The Great Plains Indian Wars have re-ignited at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The confrontation is just south of Fort Abraham Lincoln, the fort from which Gen. George Custer led his men toward the Little Big Horn, and just north of Fort Yates, South Dakota, where Lakota spiritual leader Sitting Bull was murdered by reservation agents. Like the 19th century wars, the Lakota and their allies are battling resource development on their traditional lands.
Dakota Access wants to build a pipeline from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields to transfer fracked oil to Illinois and beyond. The majority owners of the $3.7 billion project are Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas and its billionaire CEO, Kelcy Warren. Phillips 66, a spinoff of ConocoPhillips, owns a 25 percent share.
Collaborating with Dakota Access is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who have fast-tracked the permitting process (disputed by the Corps). Regulatory action that ordinarily would take years for a project of this magnitude was condensed into a few months. The Corps gave short shrift to the Native American community's concerns, such as perfunctory historic preservation determinations disregarding traditional sacred sites.
Dakota Access and the Corps are backed by the North Dakota National Guard, state police and private security forces. They shoot native protesters with rubber bullets and water cannons in 20-degree weather. They launch stun grenades and tear gas at protesters, including elders. They pepper spray and release guard dogs on demonstrators. And there is drone surveillance of the camps.
The Standing Rock Sioux, joined by representatives of about 300 tribes from around the country, including Alaska, use the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi, King and Canada's Idle No More protests. They block access roads, verbally confront the military police and have attorneys working behind the scenes.
And they use the weapon of prayer. Around the consecrated drum they pray for their sacred sites, they pray for justice and they pray for their sacred water.
The Lakota consider this a sacred war and call themselves the "water protectors." People raise to the sacred that which is most important in their lives, and clean water, as it is everywhere in Indian Country, is sacred. In the Western Dakota Sioux language the water of mother Earth is mni wiconi, "her blood." A break in the pipeline would be more than an unfortunate mess to clean up. To the Plains Indians, contaminated water would be a desecration.
But there are dozens of pipelines crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries. Why this one? Why now? The answers, I believe, lie in historical trauma and cumulative impact.
The indigenous rights of the Lakota people have been under siege by the U.S. government for 150 years. The highlights are grim. In 1862, 38 Sioux were hanged for raids on westward-expanding settlers occupying their lands. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In 1876, the Little Big Horn encampment of Lakota and Cheyenne defeated the reckless attack by Gen. Custer, which prompted the Seventh Cavalry to hunt down and round up Plains Indians for confinement on reservations — little more than concentration camps. The last battle of the 19th century Indian Wars was in 1890 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where as many as 300 Miniconjou Lakota men, women and children were gunned down as the starving band made its way to be incarcerated at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The 19th century Indian Wars were about resource control. Black Hills gold, farming and ranching were justified by manifest destiny. Railroad hunters wiped out vast herds of bison, the native peoples' staple, to make room for cattle ranching so the railroads would have something profitable to ship back east. It was a blatant cultural genocide.
With the Dakota Access Pipeline, the people feel enough is enough. Historic trauma has accumulated through wars, onerous government regulation, attempts to extinguish language and culture, and resource development projects with no benefit to the indigenous people. Through epigenetic methylation, trauma has likely changed Lakota DNA. Anger is now in their genes.
President Obama has temporarily halted the pipeline; however, the election of Donald Trump is an unexpected turn of events. Trump owns stock in both Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, and Kelcy Warren, Dakota Access' CEO, reportedly donated $100,000 to Trump's campaign. Writing in Mother Jones, Wes Enzinna quoted Warren as saying: "We find ourselves in, I believe, a really good position … I'm very, very enthusiastic about what's going to happen with our country."
I'm quite sure the people of Standing Rock are not so enthusiastic. And I'm equally sure they will continue the fight.
Alan Boraas is an anthropologist at Kenai Peninsula College.
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