History Repeats Itself: Standing Rock Protests

As the bulldozers peeled grass and soil from the Dakota prairie on Oct. 24, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s peaceful protest heated up. After crossing onto private property to prevent the construction of the North Dakota Pipeline, 167 people were arrested. The lack of national coverage of the protest is unnerving. Maybe the historical normalcy of land-use tension between Native Americans and western settlers renders the protest not worthy of mainstream news coverage, or maybe the Presidential election is dominating the news cycle. Whatever the reason, the absence of coverage for the Standing Rock protests suggests a cultural apathy for the subject. In order to resolve the conflict in southwestern North Dakota, the historical significance as well as the ecological concerns of pipeline protest must be acknowledged.

Upon completion, the North Dakota pipeline would be 1,172 miles long and transport crude oil from the Bakken to refineries in Illinois. Proponents of the Dakota pipeline believe the pipeline could improve the U.S. economy and decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is concerned because the pipeline’s path is due to cross sacred sites and burial places, including the Mississippi River. Although there are currently eight pipelines that transport fuel across the massive river daily, the pipeline protesters worry that another pipeline crossing would increase the chance of a leakage. If a leak occurred it would contaminate the water and deteriorate an important ecosystem. Although the possible economic benefits are great, the possible ecological and cultural damage caused by the pipeline are far more significant.

Footage of the escalating violence surrounding the pipeline protest looks like a horrible reenactment of the battle scenes between Native Americans and the U.S. Army in the 19th century period film “Little Big Man.” Native Americans are pushed to the ground by white men. Horses spook at barking dogs and dust flies from the ensuing chaos. The only difference is the huge bulldozers and disgruntled men with pepper spray in the background of the protest video. It is unfortunate and irresponsible that the protests have turned violent. However, the conflict is too reminiscent of the Native American versus U.S. Army face-offs that occurred only two centuries ago to be ignored. The tensions we see today have been created from the hierarchy of values established back then, with economic gains taking precedence over Native American culture and conservation.

The Standing Rock Sioux protesters have gained support from many Native American tribes all over the country as well as international indigenous groups. Nationally, Black Lives Matter sent representatives to initial protests back in September, comparing the contamination of the Mississippi River if the pipeline were to break to the situation with the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Even the Department of Justice acknowledges the points raised by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and would like to the pipeline’s route to be reconsidered. Some 267,000 supporters signed an online petition against the construction of the pipeline. The immensity of the protest must be acknowledged, especially as the intensity increases and the manifestations have turned violent.

Dave Archambault II, the tribal chairmen for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, summarizes the historical injustice manifested by the protest. “What we’re opposed to is paying for all the benefits that this country receives. Whenever there’s a benefit, whether it’s energy independence … whether it’s economic development, tribes pay the cost. And what we see now are tribes from all over sharing the same concern that we have, saying, ‘It’s enough now. Stop doing this to indigenous people. Stop doing this to our indigenous lands.’” Acknowledging the significance of the protest means taking into account some 200 years of territorial tension between Native Americans and Anglo settlers. It also means respecting contemporary ecological interests as well as properly valuing Native American culture. Without respecting the historic roots of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protests, as well as contemporary ecological issues, no appropriate resolution can be reached.