Twenty years ago, my new wife asked me if I would ever go to war. The question was open-ended, but I could hear the slant that us over-educated liberals often used when talking about the subject. War is bad. Fighting is bad. There are other ways. This was pre 911, mind you. Remember those days? Me neither.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watch the Standing Rock Tribe and their allies draw a new line in the sand near the Missouri River. “Standing Rock? What’s that?” is a response I’ve heard from relatives on either end of the country. They can be excused (barely) for not following it closely. After all, we only have so much “political bandwidth” as Bill Clinton likes to say and our large media outlets have saturated it with self-stimulating news on Benghazi and personal emails and pussy-grabbing by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Here is a quick primer: Enbridge Energy (a Canadian company) and Dakota Access want to run a line through the ground from the Baaken oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. There is plenty of local opposition to this for many reasons but nowhere is it hotter than on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, south of Mandan. The people of Standing Rock do not want the line to run beneath the Missouri River where a leak could threaten their water supply. It’s that simple.
It’s also not that simple. I camped out with the water protectors for two nights and did a lot of watching and listening. The first thing which struck me was the size of the gathering. Tents, trailers, horses and thousands of people have come from coast to coast, across Canada, Mexico, Central America and, yes, Ecuador. More than 250 tribes have shown up and planted their flags along what has become the main route into the camp. Natives, non-Natives, Elders and children are there. Veterans are there. Students. Poor folk, arriving with broken transmissions and mufflers held together by duct tape. Others have flown in like the woman from the Bay area, who I saw volunteering in every corner of the camp. Even a Black Lives Matter delegation showed up in support. Beyond this, anti-pipeline rallies have cropped up across the planet.
One would think such solidarity would garner some serious media coverage. Meh. A few reporters from mainstream news outlets have thrown a bone at the subject, but their coverage can be summed up like this: Native Americans are upset that a pipeline is going through sacred (burial) grounds and under the Missouri River and they are protesting. The media shows some clips of horses and head dresses and folks in Washington and New York and California shake their heads and click their tongues, then turn the page to read more about the Giant Orange Hellbeast. The truth is that this oil is very likely going to find a way to market, one way or another. The truth is also that there are plenty of people who are very, very pissed off at large corporations pushing them around (does that sound familiar?).
Let’s backup for a moment and consider the relationship between our tribes and the Federal Government. No one outside a thickly-padded room would admit that it has ever been good or that the Government has played fairly. Ever. “The Black Hills are yours! Um, hold on, what’s that shiny yellow rock over there?” “Oklahoma is Indian Land! Wait a sec…is that oil?” “Red Lake belongs to the Ojibwe! Um, except this part up here where we want to fish, too.” And on it goes. What we should remember is that the U.S. Government has always been a proxy for powerful interests, just like British, Spanish and French colonial powers were before that. When powerful interests want something, they go get it. They contort and twist and fabricate some justification for this (Manifest Destiny! Jobs!) or they come up with euphemisms for stealing (“Eminent Domain”) so that they can look themselves in the mirror each morning, but the process is usually the same. It is a story of the strong taking from the weak. This wasn’t always a racial thing, but it has turned out to be the simplest way to divide people and to keep taking power and holding onto it. Here is an excellent video on the history of racial casting in America for your enjoyment and education later on.
So, should the people of Standing Rock believe Enbridge Energy when they say their pipelines are safe and that they won’t leak? Absolutely not. For years, Enbridge has demonstrated a ready-fire-aim approach to the quality, routing, security and maintenance of their pipelines. They have lied, fabricated, obfuscated and distracted. When their lines leaked, they fought tooth and nail against proper cleanup and redress. Their word – even on paper – is meaningless. As for Dakota Access, this company is run by one of the richest men in America who lives in a gated community in Dallas and who hired mercenaries to show up on site with attack dogs. If anyone thinks that sicking dogs on minorities doesn’t instantly remind every African American of Jim Crow or every Native American of Colonial genocide, they are nuts. In this context, the overwhelmingly peaceful and prayerful gathering in Standing Rock is all the more amazing.
North Dakota authorities (who are overwhelmingly white), meanwhile, have thrown their hat in the ring and there was little doubt where that hat would land. Having already laid waste to Williston, perhaps they had nothing to lose. The Governor, State Troopers and, especially, Morton County seem intent on setting race-relations back two generations and by ticketing Native drivers for driving one mile over the limit or for crossing the center line, they are well on their way. Blockades have been set up, forcing people to drive an extra 30 miles to access the camp, because why not? Incredibly, when those dogs showed up and bit the protestors, you couldn’t find ND law enforcement with a telescope. Middlemen, remember? Eventually the police returned and put their foot down, issuing trumped up charges of criminal trespass and – yes – rioting, against a journalist. The swift dismissal of those charges by a judge garnered a modicum of attention by the
the mainstream media but The Guy With The Small Hands spewed something stupid so they chased a shiny object around the corner and, besides, we all need oil and eventually it’s going to get to market and even the Indians are going to drive trucks so they should, you know, shut up, get over it, and move on. North Dakota media has set a new low for reporting here-say, and attention-grabbing, slanted headlines. This week, the same week which saw acquittal of seven armed, violent, men for their role in the takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, law enforcement from surrounding states showed up as if they were going to evict ISIS from Mosul. Stun grenades, military sound cannons, mace, batons, arrests, arrests and more arrests of unarmed, if agitated, protestors. Coming to a land protest without guns or violent threats, it appears, does not pay. If you are white and carrying a gun, you get a handshake. If you are Indian with a peace pipe you get maced, cuffed and arrested. White privilege, anyone?
Which brings us to one of the other things that has been happening at Standing Rock. One of the results of the peaceful and prayerful gathering there is that something of a spiritual healing process has begun. I mentioned at the outset of this article that one of my roles there was to listen, so that’s what I did, over coffee and near fires. I was fed and, in turn, shared my food widely around my own camp. I live in Bemidji, Minnesota and have many close Ojibwe friends and I participate in gatherings and Ceremony so I am comfortable in Indian country. I am always honored to have personal stories shared with me and, part of my Vision is to share them in a good way in my writing.
What I heard in Standing Rock were tales of harassment by police, of poverty, of historical trauma and of Survival. There was
singing, laughing and a few tears. An Ojibwe Elder admitted how ashamed she felt at never learning her language. A Standing Rock Lakota woman showed me her short hair which she said she couldn’t grow out after her boarding school cut it short. A man in his 70’s wept, recalling the beatings he received for not wearing his rosary. The priests pummeled his back with a hose daily and spanked him with a board so hard, he couldn’t use the bathroom for days. Get over it? Native Americans are the only minority in the country more likely to be shot during an altercation with law enforcement than blacks are. Poverty, violence and graduation rates are easily the worst of any group in the country. So, yes, scratch the surface at Standing Rock and you see much more. There is survival and resilience and even some cultural revitalization but If ever there was a time for Truth and Reconciliation in the United States of America, it is right now. Now is the time for the Federal government to help people of all colors and in every corner of the country to gather where they can talk, sing, cry and pray together. Where Natives and African Americans can tell their stories and the rest of us can listen and then listen some more. (Morton County I’m talking to you.) Instead of retreating into our corners and putting quite possibly the most divisive, ignorant and racist man in U.S. history in charge of the Presidency, we need to record and to dialogue and share in a good way and we desperately need to begin healing. Starting the process of Truth and Reconciliation in this country would be a proud piece of President Obama’s legacy and it would play an important and positive role in his efforts on climate. Is this worth fighting for?
On that drive twenty years ago, I eventually answered my wife’s question: It depends. These days, as our climate is shifting – and it is shifting – it is largely agreed that water will be one of the most precious resources on Earth. Look around. Do you see it in abundance in Africa? In the Middle East? The desert Southwest? Our Native neighbors and friends, the original American environmentalists, are once again serving as the tip of the spear and reminding us that, quite simply, water is life and we all have a spiritual and physical connection to it. At Standing Rock, along the banks of the Missouri River, all our relations have shown up and they have drawn a line in the sand. Is clean water for future generations worth fighting for?
Where do I sign up?