Thursday, December 8, 2016

Standing up for the Standing Rock tribe

Supporters from across the county gather in North Dakota to support tribal rights and oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Part of the main camp, which on Thanksgiving weekend swelled to well over 5,000 people.
Note: This opinon was published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant the easement needed for the pipline to cross just north of the Standing Rock reservation. The opinion explains the underlying issues behind the protests and their historic importance.

Cannon Ball, ND —Authorities are threatening to evict the thousands of people camping north of Cannon Ball, ND and protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s impossible to predict how events will unfold.

But the fundamental issues have not changed. They explain why people from across the country are willing to brave not only the winter cold of the Dakota plains, but also possible confrontations with police.

The camp’s protests, which began in mid-August and are led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, focus on a proposed 1,170-mile, $3.7 billion pipeline that will carry an estimated 470,000 barrels of oil a day from the fields of North Dakota.

The encampment of water protectors, as the protesters prefer to be called, has spawned the most important coming together of native tribes in the history of North America. The encampment is also the largest and most sustained such event in recent memory, dwarfing actions such as Occupy Wall Street.

And with good reason.

The Standing Rock Sioux argue that the pipeline crosses through treaty lands and would desecrate sacred burial grounds and cultural sites. What’s more, if the pipeline were to leak as it crosses under the Missouri River just north of the reservation, the water supply would be contaminated for the Standing Rock Sioux and for millions of people downstream.

“Water is life” — the encampment’s overarching theme — is not just a catchy slogan. It recognizes the fundamental reality that human beings cannot survive without water. “There are alternatives to oil, but drinking water is essential to life on this planet,” notes Kandi Mossett, of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The protest also signals an unprecedented convergence of native peoples, environmental activists and concerned citizens spurred into action by the November elections. It is a powerful model for cross-issue organizing in the era of Trump and climate-change denial.

Finally, the Standing Rock struggle must be seen in its historical context. It is the latest manifestation of a centuries-long struggle for tribal sovereignty in the face of federal troops driving out native peoples and opening their lands to white settlers and profiteers. In the 19th Century, the cavalry led the charge. Today, it is law enforcement agencies.

My husband Bob Peterson and I spent five days during Thanksgiving week at the main encampment, The Oceti Sakowin Camp, about 40 miles south of

One of four separate protests on Thanksgiving Day, this one on the highway just outside the main camp.

Bismarck. By the time we packed our tent the encampment had grown to well over 5,000 people.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now threatens to evict the Oceti Sakowin Camp. The Corps legally oversees the land of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. It is also the authority that must grant permission for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri. [Update: Sunday afternoon, Dec. 4, the Corps announced it would not grant the easement needed for the pipeline to cross under the Missouri, and called for an environmental impact statement to look at possible alternative routes.]

Bruce LaMere, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lives in
Tomahawk, Wis. He is holding the Ho-Chunk flag.  
I worry for the many people we met at the camp. They are not just nameless, faceless protesters. They are human beings with whom I had eaten, shared stories, and laughed together at the absurd turn of events in this country.

I think of Cameron McCluggage, a 23-year-old student from Colorado Springs who works summers in charter fishing in Door County.  Or “Screwdriver,” an Ojibwe who was camped out in the moose-hunting tent he uses back home in Canada. Or the seven middle and high-school teachers from Denver who came over their Thanksgiving break because, as one put it, “We need to be an example to our students.”

Or Tracey Heilman, a 53-year-old United Church of Christ minister from Montana, who came with her 
husband and 15-year-old daughter. Or Bill Washburn, a retired high school principal from Albany, NY. Or Mark Parow, a 52-year-old web marketer from Jacksonville, Florida, who filled his van with food and drove four days to help feed people because, he said, “I saw elders and medics getting sprayed with tear gas and I knew I had to do something.” Or Betty Archambault, a long-time Lakota educator who runs a Montessori school at the camp.

I worry about them.

Media coverage on Standing Rock has focused on confrontations with police. The seeming neutrality as to who’s behind the violence is an injustice to the water protectors.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp is a living organism of thousands of people, constantly evolving. Yes, there may be a few hot-heads who, in the face of police violence, hurl a rock or throw back a tear gas canister. But spend any time at the encampment and it is clear that, above all, tribal leaders and organizers stress non-violence, prayer and peaceful resistance. In fact, the Standing Rock protests are perhaps the clearest example since the Civil Rights Movement of non-violent civil disobedience.

A protester at an action in
downtown Bismarck on Nov. 21.
The police at Standing Rock, meanwhile, are a disturbing example of the militarization of law enforcement, acting as if the broad range of American people represented at the camp are an enemy to be subdued and defeated.

The authorities promise they will not use force in any eviction. But can one believe them? During a recent protest, police used percussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against unarmed protesters in sub-zero temperatures — all but ensuring cases of hypothermia, with the closest hospital more than an hour’s drive away.

Shortly before Bob and I left for Standing Rock, I re-read Dee Brown’s classic history of the West, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a painful account of theft, slaughter and broken promises.

The book ends with Wounded Knee in South Dakota, where 120 Lakota men and 230 women and children had surrendered and were being disarmed in December 1890. (The Lakota at Standing Rock, like the Lakota at Wounded Knee, are part of the Great Sioux Nation.)

No one knows exactly what happened at Wounded Knee 126 years ago. But a shot was fired, most likely by a deaf member of the tribe who may or may not have understood the military’s commands. After hearing a shot, U.S. troops indiscriminately fired into the crowd.

A banner at the Oceti Sakowin camp.
“Final estimate places the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women and children,” Brown writes. “The soldiers lost twenty-five dead and thirty-nine wounded, most of them struck by their own bullets or shrapnel.”

The Wounded Knee massacre marks the end of the U.S. military conquest of the West. It is burned into the memory of all native peoples.

Today, Standing Rock, like Wounded Knee, is a watershed in relations between native peoples and white authorities. The outcome is uncertain.

While at Standing Rock, Bob and I rode with Dave Archambault Sr. of the Standing Rock Sioux as he drove into Bismarck to try to gain access to documents on the pipeline’s specs. One point, in particular, stands out from that hour-long conversation:  “There’s only thing we truly have on our side,” he said. “And that’s the protests and public opinion.”

Tribal leaders are asking people to demand that that the Obama Administration rescind all permits, deny the easement needed for the pipeline to cross the Missouri, and order a full Environmental Impact Statement in consultation with tribal governments.

In the near future, news will likely focus on possible evictions. But even if the encampment is removed, people will not leave. They will simply move to the nearby Standing Rock reservation.

For people across the country, the essential question will remain: What side of history will you stand on?

A common banner at the Oceti Sakowin camp.

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