MANDAN, N.D. - North Dakota has fierce and endless winters. The great pipeline controversy unfolding on the boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is about to face its greatest test. Will the encampment of at times nearly 7,000 individuals be able to persevere against the boisterous winds and subzero temperatures that make even Dakotans shudder?
I believe it will. The encampment is a broad coalition of true believers who want Native Americans to win this century's docket of conflicts with the white Europeans who snatched the continent away from them, and, more broadly, of those who believe that any further advance of the military-industrial-petroleum complex will destroy the planet Earth. People from all over the world are hoping that the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy is the beginning of a pan-Indian renaissance (part Woodstock, part Lexington and Concord). In the centuries to follow, I believe the events now unfolding in southern North Dakota will be remembered as one of the pivotal moments in American history.
The Sioux would have preferred to make this controversy about tribal sovereignty. They have been joined, and in many respects, overwhelmed by the anti-carbon brigades from all over the world. My greatest concern is that the urgently-needed national debate about Native American sovereignty - what it is, what it means, what it permits, what it prevents - is being buried under a larger and (to my mind) distracting debate about our national addiction to oil, coal, and natural gas. Frankly, I wish that debate would find a different venue. The sanctity of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and its people deserves to be the focus of this unprecedented moment in North Dakota history.
The protest is getting far more support nationally and internationally than it is on the northern Great Plains. The "enlightenment" coalition - consisting of liberals, bleeding hearts, environmentalists, anti-capitalists and advocates of the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide - automatically sides with the Indians, assuming they must be in the right, even if their legal argument is weak. In other words, at this point in the history of White-Indian relations in the United States, the default position of people of a progressive outlook is that if only because the rights and sovereignty of Native Americans have been trampled upon for hundreds of years, they deserve to win today's resource, land claims, and sovereignty battles.
In the eyes of this loose national and international coalition, the state of North Dakota has mishandled the crisis from the beginning: closing the road to the reservation (and the casino), stationing imposing lines of law enforcement officials in riot gear, denouncing the protesters, employing pepper spray, politicians pontificating about "law and order," "the sanctity of property," "the rule of law," meanwhile standing by while the pipeline company uses slathering guard dogs to drive unarmed Indians away from the site. Even many North Dakotans have cringed at what appears to be an excessive show of force along the pipeline route and near the encampment south of Mandan.
In the eyes of some critics, North Dakota's response has seemed like an episode of Keystone Cops. In the eyes of others, it feels like an ugly echo of the Washita, Sand Creek, and perhaps even Wounded Knee.
Generally speaking, sympathy for the Indians diminishes the closer one gets to Cannon Ball and Fort Yates. The people of North Dakota are, on the whole, skeptical of the Sioux (Lakota) claims, partly on what they regard as the merits of the case, partly because of a broader indifference to Indian rights and sovereignty. Many North Dakotans argue, for example, that the Standing Rock tribe should have been at the bargaining table much earlier in the pipeline siting process and that the absence of tribal representation when it might have made a material difference discredits their "grandstanding" eleventh-hour protest.
Many North Dakotans believe that since the pipeline is being located off of the reservation, no matter how close, the Standing Rock Sioux have no legitimate grievance. Many North Dakotans find trespass distasteful, property damage unacceptable, and the maiming or killing of live animals owned by nearby ranchers so appalling that such depredations immediately discredit the whole protest movement. Frankly, now that this crisis has forced us to think about Indians for a change, a large number of North Dakotans wonder, a little under their breath, why we need Indian reservations at all in the twenty-first century, and - shaking their heads in seeming sympathy - wonder why Indians cannot "get over it" and "get on board with the American dream."
An historical perspective cuts both ways in this story, but ultimately it does not bode well for the Standing Rock Nation. When the great Sioux Treaty of 1868 was signed, what was left of the Sioux homeland (all of western South Dakota, including the Black Hills, plus that portion of the reservation now in North Dakota, and hunting rights well into Wyoming and Montana) was guaranteed to the Lakota people forever. That solemn treaty stipulated that it would require fully three-fourths of all adult males in the tribe to sign away any further territory. That supermajority could never have been formulated back then, even with the help of lying interpreters, trinket and wagon loads of adulterated whiskey, and it certainly could not be achieved now that American Indians have had time to get up to speed with white man's laws, politics, and negotiating strategy. The simple truth is that much of the former Sioux nation was simply stolen from them in direct violation of the 1868 treaty (which had the force of Constitutional law), and in a grave spiritual violation of the Northwest Ordinance's insistence that "the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent." The Oglala leader Red Cloud famously said, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one: They promised to take our land and they took it."
In other words, history suggests that justice is on the side of the Lakota, and that to argue that the pipeline is being located "off the reservation" is in some respects a problematic assertion.
On the other hand, the history of White-Indian relations suggests that, in the end, the historic conquerors are likely to get (and take) what they want, and Indians, as usual, are going to have to lump it.