An article covering the intertribal protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, with an exploration of the history of reservations.
By Jerry Meitz
An intertribal protest comprised of thousands of Natives from across the country has formed near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation- alleging that construction of the Energy Transfer Partners’ (ETP) Dakota Access Oil Pipeline near Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River, will harm water supplies and also harm or destroy sacred Sioux sites and artifacts.
A joint statement from the Departments of Justice, Army, and Interior have asked the ETP to voluntarily pause all work within 20 miles of the lake. The state of North Dakota will send a team of experts to survey privately held land sometime in the next week, but the ETP claims that halting the project will cost them some 1.4 billion dollars in the first year and may result in a change in investor’s appetite for the project- to the end that they lose financing.
The pipeline will carry a half-million barrels of crude oil each day from North Dakota’s fields to a pipeline in Illinois. It was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but concerns from the population there over potential oil spills rerouted it south to pass under the river near the reservation. Ten days ago, the tribe attempted to earn an emergency injunction from a state court by presenting evidence of artifacts and buried sites, but bulldozers began digging before the court was able to reach a decision. It was then that protesters worked their way through the fence and were confronted by the company’s private security guards and dogs. The conflict has attracted coverage as protesters were injured in the altercation and as a community of support from over 100 tribes from across the country has joined their efforts. Something of a temporary village has sprouted as people serve food, distribute fire wood, piece together makeshift schools, and settle in for what they plan to be a lengthy stay.
Though the pipeline would pass 90 feet beneath the riverbed and be safeguarded by shutoff valves and detection devices, spills there or along its approach to the river would be difficult to contain. As if on cue, a state of emergency was declared in two states on Saturday as roughly 250,000 gallons of crude oil have spilled from Colonial Pipeline Co’s line in Alabama- effecting the environment as well as regional supply. It is the largest spill for the Colonial Pipeline Co. since its 22,800 barrel spill in 1996. Though they’re not common, there have been other notable oil spills from pipelines in recent memory. Earlier this year a pipeline dumped 65,000 gallons of oil into the North Saskatchewan River- the source of drinking water for the James Smith Cree Nation- and an 800,000 gallon spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 caused the destruction of wetland habitat and wildlife.
On the surface, depending on your point of view, this might be an annoying story about a group of environmentalist-minded protesters stalling a construction project which could bring enormous resource and economical value to a great many people. This is also, on the surface, a story about one of the most prominent Native American nations in history- a people whose last gathering in the textbooks resulted in the killing of Native women and children at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, whose heroes include Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, and whose reputation as warriors was cemented through a five year war against the United States over the northern Great Plains and the defeat of General Custer’s infamous charge.
It’s from the Standing Rock Reservation that Native scholar Vine Deloria Jr. worked to build knowledge of Native American spirituality and bridges to American society, and who fought to see Native American spirituality earn freedoms which had been denied for over a century. These are the Sioux whose image and name were once embraced by the University of North Dakota as its nickname and mascot.
It’d be wrong to say that this event marks a full-circle in Native American relations with the United States, but it’s easily a new incarnation of what has so long plagued that relationship: the irreconcilable divide between what Native cultures were founded upon and what American expansion could afford- between what America has always wanted to see itself as and what it so often has been.
The story of the Native American feels incomplete in textbooks. The last time many of us would have encountered them amidst the pages of America’s rise to global prominence would have been the aforementioned Massacre at Wounded Knee- that last gasp for a nation which had been stripped of its cultural roots. Our continent’s native population has always had a different relationship with resources than the European-American counterparts which rushed ashore to surround them- not different in the sense that the Indian didn’t require them, but different in the sense that the environment received an altogether different treatment by Native American culture.
It would be unreasonable to present an encompassing image of Native American spirituality given the expanse of thousands of cultural sub-groupings. We can generalize in the understanding that their mythology and legends typically represent a spiritual outlook which captured the energy and essence of their surroundings. Perhaps because they were so attuned to their vulnerable and equal state amidst the wild world they lived in, their spirituality was often a blend of animism (the attribution of a soul to plants, animals, and the inanimate) and mysticism (altered states of consciousness and absorption/connection with the spiritual universe).
When the original colonies gave birth to more, the Native American populations along the coast were pushed west. Since they weren’t unified, they had little hope of organizing effective defense. Since they didn’t know what was coming, they didn’t know what was necessary. Since some tribes gained from goods offered by the Europeans in trade, a scattered collection of tribes often had conflicting agendas. By the time it became clear what was happening east of the Appalachian Mountains, Native Americans there couldn’t repel the oncoming waves of immigrant forces.
As a general image of the Native American at that point, it’d be fair to describe their perspective as one which viewed the land as the center of life, cultural activities, and their understanding of their origin. They passed down to proceeding generations, through oral legacy, some of the history of the evolving landscape, their nomadic beginnings as big game hunters, their eventual transformation to hunter-gatherers who supplemented their food stores with agriculture, and the feeling that they had been around for thousands upon thousands of years of the land’s shaping. They attributed creation stories and supernatural powers to certain animals, spirits, and physical sites-often when they witnessed things that they couldn’t understand or explain. They may or may not have believed the exact transgressions in their legends, but the stories serve to symbolically reflect their foundational understanding that the world was a construct built by the interrelated actions of all life, and mankind, as part of the natural world, had contributed, and been subject to its development. Still fairly nomadic, at least seasonally relocating to specific locations, the tribes lost their cultural footing as they were forced away by treaty, war, or as the American government took form.
Thomas Jefferson had helped to build a general approach to Native Americans: assimilate or move west. As skirmishes persisted into the 1800s between natives and Americans along its western and southern border, policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830 solidified that approach into forceful relocation west of the Mississippi River into Indian Territory (what would later become Oklahoma). In the 1840s and 1850s, ‘assimilate or move west’ took the form of reservations. With the notion that Native populations could be protected and controlled in a designated space long enough that they could learn the ways of the whites– something almost similar to putting a goldfish into a fishtank while still in its plastic bag– many states created reservations for regional and local tribes.
As the country expanded west, settling the west coast and all the spaces in between, there was no west for the native Americans to move to for escape. Jefferson’s ‘assimilate or move west’ approach necessarily became ‘assimilate or else’. Years of conflict between the Sioux and Cheyenne and the US resulted in the government signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868- ending what was called Red Cloud’s War by granting all of South Dakota west of the Missouri and lands extending as far as Yellowstone to the formation of the Great Sioux Reservation, and securing for the US government important east-west overland routes through the Great Plains which it needed for the Transcontinental Railroad. Roughly a third of the Sioux, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, refused to move to the reservation. They wanted to continue following the buffalo, as it had been the foundation of their culture and livelihood for generations; being confined to a reservation would demand the end of that way of life. After gold was discovered in Sioux territory, the northern Great Plains became embroiled in war when the US government would neither pay the price demanded by Sitting Bull for the land’s purchase nor force miners to obey the 1868 treaty and stay off of the land. It was in that war that Custer and his Seventh Cavalry would charge a group of Sioux convened for the Summer Buffalo Hunt of 1876. Custer and his men met disaster, but America eventually won the war.
The political and legal status of reservations had never been formally established by the US Constitution. Consequently, the notion that they be ‘a nation within a nation’ carried with it limited tribal sovereignty which was routinely trampled by American expansion and policies such as the Dawes Act (General Allotment Act of 1887, 1889). The act pursued a new means of accomplishing the ‘assimilate or else’ formula (as mentioned, there being no more ‘west’ to go to) by first forcing individual land ownership for Native Americans on reservation land as a means of transitioning them to a new cultural attitude about property and into subsistence farming as a necessity for survival. An amendment to the act in 1889 removed tribal land titles which resulted in non-indian ownership of parcels within reservation land. This happened on such a scale in ‘Indian Territory’ that it could be admitted into the Union as Oklahoma in 1907. Across the country, reservation land became increasingly fragmented by non-indian ownership, to the extent that the ability of tribal councils to effectively govern reservations was challenged- eventually even officially so, as Americans with private property on reservations would challenge the right of tribal councils to govern them in any way. The Great Sioux Reservation was particularly hurt by the Act, as its land was cut into six pieces and significantly diminished either by government alteration or the invasion of private property owners. The Standing Rock Reservation was one of those six new pieces.
Reservations would continue to function under the management of tribal councils, which in turn operated under the umbrella of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The nature of that umbrella vacillated with the political tides. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, otherwise known as the Indian New Deal, encouraged tribal land management, invested in infrastructure, education, and health care on reservations, and returned 2 million acres of property to Native Americans. A tremendous turn occurred over the next twenty years, as many of the advances of the Indian New Deal were reversed. As the mood of the nation swayed after the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and onward, ‘assimilate or else’ unofficially and slowly evolved into ‘all that “or else” stuff wasn’t the best way for us to handle this, so let’s try to coexist…hey, why not assimilate a little more?’. 1978’s passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act finally reversed the ban against Native American religion– their rituals formerly struck the public and the elected leadership as pagan, horrific, and dangerous– and an amendment in 1994 was passed to protect the use of peyote.
On reservations, tribes are legal entities with limited sovereignty that have sometimes functioned as corporations. They have jurisdiction over land use and zoning, economic development (ranching, agriculture, leases for resource rights, tourism, etc), and operate stores, gas stations and museums. In 1988, after the Seminole Tribe had developed a gaming facility, the Indian Gaming Regulation Act established the right of tribes to establish gambling facilities so long as the states they’re located in have some form of legalized gambling, resulting in massive waves of revenue for tribal councils to distribute to reservation services and facilities. Through federal legislation, the state is a party to gaming facilities on reservations within their borders. State and local authorities have limited law and order authority and only serious crimes are managed by the FBI and the judicial system; in 2010 the Tribal Law and Order Act permits sentences of up to three years by tribal courts (it had previously been capped at 1 year).
Of the 2.5 million Native Americans living in the United States, a million live on reservations. Altogether, reservation land equates roughly to the state of Idaho- some 56,200,000 acres. Though some reservations are fairly prosperous, many, if not most, are stricken by poverty and suffering. The Sioux largely find themselves in the midst of such struggles, which can be attributed to a number of causes- including the psychology of losing cultural roots and resisting assimilation, and a lack of education. Their website declares themselves a sovereign nation- reflecting centuries of proud resistance to American oversight. It is perhaps appropriate that the Native American finds themselves finding traction in the press because of a gathering began by the Sioux. Environmentalists have been trying to find the Keystone Pipeline, in general, for years to minimal affect. That a people whose culture has been equally defined by both its history as brave warriors and its relationship with the environment be the people who create enough stir that there be additional dialogue at this stage of construction is significant; it is also representative of a cultural shift among many in American society, as the population becomes ever more interested in new-age approaches to spiritualism and always ever more passionate about the rights of nations within nations.
In mankind’s long history, being first to a place has never meant an inviolable right to ownership or management of the land and its resources. Even in the case of some of the world’s great empires- the Persians and Khanate included- local populations could be forcibly or peacefully brought under centralized control but allowed to retain their traditional character and culture. Still, movement and displacement are as fundamental to the human world as they are the more natural one, and we should consider that as we look back into the conduct of nation builders.
The manner by which the indigenous populations were robbed of their homes and livelihoods is probably the disturbing element. We become upset when we see documentaries or otherwise learn of the practice rival male lions have of destroying offspring from the former alpha male, as are we saddened vt footage showing a bear and its cubs chased from a meadow- and its supply of fish- by a bigger, stronger bear. Why shouldn’t we be upset when we look through the historical lens of a textbook or first-hand accounts and see the human equivalent: the loss of homeland and a cultural way of life for the continent’s population of Native Americans?
For some, the defense of such a history would begin and end with the concessions above. For others, a history such as that is evaluated relative to the expectation that societies and civilizations are supposed to progress, and that mankind should have been capable of so much more by the 1500s. I’m certain that some still, even while recognizing that the laws of the jungle speak an unequivocal and easily translatable tongue, vilify the United States for all that happened to the Native American. Our relations with the Native American doesn’t have to be categorized as national shame, however– even as that’s the way this story is usually told. We can understand- as a nation- that this empire came at a cost, as empires always do. The Roman Empire took Britain from its original population for its lumber. Why wouldn’t the country that Britain gave birth to take the most valuable resource of the age– land– from its original population?