North Dakota has had an oil boom! In the US only Texas produces more oil. Nearly 10,000 wells are now operating, and that number could rise to nearly 50,000. The impact on the people living in North Dakota is ambiguous – but that’s a subject for a future post.
Recently the issue of how to get the oil to market has become salient. Currently rail and truck transport are the means of getting the oil to refineries, but that’s expensive – and of course burns oil in the process. The logical and seemingly compelling solution is to build a pipeline. Let the oil flow from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois, where it can connect with existing pipelines. Its capacity will be nearly 600,000 barrels of oil a day.
On the surface, it seems like a great plan. Using less energy to get oil to refineries is good for the environment, jobs will be created, and it’ll help the US economy. There are pipelines all over the world for oil – who’d be upset with one zipping through the relatively barren Dakotas?
The most vocal opposition to the pipeline comes from the local Sioux, whose land is being traversed by the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has brought a law suit to halt construction of part of the pipeline, and on September 6th a judge asked the company to cease until a court could come up with a ruling.
The protest has been met by efforts to intimidate the protesters, who are mostly Sioux, but who have had some celebrity support. One day dogs were used to try to force the protesters to scatter. The company building the pipeline is annoyed by the protests, viewing it as a bizarre Indian reaction to a very profitable economic activity.
There are two specific reasons for the protest. One is that the pipeline will traverse sacred lands, including burial grounds that federal law already tries to protect. The other is that the pipeline passes under the Missouri river at Lake Oahe, up about a mile from the reservation boundary. If there were some kind of spill or problem, it could be both a cultural and economic disaster for the Sioux. Indeed, in 2014 when the House of Representatives voted for the Keystone XL pipeline, the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota declared it an act of war.
The water concerns are real; the Dakotas rely the Missouri and Lake Oahe and a pipeline disaster would devastate more than just the Sioux. But for me, the issue goes deeper. Seeing the violence against protesters, and the disdain the pipeline company and its supporters have for the Sioux recalls a shameful portion of US history: our low tech holocaust of the native tribes that lived here for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
I grew up in South Dakota. As a kid I learned the stereotypes. Drunken Indians, lazy, taking government hand outs but not doing anything to better their situation. “If they’d just move off the reservation and join the world, they’d do more for their children,” people would say. “The past is gone, they have to let it go.”
Yeah, would you say that to a Jewish person remembering the holocaust?
Consider the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. It sought to bring peace with the natives by giving them a large, viable reservation that included the Black Hills of South Dakota, a land scared to the Sioux. In 1876 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, in 1877 the US seized the land, violating the treaty. In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty had been violated, awarding the Lakota Sioux $105 million – the value of the land and 5% interest for each year it was held. The tribe refused the money, saying they wanted the land back.
While a romanticized image of the Lakota Sioux or any tribe would be a mistake, they had a sustainable and predominately peaceful life style, living in partnership with nature rather than trying to control everything. Their systems of government were based on tradition and consensus, rather than power and control. Their notion of property rights was collective, rather than individual at base.
Yet now in 2016 the reservations remain intensely impoverished. I drove with my two sons through the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota when they were 8 and 6, to show them the reality. They were shocked by the poverty. “Why do they live like this,” the eldest asked. “They lost a war,” I replied.
“Who did they lose a war to?” I paused. “The Americans.” My youngest son said, “What – that’s us!!”
I explained it was long ago, but sad that the people defeated so we could have this country are so disrespected and ignored. True – the treaties allow them to control life on the reservation, getting federal money for support. That’s why so many blame the Indians – they have become dependent on government funds, with high levels of alcoholism and unemployment.
But the reservations were purposely chosen because the land wasn’t as good for farming, operating as a kind of American apartheid for a long time. Yes, the current system isn’t working, but the answer can’t just be to say “forget the past: forget your culture and heritage.” To me this is another case of disrespect and disregard for the people whose land was stolen and culture all but destroyed.
I don’t know how to solve the larger problems of life on the res, but a first step could be to treat the protesters with respect. Take seriously the importance of sacred lands. Build a partnership rather than simply seeing them as annoying people who happen to live on land that can yield a very profitable pipeline.
I get that the powers that be will never let a group of Sioux stop a project like this; too much money is on the line. But even if it costs more money and requires more time, they should do everything they can to avoid endangering the water supply and threatening sacred lands of a people who have had almost everything else taken. So for now, I stand with the protesters, at least in spirit.