Thursday, October 27, 2016

Standing Rock protest by the Sioux and their supporters: an effort to break from a long, sad history

(Famed 19th Century Sioux Indian Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed at Standing Rock in 1890)

The Dakotas lie outside the U.S. South, but the struggles of indigenous people such as the Sioux have parallels throughout the Global South.

In the 1934 Warner Brothers film Massacre, Joe Thunder Horse (played by Richard Barthelmess) tries to navigate the white majority world by playing an Indian in a Wild West show. After reconnecting with his Indian heritage and seeing the depth of injustice whites have done to that heritage and his people, he goes to Washington, D.C., to plead with the Indian Affairs Commissioner to do something about it.

“Every move I make is blocked by the same organized groups that have been bleeding the Indians for years,” the commissioner tells him. “Water power, oil rights, cattle ranges, timber—whatever the Indian happens to own, they manage to get it away from him. They control public opinion and legislation, and they’ve got me hog-tied.”

The same could be said today as American Indians from across the nation join in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Indians along the North and South Dakota border to protest plans by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners to build the so-called Dakota Access pipeline, part of which would be on Sioux land and under the Missouri River. The river is the tribe’s only source of water.

Tribal leaders say the pipeline seriously threatens the water supply on the reservation and could destroy ancestral lands considered sacred. In taking their stand, they and hundreds of their supporters have created the largest joint effort by American Indians in the nation’s history.

Company officials insist the Indians’ concerns have no foundation and that they have met with tribal representatives numerous times over the issue as well as provided the U.S. Corps of Engineers—which owns the land and approved the pipeline—with extensive data backing their claims. They say the pipeline meets and exceeds existing safety standards.

A federal judge denied a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to stop construction on the pipeline, but the Obama Administration proceeded with temporarily shutting down the part of the project that was a half-mile from the reservation.

The protest has led to dozens of arrests, including the filing of trespassing and riot charges against Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman for filming a confrontation between Indians and the pipeline security officers. These confrontations have included the pepper-spraying of protesters and unleashed dogs lunging at them. The charges against Goodman were later dropped.

The dispute has gotten minimal attention from the mainstream media—no big surprise there—even during a presidential election when it would be interesting to hear the candidates’ positions.

It’s the latest chapter in the long, sad history of American Indians in this country. Four years ago, New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof traveled to the Sioux Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and called it “the poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West.”

Kristof said Census data showed that Shannon County there had the lowest per capita income in the nation in 2010 and that several other counties that included Sioux reservations were among the nation’s poorest. The jobless rate in Pine Ridge was 70 percent, 50 percent of the over-40 population suffered from diabetes, and as much as two-thirds of the adult population were alcoholics. Tuberculosis was rampant—eight times the national rate—and life expectancy was under 50 years of age.

The Pine Ridge reservation includes Wounded Knee, the village where the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered Chief Big Foot’s band in 1890, the last of the 19th century battles between U.S. military and American Indians.  Famous Sioux Chief Sitting Bull was killed at Standing Rock that same year in a shooting melee related to government efforts to crack down on the so-called "Ghost Dance" movement. The Ghost Dance was a mystical ceremony Native Americans performed to rid their land of the white man.

Maybe it’s better if the mainstream media stay away from Standing Rock. When they do come, they tend to treat American Indian issues like a John Wayne movie, such as the coverage by many news organizations of the Wounded Knee protest and hostage crisis on the Pine Ridge reservation back in 1973,  the Navaho-Hopi land dispute near the Grand Canyon 10 years later, and the so-called “Navaho flu” health crisis in New Mexico in 1993.

“I feel a sadness for the white man,” American Indian Movement leader Russell Means once said. “He has no roots. No foundations.”

And too often, the white man, in his greed, attacks those who do have roots and foundations but stand in the white man’s way.

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