A Victory for Repatriation

At its heart, repatriation is all about sovereignty. The Army Corps of Engineers’ December 5th decision to halt drilling at Oahe Lake is a recognition, albeit a belated one, of the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. For a time, the Missouri watershed that provides sustenance to thousands of people and an ecosystem supporting not only bison and prairie grasses—but also wheat, barley, oats and flax—has been repatriated to all who depend upon it. But, most importantly, the stretch of land that fronts Standing Rock, in dispute since the 1851 Laramie Treaty, is once again Indian Country.


Water Protectors celebrate the news of the Army’s decision.

Sadly, there are good reasons to doubt that this recognition of sovereignty will last.

The same state and federal policies that led to the standoff over the pathway of the Dakota Access Pipeline remain. As law professors Jen Hendry & Melissa Tatum point out,

Although the media has framed the dispute as one focused on property and treaty rights, it is vital to note that the issue at the core of this standoff goes much deeper – it is at its heart, a fundamental clash of cultural perspectives regarding the use and valuation of land. Each of the parties views the landscape through a different cultural lens. (Contested Spaces and Culural Blinders: Perspectives on the Dakota Access Pipeline) http://lcbackerblog.blogspot.com/2016/12/jen-hendry-melissa-tatum-contested.html

These fundamentally antagonistic views of land and its stewardship will not go away, in the parlance of Washington, “with the stroke of a pen.”

Just the other day on NPR, Steve Innskeep, host of “Morning Edition,” asked Congressman Kevin Cramer (R) of North Dakota whether the decision to halt construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe was the result of a last minute decision “to accommodate protesters.” Cramer responded,

Well, it was rerouted 141 times as the result of consultation with tribes just in North Dakota alone. This is the preferred route because, Steve, one of the stories that rarely gets told is that this is an energy corridor that it’s in. That’s why it was chosen. There’s a natural gas pipeline that already crosses the river there. There’s a high-voltage electric transmission line that crosses the river there. It’s by far the least intrusive, least imposing on – on people and cultural resources and waterways. So they can look at other routes again if they want, and they’ll find that any other route is far more imposing and intrusive and less environmentally friendly than this one.  http://www.npr.org/2016/12/05/504395577/north-dakota-congressman-addresses-pipeline-controversy

One of my co-workers heard this segment in her car on the way to work and asked me, why, if this was indeed the case, I was supporting the protesters.

My answer: Just because the area had once been declared an “energy corridor,” didn’t mean the locals didn’t have the right to draw the line somewhere, sometime. Maybe they were tired of being the throughway for all manner of toxic materials. Maybe the easements for the gas line and the electrical towers had taught them a lesson.

Then there was the fact that the Congressman was playing fast and loose with the notion that “tribes were consulted.” I told her about the Society of American Archaeologist’s letter of protest, written in September, which clearly challenged the congressman’s claim. (See “Archaeology and Activism”) http://www.the-repatriation-files.org/?p=1218 

I also cited a map of the proposed route of the pipeline that pre-dated these cursory “consultations:




The dotted line to the north was part of the original plan. It too crosses the Missouri. But, importantly, it skirts an urban area. That city, Bismark, is home to more than 75, 000 people. Its citizens, according to census data, is 92% self-identified “white.” The gray area to the south, where the pipeline is now, is 92% Native American.

But what precipitated the protest is not simply out and and out racism, although there is no doubt that race plays a big part in this controversy.   This is also a classic case of rural versus urban political power, and unlike the recent presidential election, rural voters were outgunned by the city dwellers.

It is also clear that the pipeline through the treaty lands was a rush job. The red lines show the section that was hurriedly constructed once the protests got organized, suggesting something less than the cautious consultation the NPR interviewee asserted. Moreover, the pipeline crews appear to have gone out of their way to damage sensitive cultural sites, detailed in the SAA’s letter, in full view of protesters on a Saturday afternoon, luring them into a confrontation with private security officers armed with attack dogs and mace. This occurred in the area outlined by a red rectangle just west of Lake Oahe.

Let’s be honest. The DAPL struggle is about taking advantage of Indians. Similar things have been going on since the reservations were set up in the nineteenth century.  Jen Hendry & Melissa Tatum are not alone is seeing clear parallels between the North Dakota protest and what occurred

at Black Mesa on the Navajo Nation, where the mining techniques used by Peabody Coal have caused significant and long-lasting damage to potable water supplies, not to mention the horrors at Tar Creek on the Quapaw reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. The waters of Tar Creek run a nuclear orange color, and contaminated chat piles present health hazards to the community, especially the children who climb and play on them. Indeed, Tar Creek is one of the oldest Superfund sites and is today still listed as “undergoing clean up” three decades after its listing.   http://lcbackerblog.blogspot.com/2016/12/jen-hendry-melissa-tatum-contested.html

If it isn’t racism, then it is flawed public policy, still beholden to an outdated belief in Manifest Destiny that ignores not only nineteenth-century treaty agreements, but also 20th-century trust law and universal environmental standards that apply to all Americans.

As early as the 1880s, Euro-American progressives recognized that much of federal Indian policy was directed by what they called an “Indian Ring”—a crony capitalist assemblage of Indian traders, investors, and politicians. In those days, it was furs, commodities, oil, and timber that lured “entrepreneurs.” Most of all, it was the land itself. Millions of acres of unspoiled land, “wasted” on Indians.

With a new man in the White House, a real estate developer and an investor in the pipeline project, it’s beginning to seem like deja vu all over again.

We’ll know soon enough. January 20, 2017 is just around the corner.




Leave a Reply