National American Indian Heritage Month: Token Gestures

Today marks the final day of National American Indian Heritage Month, a national holiday invoked by the world’s most fervent philanthropist, Mr. George W. Bush.

With Thanksgiving leftovers still cooling in the fridge, the US Army on Sunday issued a statement ordering the closure of the main encampment of activists at Standing Rock in North Dakota. The land, known colloquially as Oceti Sakowin, is just north of the Cannonball River where tribes-people and environmentalists have been congregating in their thousands to oppose the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline.


That this latest denial of indigenous rights has occurred in November, the very month that purports to uphold the rights of America’s much-abused indigenous population, comes as no surprise.

Tribes have always paid the price for American prosperity.

The 1,200-mile long pipeline has been fiercely contested since its conceptualization in 2014. If construction goes ahead, it will carry 470,000 barrels of domestically produced crude oil across 3 states, from North Dakota to Illinois.

The pipeline was initially scheduled to run just north of Bismarck, but the project was rerouted away from the overwhelmingly white city due to fears about the possible contamination of water supplies. The good people of Bismarck had legitimate cause for concern; it transpires that these pipelines do leak, and often. Since 1995, more than 2,000 significant accidents involving oil and petroleum pipelines have occurred, creating roughly $3 billion in property damage. Of these 2,000, Polaris Institute found that 804 of these spills could be attributed to pipes supplied by Enbridge Energy partners, the majority stakeholders financing the North Dakota Pipeline.

Copyright: Carl Sack, Cartographer, 2016

It would appear that Energy Transfer Partner’s operating principles to work with individuals to “make accommodations and minimize disruptions” are not applicable when it comes to black or brown landowners. Riding the tailcoats of Trump’s certain lives matter campaign, the pipeline will continue America’s legacy of exploitation of the lands of Indian people.

The Sioux tribes’ complaint is both historical and philosophical. 

In the 1830’s, President Andrew Jackson ordered Native Americans in the South to leave their homelands and move to the Great Plains. After their eviction from the tribal lands they had occupied for the last 12,000 years, the white populace were invited to seize and settle at will. This careless removal policy serves like lunch money for a bully and has permitted the State to shunt indigenous people from region to region for the last 500 years. The Dakota Access Pipeline reveals how governmental lack of regard for indigenous culture remains intact.

Kayla DeVault, youth ambassador for indigenous matters for the White House, in her speech to the UN in November said “to be impoverished does not always equate to having no financial leverage. Hardships come in many forms“.

To truly understand Standing Rock and the integrity of the sacred land the pipeline threatens to destroy, it is necessary to try to glean a holistic understanding of Native Indian perspective.

DeVault describes their governing values of interdependence and connectedness; a religious bond to each other, the land, the four elements which build all life, the four seasons that govern time. Hardships are also felt in fours:

  1. To hear an orphan cry, as it was a terrible sound.
  2. To lose a child, an indescribable pain.
  3. To lose your mother.
  4. To not know where your warriors fell.
Sitting Bull (1885) – Standing Rock Sioux (Copyright: Creative Commons)

The Dakota Acess Pipeline comes into conflict with several of their guiding doctrines. It will rip into sacred burial lands, threaten the security of the local water supply and disrupt the wider health of the planet. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe belong to a culture that saw their ancestors culled from 16 million to 250,000. The desire to hang on to the remains of their ancient cultural heritage is not difficult to understand, and this ritual of remembering happens to be firmly embedded in their land.

The protesters, or Water Protectors as they prefer to be known, are being represented by Clan Chieftain, David Archambault:

“Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people. We have suffered much, but we still have hope that the President will act on his commitment to close the chapter of broken promises to our people and especially our children.”

The ability to hold on and create gardens out of rock is work indigenous communities have done for a very long time.

Of equal concern is the resurgence of guerrilla tactics used against peaceful and non-violent protestors. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department conjured the specter of 1960s racism as they blasted a crowd of 400 with a fire hose in freezing temperatures, shortly before the deployment of “non-lethal” concussion grenades and tear gas.

While the smooching of oil tycoons and government delegates is by no means a new phenomenon, Standing Rock demonstrates our inability to freely exercise our democratic right and protest major conglomerates and corporations; who, like it or not, are emerging as the real wielders of power in global affairs.

Whether it is the Black Lives Matter campaign or the Indian Sioux Tribe,this vicious suppression of democratic protesting contributes yet another page to America’s false narrative of social progress. With Donald Trump in the White House, these stand-offs are only likely to become more frequent.

We don’t need America or Britain to be “great” again, which is really just nostalgia for the lost epoch of Empire.

We need them to defend the rights of our peoples and animals that are on the verge of extinction rather than treating their communities as sacrificial zones for shortsighted American corporate interest. 

We need them to prove that the idea of State Protection doesn’t just apply to that which benefits the state: abortion, drug prohibition, rehabilitation.

And we as a global audience need to stop buying into media mythmaking about campaigns that only seek to improve the lives of communities that have always had to pay the price for American “prosperity”. This ludicrous narrative of white victimhood has enabled the transition of the far right from its shadowy spot on the margins, into the political center stage.

Despite popular belief and government action, we have much to learn from the Indian Sioux’s immensely successful way of life. As the West tiptoes towards chaos, we would do well to observe the Native Indian founding beliefs of balance and sharing, forces that create the harmony our world relies on.


For practical information on how you can help, click the link below.

10 Ways You Can Help The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Fight The Dakota Access Pipeline