I was at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, during the Thanksgiving holiday supporting Indigenous Peoples, the Water Protectors, from over 300 tribes and their allies from around the world. Thousands of people, with 2,000 veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan about to join them. Their aim is to stop Sunoco Logistics and its Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing Standing Rock ancestral lands and drilling beneath the Missouri River.
I came away with the belief that what is happening at Standing Rock is an existential confrontation between two opposing world views. One is represented by the Indigenous Water Protectors and their allies who believe our future depends on respecting the land and water on which human life depends. The people on the front lines are very brave. They stand, carrying their banners, chanting, and praying with arms reaching toward the sky. They are unarmed as they face the Morton County Police. They have all been trained in non-violent civil disobedience. No weapons of any kind. And no drugs or alcohol are allowed in the camps.
The aggressor side, with militarized police defending their interests, is represented by those who insist on unfettered extraction of non-renewable fossil fuels no matter the consequences. Greed versus a habitable planet.
Because of where we find ourselves at this precarious moment in history, with the reality of climate change close to its tipping point, if the short-term, profit-oriented view is allowed to prevail, it could actually spell the end of human life as we know it.
The other view looks long-term, to the future and holds the potential for salvation — ours and the Earth’s. This is the existential crossroad. The choice is ours to make and it must be done quickly.
Extraction and transportation of oil and gas is a dirty business. According to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, since 2010 there have been oil spills in the U.S. amounting to more than 7 million gallons of crude.
But within that dirty business, the vast network of pipelines operated by Sunoco Logistics (which recently announced intentions to buy Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the pipeline), holds the record. It has leaked more than 200 times since 2010, making it the company with the worst spill record in the US, according to a Reuters analysis of government data.
The National Lawyers Guild details Energy Transfer Partners' “long history of violations of environmental laws including pending lawsuits by the states of New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the City of Breau Bridge in Louisiana over contamination of groundwater, as well as citations for releases of hazardous materials from its pipelines and facilities in Ohio, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii.” When questioned about this by PBS News, Energy Transfer Partner’s CEO Kelcy Warren’s response was that the company “is doing the very best we can.”
Is this who we want to cross sacred burial lands and drill under the Missouri on whose water millions of people depend?
It is no coincidence that Energy Transfer Partner (ETP) and its poor environmental record is complemented by egregious treatment of communities impacted by its operations. The company has leveraged its close ties with North Dakota’s oil-saturated political establishment to secure itself impunity for gross human rights violations against peaceful water protectors. The Morton County police’s first response to the blockade was to arrest the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman. Their tactics have escalated from attack dogs and pepper spray to mace, rubber bullets and water cannons in freezing temperatures. Several days ago, a young woman’s arm had to be amputated after being hit with a concussion grenade (the account has been disputed). All this in the name of “maintaining law and order,” which is ironic since the ones breaking the law are the police themselves.
False information is broadcast to justify their brutal tactics. Journalists are intimidated and censored. Meanwhile, ETP is defying the federal government’s request to halt construction and seems intent on strong-arming the pipeline forward—with or without the easement.
The Indigenous Peoples who are defending the lands and water are descendants of cultures with powerful identities stretching back for centuries, long before white European settlers arrived. They had alphabets. A deep matrilineal tradition of communalism existed in tribal villages where people worked their lands in the presence of their ancestors’ graves, in harmony with the natural world, believing the land and water belong to everyone, considering the earth their mother and that they are connected to the stars, part of a seamless web of life.
This Indigenous attitude was in fundamental opposition to that of the settlers who believed in a western-oriented commercial economy, private property, the concept of individualism and materialism, the principles of man against nature… and I do mean man.
In 1851 an official report of the Interior Secretary said "to tame a savage you must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property, and the benefits of its separate ownership. You must appeal to those selfish principles implanted by Divine Providence in the nature of man for the wisest of purposes, and make them minister to civilization and refinement....and they should be taught to look forward to the day when they may be elevated to the dignity of American citizenship..."
To ensure their worldview was victorious, the colonizers imposed forced marches during which countless First Americans lost their lives. Great tribal nations were uprooted from their ancestral lands and deported to reservations. Smallpox-infected blankets were given to native peoples, wiping out entire tribes.
The immense herds of Great Plains Bison, which tribes relied on for food, clothing and shelter, were killed off. The number of bison dropped from over 50 million to fewer than 800.
According to David Helvarg's The War Against the Greens, 200 major battles were fought between 1600 and 1890. Nearly 400 treaties were negotiated, almost none of them honored by the US. Sixty percent of the land supposedly designated for Indians ended up being owned by whites.
Robbed of their lands, their hunting grounds, their central means of subsistence, their cultural basis of life, a sizable portion of Indigenous Peoples were ultimately forced to adopt the way of the white colonizers on whom they became dependent for food, supplies, shelter, entirely losing their self-reliance.
We have witnessed the sad results as Indigenous Peoples left their reservations and tried to assimilate, moving into cities to find work and education. But they bore the deep, traumatic wounds of colonization and too many turned to drugs and spirits to fill the emptiness once inhabited by the Spirit. Generations of men and women lost their traditional ceremonies, songs, even their native languages.
I met Alayna Eagle Shield at Standing Rock. She and her children have learned to speak their native Lakota. Alayna’s father never spoke Lakota to her because when he was a child, like tens of thousands of other Native youth, he was removed from his family and put into a government-run boarding school. The children's braids were cut off, their traditional clothes were thrown into a bonfire while they watched and they were prohibited by federal law from speaking their native languages or practicing their traditional ceremonies. Generations of Indigenous Peoples grew up ashamed of who they were. As Alayna's father heard his daughter speak fluently with her own children, he began to speak it himself and, as he reclaimed his language he began to reclaim himself.
Guided by the true tribal elders who refused to give up their ways, there has been a return to traditional language, prayer and ceremonies in many parts of Indian Country. It has grown slowly and, as with Alayna’s family, is often lead by the younger generations.
Some say this movement began during the occupation of the former prison Island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay from November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971. Young Indian students from the Bay Area were the first occupiers. When I went to witness the occupation for myself in June, 1970, elders from different tribes had joined them. The late Wilma Mankiller was a young woman on Alcatraz when she first met the great Thomas Banyacya, the traditional elder chosen by the Hopi Tribe as an interpreter of Hopi prophecies which have long warned of threats to the natural balance of the earth and its creatures. Wilma later told me that this encounter changed her life. She went on to become the very powerful first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
In the ‘70s, the newly inspired youth carried their desire to reclaim their traditional ways to tribes throughout Indian Country. They began to see that often, through prayer and ceremony, people could begin to heal, to get clean and sober.
It has been 45 years since the Occupation of Alcatraz. At Standing Rock we are witnessing the flowering of the seeds that were planted there and, again, it is the youth who seem to be leading the way.
At Standing Rock, it is the youth who decided the focus needed to be on water. “Water is Life” was their chant, their slogan, as a number of them bravely ran from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C. to carry the message to the President and our elected officials. The astonishing courage of their run was what first brought public attention to the impending crisis in Standing Rock. One of the runners was a 6-year-old girl who spoke proudly and fiercely on the steps of the nation’s capitol.
Oceti Sakowin is the largest camp. The name means the “7 Sacred Council Fires.” The Lakota are part of a confederation of seven related Sioux tribes which once lived across the vast plains of North America. Over time, the U.S. government took more and more Sioux land breaking up the reservation into smaller ones such as Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Standing Rock. What is happening at Standing Rock is historic. This is the first time since Little Big Horn in 1876 that Oceti Sakowin have come together in peace as one family. As I walked through the camp I heard Lakota prayers, saw the ceremonial fires burning, the sweat lodges where people go regularly to pray. I saw people treating each other with kindness, helping each other to chop and share firewood, food, clothing and shelter. I have never been hugged so much in my life.
We must do all we can to make sure the Water Protectors are victorious. These are people fighting not simply against their oppressors but also for the earth and all its creatures including us. If we can do this it will represent an historic turning point. There are immediate things we can do. For one, help children with school supplies. Or support the International indigenous youth council. Or fund self-reporting from within the camps.
Then there are the longer-term things that need to happen. We have to look into the deepest parts of ourselves and ask ourselves are we trying to become the kind of people who will do what we know in the best parts of ourselves, is the right thing to do, not for ourselves alone but for the children's future, for the polar bears’, the whales, the guerillas and chimps and orangutans, the bees, the coral reefs, the songbirds’ future. We are all interconnected, interdependent, but the fabric of our common tapestry is starting to unravel.
The great hero of Standing Rock, Chief Sitting Bull, understood the white invaders when he said in 1877 "… the love of possession is a disease with them.” We must rapidly cure ourselves of this disease or it will take us all down.