CLAY JENKINSON: Standing Rock Sioux Crisis — A Plea for Understanding

I know many of you have little respect for the Standing Rock Sioux (Lakota) in the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline crisis. Your views by now are pretty well known:

A) The Sioux leadership should have been at the negotiating table long ago, when it might have made a difference; b) the pipeline is off the reservation, so the Lakota don’t really have standing in this controversy; c) the protestors are trespassing; d) certain depredations have occurred, including the killing and maiming of animals, poaching, damage to equipment, intimidation of local ranchers; d) the protest has been hijacked by the national and international anti-carbon folks; e) the protest is costing Morton County and the state of North Dakota millions of dollars for a pipeline siting that was properly handled by the proper licensing authorities; etc.

One doesn’t have to agree with all of your arguments to see that you have a point. Most of the people I know are relatively skeptical of the Lakota position. My sympathies are mostly with the Standing Rock Lakota, not necessarily because they are right, but because they deserve better from the white people of North Dakota and beyond. What bothers me is that a rising contempt for the Standing Rock Lakota has been made possible by a deliberate refusal to grant any kind of legitimacy to the Sioux protest.

I ask you — the detractors — to read what I have written below and to concede, if you can, the validity of the following propositions. If we can agree on some of the fundamentals, if we can find common ground, we might be able to resolve this crisis in a way that respects the rights and dignities of both cultures.

The Ghost Dance, ca. 1889. A harmless expression of cultural desperation, cut down by a Seventh Cavalry soldier’s riot at wounded Knee.The Ghost Dance, ca. 1889. A harmless expression of cultural desperation, cut down by a Seventh Cavalry soldier’s riot at wounded Knee.

First, you have to admit that the Lakota (Sioux) have a point. White America has done almost unendurable damage to Indian cultures since 1787, including Lakota culture. Where to begin and where, indeed, to end?

After the Minnesota Uprising by Dakota Sioux of 1862, the U.S. Army sent punitive expeditions against the Lakota Sioux in today’s North Dakota, even though they had not been involved in that uprising. Beginning with the Grattan fight in 1854, over a mere triviality, the U.S. Army hectored and harassed the Sioux for the next 40-plus years. It was only after George Armstrong Custer led his provocative reconnaissance expedition into the Sioux’s treaty-guaranteed Black Hills in 1874 that events led inexorably to the Little Big Horn in 1876.

After that, the U.S. government got grimly serious about crushing the Sioux. This led to the final surrender of one Sioux band after another and — eventually — to the assassinations of Crazy Horse (Sept. 6, 1877) and Sitting Bull (Dec. 15, 1890). After the unnecessary massacre at Wounded Knee (Dec. 29, 1890), a violation of America’s precious freedom of religion doctrine, armed resistance ended on the Great Plains.

Then cultural genocide began in earnest. The Great Sioux Reservation, guaranteed by sacred treaty in 1868, was brushed aside by the United States government, and the “reservation” was illegally fractured into smaller and smaller units. Indian children were forced into white men’s Indian boarding schools, often hundreds or thousands of miles from their families, and against the express outrage of those families.

At those schools, white “do-gooders” cut pupils’ hair, beat them for speaking their native languages or practicing their traditional religions, forced them to sit hour after hour listening to tales of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (a curriculum wholly alien from their own history), and attempted, as Richard Henry Pratt solemnly asserted, “to kill the Indian in order to save the man.” The graveyards at places like the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania tell a horrendous tale of early, lonely, heartbroken death thousands of miles from home.

Meanwhile, other white do-gooders (led by Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts), decided to force Indians to adopt an alien land tenure system (the General Allotment Act of 1887), which required Indians to file on small square homesteads, after which all of the “surplus” lands on the reservations were made available to white settlers. Examine the land tenure map of any Indian reservation and you will see that much, sometimes most, of the acreage “within that reservation” is actually owned by white people.

The Sun Dance, Okipa ceremony, peyote rituals and all other native religious traditions were outlawed by federal statute in the last years of the 19th century..

The United States government encouraged the wholesale slaughter of the great buffalo herds (at one point numbering more than 35 million critters) to undercut the economies and spiritual lives of western Indians. So effective was this “public-private partnership” between hide and tongue hunters and the government of the United States, that the buffalo tiptoed on the brink of extinction between 1883 and 1910.

U.S.-style constitutions were imposed upon most of the tribes of the nation after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. These constitutions have worked well enough for the white communities of the United States, but they were alien to the long-established cultures of American Indians. And why should the United States government tell Indians how to constitute their systems of government?

Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, the great earthen dams on the Missouri River were deliberately “sited” (note this key word) in places that produced maximum permanent flood damage to the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Lakota (Sioux), and minimum encroachment on white communities. This is the subject of Paul Van Develers’s important book “Coyote Warrior.” Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has written that Oahe Dam (north of Pierre, S.D.), “severed the spiritual artery” of the Lakota people. When those massive dams were sited, the Native Americans whose lives would be shattered by those slackwater reservoirs were barely consulted, and the “compensation packages” for those tribes were obscene in their disrespect.

This is the short list of “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinc[ing] a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,” as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence.

To review. We stole their land. We killed them for resisting. We broke the spirit of their religions, history, culture, economy and family structure. We kidnapped their children and sent them to reprocessing centers. We flooded their best lands without their consent. We imposed our social “software” on them, and confiscated much of what was left of their homelands in the name of liberating them from their tribal past.

Don’t you think the Sioux (Lakota) have reason to be bitter? Our national policies have at times come close to physical genocide, and cultural genocide has been cheerfully engaged in from the time of Jefferson to today (“Why cannot they get over it and join us in the American dream?”).

Second, don’t you think they have a point in this pipeline crisis? If the pipeline was “relocated” from a dozen miles north of Bismarck to a few hundred yards north of the boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, wouldn’t that upset you if you were a member of the Lakota Nation?

This is the goose and gander argument. If the pipeline is so safe (as its cheerleaders say) that “it could never leak, it’s perfectly harmless,” then surely it would have been no threat to the populations of Bismarck and Mandan. If it needs to be sited so that it does the least damage to people’s water supplies, then surely it was cynical to locate it downstream from Bismarck, but literally on the boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

If the builders are employing a utilitarian argument (the greatest good for the greatest number, the least impact on the smallest number of people), surely there is structural racism in deciding that the people who matter less (as usual) are the American Indians. Yes, the Lakota should have been at the hearings, at the negotiating table, all along. But their absence — for whatever reason — does not reduce the obvious unfairness of the siting decisions.

If you grant — as the U.S. federal court system has — that the Standing Rock Sioux are a separate nation, “a sovereign state” related to the United States but not subordinate to the United States, then surely the Lakota Nation deserved more respect and consideration from the state of North Dakota, the pipeline company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers than it received.

It is not enough, in my opinion, to invite the Sioux to the hearings the way you might invite the citizens of Bismarck or Denver to such hearings. The Lakota deserved bilateral discussions initiated by the requisite agencies and developers. We would certainly not site the pipeline up on the Canadian border and then merely invite the authorities in Manitoba to the hearings. I repeat: things would have been better if the Lakota had attended all the hearings and responded to all of the email notifications, but that is not “the end of the discussion,” as has been claimed by the Indian critics.

Third, it’s not too late to fix this problem. The pipeline still could  be relocated to another place where at least the “optics” are less horrific. This would cost a great deal of money, of course, and there would have to be some sort of compensation to the pipeline company (or an endless series of lawsuits, which would have nearly the same effect). But it can be done. It should be done. The white folks lose nothing worth having by re-siting the pipeline to accommodate the Lakota concerns. This would amount to a victory for both cultures.

We need to move toward greater harmony and mutual respect between the two cultures. It is long past the time when white people and white entities needed to show greater regard for Indian sensibilities, rights, traditions, sovereignty and concerns. This can still be done. We would all benefit from the compromise.

Fourth, any “resolution” of this crisis that tramples upon the concerns and sensibilities of the Standing Rock Lakota people will set a terrible precedent for white-Indian relations in the 21st century and beyond. The past is behind us and we cannot change it no matter how much we might wish to do so.

The present cannot be understood, however, without a good-faith understanding of the tragedy of white-Indian history in North Dakota and in the United States. To draw a line, say, at the year 1970, and say, “that was then, but this is now; whatever white people did to Indians in the past is not my issue because I have never done anything to Indians,” is a kind of empty (not to mention righteous) statement with little or no historical validity. It’s like saying the Nazi holocaust is long in the past, why cannot the Jews get over it. We need to reset our mutual relations in a new era of mutual respect, generosity of spirit, curiosity, and cultural accommodation.

I’ve been asked a hundred times if this crisis bodes well or ill for white-Indian relations. As much as I would like to say that it inaugurates a new, better era in our relations, I fear that there will be white backlash against the Standing Rock Lakota — and other Indian nations who have no role in this crisis. If that happens, it would be a tragedy. I would hope that the people of Bismarck-Mandan, and of North Dakota, would urge those in power to summon “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln put it, and to seek cultural reconciliation rather than increased polarization.

Fifth, let’s stick to the issue at hand. Many of the protesters are anti-carbon, anti-capitalism folks who have gathered from all over the country, all over the world, to fight a fight that should take place in a different venue. The issues at hand are: 1) true political, cultural and legal respect for the Standing Rock Sioux; 2) genuine respect for Indian national sovereignty; and 3) the clash of two distinct ways of looking at natural resources, especially water, and at the ways in which collectives (Indian tribes, American states, development coalitions) make decisions and seek consensus.

The other issues are interesting, but they have buried the immediate — and exceedingly important — crisis under a larger protest about America’s addiction to oil, coal and natural gas. As usual, the Indians are now caught in the middle of a fight that is taking place between non-Indians. In some respects, the Lakota world is now being occupied by two alien groups: the carbon detractors and the law enforcement authorities. This is terribly upsetting.

Finally, let me say that I deplore property damage, intimidation, the maiming and poaching of animals owned by white ranchers and farmers, violence or threats of violence, trespass, threats and deliberate distortions of the facts on the ground. But equally I deplore pepper spray, tear gas, riot police, assault vehicles, aerial surveillance, targeting of journalists, unnecessary road closures, calls for non-Indians to refuse economic and humanitarian services to the encampment and every other attempt “to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents,” as the great Jefferson put it in a letter of January 1799 to his friend Elbridge Gerry.

We can get through this. There is plenty of fault on both sides, on every side. We need to back away from the precipice of violence. We need to listen to each other. We need to calm down and find what we can respect in every voice in this crisis.