A sea of thousands of Native Americans from over 200 indigenous nations has descended onto the Great Plains to stand at the forefront of a new but familiar battle against fossil fuels. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (Hunkpapa Lakota Nation), these nations are fighting against the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline, which would transport oil from the Bakken oil fields to pipelines in Illinois, and is set to come within a half-mile of the Standing Rock reservation, threatening its water supply.
The fight is calling into question yet again the logic of fossil fuels and bringing to the fore age-old questions that this country prefers to forget: those of Native American sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights.
The broken treaties fought over in the past are the same being invoked today. In 1868, the Lakota signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with the US government, creating the Great Sioux Reservation, which included all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The treaty protected hunting, fishing, and water rights in the surrounding area, including where the pipeline would traverse. These treaties have been the tool by which tribes exert their sovereignty and self-determination.
The images from Standing Rock are both tragic and inspiring. They are the story of America. Attack dogs set upon protesters conjure up memories of police dogs being used against African-American protesters in the South during the civil-rights era. The disregard of Standing Rock’s treaty rights and the complete failure to consult the tribe about the project reminds us of this country’s penchant for making and breaking its treaties with Native Americans.
These images also remind us that resistance is part of America. The fight at Standing Rock is the largest gathering of indigenous nations in the United States in decades. This moment should remind us of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee (site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre), when the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Oglala Lakota people faced down the federal government in a 71-day standoff over treaty rights. At the Sacred Stone Camp, where today’s protesters are headquartered, the AIM flag is still waved, and Dennis Banks, the founder of AIM and leader of the Wounded Knee occupation, has joined the fight.
Even further back, in 1876, the Great Plains was home to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho united and defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. The reason for that fight? Broken treaties.
The Standing Rock Sioux Nation are the descendants of Sitting Bull, one of the resistance leaders at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Among the Lakota, one of the last tribes to be forced onto reservations, there is a great deal of pride in knowing and learning from this history of resistance.