The Injustice at Standing Rock Is an American Story
This morning, politics is crowded out by injustice.
Every preposterous and painful image from North Dakota is another reminder of injustice: The massive military-style police occupation of Standing Rock treaty lands, the rush to protect the frantic construction schedule for the Dakota Access pipeline, and the brutal law enforcement march against people who are fighting for the simple idea that water is life.
I’m angry. How shall I say this without ranting? Tell stories.
Last January, when a gang of gun-toting, Constitution mis-quoting, anti-government militia occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon the reaction from federal law enforcement was patience. Days went by. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (sounding very North Dakota-like) urged the federal government to crack down on “the radicals” before more arrived.
The lands involved were Paiute lands. Months ago, Jarvis Kennedy, a Burns Paiute Tribal Council member, asked: “What if it was a bunch of Natives who went in there and took it?”
We now know. And back in Oregon a few days ago, a jury found the Bundy gang not guilty.
Stories to tell. Injustice.
Since the beginning of the Standing Rock crisis there has been a call for President Obama to get involved. After all, there is a clear federal issue: The Oceti Sakowin Camp is on treaty land now claimed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
And President Obama has a direct emotional connection with this tribe and this place:
“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved. So I promised when I ran to be a president who’d change that, a president who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty, and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership, in mutual respect, to give our children the future that they deserve.”
How could he have done that? Mutual respect could have, should have, started with a federal presence that made talking more important than acting. The action at Standing Rock is not over. But the federal government’s absence is not productive.
Indeed, if you listen to any politician, Democrat or Republican, you’ll hear them talk about respect for the treaties. Of course. The Constitution says treaties “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The word “shall” is like a commandment. But if that’s true, then how does any treaty tribe have less land than what’s in the document? Legally, morally, a treaty trumps a congressional act or an executive order. A treaty claim to the land is not preposterous.
If the United States lived up to its own ideals, there would be no stolen water, land, and dams on the Missouri River, and the Army Corps of Engineers would have a long history of real negotiation with the tribes instead of a pretend consultation.
Then every tribe in the country has its own Standing Rock story.
Often several stories. Vacant lumber mills that promised jobs but left behind toxic debris. Phosphate clean-up plans that were too expensive, so the waste is buried instead. Or 3 million gallons of heavy metal sludge released by the government into the Animas River where water flowed into Navajo farms and communities.
Stories to tell. Injustice.
There have been calls to get the presidential candidates involved. To visit. To see for themselves the love of the land, the water, and how this moment has brought Indian Country together.
Donald Trump wouldn’t be much help. He’s in the same boat as most of the politicians in North Dakota. They hope to profit from this pipeline project and a future where oil remains more important than water. “Trump’s financial disclosure forms show the Republican nominee has between $500,000 and $1 million invested in Energy Transfer Partners, with a further $500,000 to $1 million holding in Phillips 66, which will have a 25% stake in the Dakota Access project once completed, The Guardian reported.
And Hillary Clinton? We know from the WikiLeaks that she was inclined to approve Keystone XL pipeline but then flipped because there was so much attention on her email server. It was a way to change the story. Or so the campaign hoped.
Then election season is a terrible time to actually engage in public policy. Campaigns should be talking about issues and what they might do. But not when that decision is influenced by money, large voting blocs, and an intense election schedule. Eleven days out, a campaign is more worried about winning the election than anything else. Period.
I’ll be polite: The statement by Hillary Clinton on Standing Rock was awful.
The second I read it my heart dropped. I can see this being crafted at a table where folks weighed in from a variety of constituent groups and the writing was designed to not offend. “Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects. Now, all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest. As that happens, it’s important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators’ rights to protest peacefully, and workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.”
So in the spirit of reconciliation, Energy Transfer Partners put out its own statement: “All trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and removed from the land.”
There is a schedule to keep. Investors have been promised the pipeline will flow with oil soon. No matter what. Another story to tell. Injustice.
This article was originally published at Trahant Reports. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.
Mark Trahant is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Trahant leads the Indigenous Economics Project, a comprehensive look at Indigenous economics, including market-based initiatives. Trahant is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and has written about American Indian and Alaska Native issues for more than three decades. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held endowed chairs at the University of North Dakota and University of Alaska Anchorage, and has worked as a journalist since 1976. Trahant is a YES! contributing editor.