With winter setting in, government actions at Standing Rock follow a long history of betrayal.
Already, before I even start typing, I know that the title for this article has made some people angry. To say that America is not great is, in the minds of some, a statement bordering on treason. I disagree with that point of view. America, as a country, has always had its shortcomings. We try desperately to cover them up with revisionist history that glosses over things such as the Japanese internment camps during World War II or the blind eye the government turned to Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South. The United States, like every other country on the planet, has had to find its way through the various aspects of civil rights and, like every other country on the planet, we have too often failed. In fact, we are failing right now at this very moment.
I’ve hesitated to take on the issue of what is happening at Standing Rock. Protests such as this one are not new and, typically, the native people are thoroughly overrun, again, by law enforcement. When this situation first began, I fully expected that to be the outcome. As a nation, the needs and mistreatment of native peoples has been ignored so frequently that I expect that trend to continue. While there was a flicker of hope that President Obama might actually take decisive action in support of the tribes, which would make him the first US President to do so, he didn’t. Like every other goddamn president before him, he caved to other interests.
Now, with winter setting in, the first snow having dumped six inches of cold on the Dakota plains, the US Army Corp of Engineers has set December 5 as a deadline for all protesters, both native and not, to leave the area. At the same time, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered an “emergency evacuation” of the land, attempting to hide behind the weather, claiming that the evacuation order was to protect the health and safety of the protesters. Time to speak up.
First, The Backstory
I have a personal connection here. I don’t mention it often because I was taught to avoid drawing the attention. My maternal Grandmother’s family were Bucks, an old Cherokee family that could trace its lineage long before their forced removal from Georgia by Andrew Jackson. My ancestors walked that trail. Two children were lost along the way. They arrived in what is now Oklahoma and established a home only to have that taken away from them as well.
My Grandmother died when I was only six months old. However, I had Uncle Lawrence, “Windy” Buck to tell the stories and the family history. There were times when it was difficult to tell whether Uncle Windy was exactly telling the truth or not. As I got older, though, we started checking out his claims and found the majority of them to be accurate.
One of the matters about which Uncle Windy was most adamant about was not registering as a tribal member. “Cherokees are fools to trust the government,” he said. “They’ve already betrayed us more times than we can count. They’ve already gone back on every treaty they ever signed. Trust me, the only reason they want your name on tribal rolls is so they can round us all up again. Whatever you do, never trust a deal with the government.”
We didn’t. While our relationship with the tribe was close, especially while we lived just outside Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capitol of the Western band of Cherokee, Mother was as adamant as Uncle Windy about not signing up for anything. We turned down scholarships and other advantages out of the fear that being associated too closely would eventually bring government interference.
During the 1973 AIM incident at Wounded Knee, the fear my Mother felt was palpable. “They’ll kill all of them and not think twice about it,” she worried. “They’ll kill them then come for the rest of us.” Fortunately, she was wrong, but she never lost her fear, always hiding the fact that she was Cherokee. Of course, her given name, Wynema Oresia, was a bit of a giveaway. She made sure not to repeat that error when naming my brother or me.
A History of Betrayal
I found it interesting that a video produced by Teen Vogue featuring six young women from various tribes received a lot of attention prior to the Thanksgiving holiday and immediately thereafter. Just in case you missed it, here it is. Please pay careful attention:
The facts mentioned in the video are true. From the moment European settlers, the “Pilgrims” set foot on this continent, they have done their best to rid the land of its indigenous peoples, people who had been here thousands of years before them. Excavations at the Etowah mounds in what is now North Georgia show that hundreds of thousands of native people lived in that area as early as 1000 ADE. These were predecessors to the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Seminole, and other tribes whose names are familiar. They had cities. They had agriculture. They had commerce. They were a fully functioning civilization long before the Europeans figured out how to cross the ocean.
Almost every interaction native tribes have had with the US government has been a betrayal. By some counts, which I cannot quickly confirm, the government has broken over 500 treaties with indigenous tribes. In a 1785 treaty with the Cherokee for instance, stipulations of the treaty specified that non-tribal people were to not settle on tribal grounds, which, by terms of the treaty, encompassed parts of Tennessee, Georgia, and both North and South Carolina. Crimes against the tribe and/or members of the tribe, were to be punished. Trade with the US was established and the Cherokee were promised a deputy in Congress to address their concerns. The final article of that treaty reads:
The hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States, and friendship re-established between the said states on the one part, and all the Cherokees on the other, shall be universal; and the contracting parties shall use their utmost endeavors to maintain the peace given as aforesaid, and friendship re-established.
That treaty didn’t hold, though, even though it was witnessed by the man who would become the fourth president of the United States, James Madison. By the time Madison took office, seven more treaties had been signed, each of which, under threat of military strike, whittled away at the rights and land given in the first.
An examination of treaties with all the tribes, from the Apache to the Wyandotte and Yakima, show similar patterns where the government appears to give something to the tribe then systemically takes it back. When the treaties because too inconvenient, the government used force. They have repeatedly and consistently stepped over every right the indigenous tribes had in order to get their way.
Indigenous people were not recognized as US citizens until 1924. Even then, many states continued to deny native people the right to vote. Even as recently as 2004, native peoples have been denied the right to vote in certain counties around the country.
From before its inception as a country, the United States has consistently and intentionally trampled the rights of North American indigenous peoples. The US can call itself great all it wants, but with a history like this such rhetoric cannot be considered true.
End the madness now
I am aware that there are currently multiple lawsuits pending both against the government and the oil and holding companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline. I have no expectation for any of them to be resolved in favor of the tribes. Neither do I have any expectation that any of them will be resolved prior to January 20. President Obama shows every sign of having checked out on the problem and is hoping to ignore it until he goes away.
While both the Army Corp of Engineers and Governor Dalrymple has said they do not plan to use force to remove any protestor, the fact that officials have already used water cannons against them suggest the government’s words are, once again, insincere. What the action effectively does is prevent emergency personnel from getting to and/or treating any protestors who might become ill or injured. So, as the snow from the North Dakota winter continues to pile up, if use of the water cannons continues, native people affected by such obvious mistreatment will now be unable to find medical care without leaving the site.
This isn’t making America great. This is showing how the United States continues to be a disgrace when it comes to matters of civil and human rights, especially when directed toward indigenous people. When people from other nations, such as Philippine President Duterte, accuses us of being hypocrites, this is exactly what he’s talking about. If any other country were to treat its native residents in the same way, we would invoke sanctions against them and do our best to turn the affected people against the government harming them. Yet, there we are at Standing Rock, denying the rights of our own people to protect their drinking water.
America is not great. America has never been great. Until we accept and recognize our responsibility toward indigenous people and the rights they inherently hold on this entire continent, we never will be great, no matter who is President.
We need to fix this now.