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I Stand with Standing Rock

September 19, 2016

standing rock-petitionRight now in North Dakota a scene is playing out that echoes a sorry thread that unfortunately runs through the fabric of this nation.

The Standing Rock Reservation is currently being threatened by the actions of Big Oil. The Dakota Access Pipeline will run through North Dakota to bring oil from the Bakken and Three Forks production areas to pipelines in Illinois. In order to do this, it needs to cross the Missouri River.

The original plans had this crossing north of Bismarck. The population of the area, which is 94% white, protested over fears of a pipeline leak. The plans were then adjusted to reroute the pipeline south to cross the Missouri near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and Lake Oahe, the sole source of water for the tribe.

So what do we have here? A 3.7 billion dollar project by the oil industry. A pipeline that needs to cross a river. A white population that objects and has the crossing rerouted. A group of Native Americans who are expected to accept what that white population did not.

The thread is one of the pervasive and persistent lack of respect for the indigent people of this land and their rights.

It is abundantly clear that through much of our history an institutional effort was made to contain, remove, or eradicate the native Americans. Originally, the legitimized slaughter of “Indians” reflected the values of the time during which they were considered subhuman “savages” whose elimination was much the same as the killing of wild animals. The fact that we (in both cases) encroached on their land and declared it our own seems to be besides the point. The governments of certain states (including New Jersey) promoted this practice by offering the incentive of scalp bounties. George Washington himself compared Indians to wolves and called for their annihilation. Though these practices were eventually stopped, the mindset they fostered still lingers in many to this day.

This may seem of little consequence on the surface, but it reflects an endemic attitude about the native peoples of this country. To me, that is troubling in a nation that insists it embraces tolerance, acceptance, and equality.

Consider that until 1924, these people — who were here before the “founding fathers” ever set foot on this soil — were not even considered citizens of the United States.

Consider that Indians living on reservations have no property rights. They don’t own the land on the reservation because the federal government holds it “in trust.”

Delve even deeper and consider history and its aftermath — the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the miserable exile into the reservation, and the abjectly dismal record of one hundred percent of the more than five hundred treaties signed then broken by the United States government.

Those who would defend such actions point to the violence committed by the Indians against the colonists and settlers. This is also fact, but it must be looked at in the perspective of the situation.

Consider the following scenario. America has been invaded. The invaders have superior weapons and have captured or killed many. They are advancing and taking over most of the land. Some defenders have given up and fallen under their control and suffered great mistreatment. What would you do? Would you fight using any means necessary to protect your land and people?

Years later, others who look at this will have an opinion about what happened. Who do you think they will feel was wrong in what they did, the invaders or those who resisted?

The majority would do as one might expect —  they would fight (just think of the reaction to the exceptionally popular movie Independence Day). The invaders have no right to take our land and kill our people. It is clear that they are wrong in what they did.

This happens to be the exact circumstance of the Indians, but many Americans have great difficulty in accepting the application of the conclusion above when it makes us the bad guys. However, if we are to be a truly great country, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, not cover them up or make excuses for them, for to do so merely diminishes our stature and makes us appear hypocritical (particularly when we are critical of the record of other countries in such matters).

The bottom line in the current situation in North Dakota is that native people are still considered to be expendable. They are not worthy of the same consideration of the rest of the population.

Some of the area which is to be dug up and plowed through would irreparably violate land sacred to the Sioux, land containing ancestral burial grounds, and land which, incidentally, had been taken from them one hundred fifty years ago. Imagine if a native tribe proposed a project through Arlington National Cemetery that would necessitate invasive construction. Would that be acceptable?

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picture this at Arlington

The threat to the critical water supply of the tribe is a real one despite the assurances of the oil and pipeline industries that it is safe. Consider the record. Since 1995 there have been 2,000 significant accidents involving these “safe” pipelines — 300 in North Dakota alone in 2012-2013 — resulting in three billion dollars in property damage.

For example, in July of 2010, 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. Five thousand acres of wetland habitat were adversely affected. In 2016, 65,000 gallons of oil polluted the North Saskatchewan River in Canada, the source of water for a tribe of the Cree Nation. Just this past week there was a major gas pipeline breach near Birmingham, Alabama.

The pipeline that will pass under the Missouri River will carry about a half million gallons of oil a day. At risk is the potential of an environmental disaster and the catastrophic effect it would have on the Standing Rock Sioux.

The future of these native people’s welfare and tradition hangs in the balance. For many, faith in the belief that this country can honor its own code of values also hangs in the balance. This is, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave with liberty and justice for all.

Except, it seems, for the Native American people.

 

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