for and won some of our civil rights. But we have always fought for something quite different from that, too. We have fought for the recognition that we are American and Indian, and that as Indians we belong to sovereign nations and have treaty rights that have always been our rights.
There is something inside the protest to ponder. And it is grave. We have seen water protectors maced, arrested and fired upon with rubber bullets. David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, wrote in The New York Times that this is proof that government, once again, is against us. That it is once again cowboys versus Indians.
There is, of course, a history of conflict. There is also a history of the federal government’s taking the side of big business against the rights and interests of its citizens. This is ever more clear in the violent backlash against protesters in recent days.
But to say that the story of the Dakota Access Pipeline is another iteration of that old western story is to repeat the mistakes of past protests and movements. We situate ourselves in a position of powerlessness.
It absolves us of our own complicity in how the world of power around us has been shaped. It absolves our tribal leaders of their reluctance to show up for meetings and to fight diligently and thanklessly in the trenches of numb process.
It also absolves all of us — Indians and other Americans — for the greatest sin of all: We made the government that is doing this to us. And that’s where the civil rights movement, where Dr. King, becomes more relevant. We have to show up to get up.
Cynicism isn’t a politics. Neither is irony. The civil rights movement got results not just because activists marched in the street but also because activists marched into classrooms, county board meetings, law schools and the voting booth.
We have to participate in shaping our government and thereby shape its processes — including how, where and why pipelines are planned, approved and built.