Cowboys and Indians are at it again.
Americans who don’t live in the West may think that the historic clash of Native Americans and pioneering settlers is long past because the Indians were, after all, defeated and now drive cars, watch television, and shop at Walmart. Not so. That classic American narrative is back big time, only the Indians are now the good guys and the cowboys—well, their rightwing representatives, anyway—are on the warpath, trying to grab 640 million acres of public lands that they can plunder as if it were yesteryear. Meanwhile, in the Dakotas, America’s Manifest Destiny, that historic push across the Great Plains to the Pacific (murdering and pillaging along the way), seems to be making a return trip to Sioux country in a form that could have planetary consequences.
Energy Transfer Partners is now building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion oil slick of a project. It’s slated to go from the Bakken gas and oil fracking fields in northern North Dakota across 1,100 miles of the rest of the Dakotas and Iowa to a pipeline hub in Illinois. From there, the oil will head for refineries on the Gulf Coast and ultimately, as the emissions from fossil fuels, into the atmosphere to help create future summers so hot no one will forget them. Keep in mind that, according to global warming’s terrible new math, there’s enough carbon in those Bakken fields to roast the planet—if, that is, the Sioux and tribes allied with them don’t stop the pipeline.
This time, in other words, if the cavalry does ride to the rescue, the heroes on horseback will be speaking Lakota.
Last Stand at Standing Rock
If built as planned, the Dakota Access Pipeline will snake through the headwaters of the Missouri River, a life-giving source of fresh water for millions of people who live downstream, including Native Americans. It’s supposed to pass under that river just a few miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. Protestors point out that, eventually, the pipeline is likely to leak into that vital watershed and the contamination could prove catastrophic. The Army Corps of Engineers, which green-lighted the project’s design, and Energy Transfer Partners have continued to insist that there is no such risk—even though, suspiciously enough, they decided to change the pipeline’s route to avoid the water supply of North Dakota’s capital, Bismark. As ever, tribal leaders point out, they were ignored rather than consulted in the planning stages, even though the project was to pass directly through their lands.
When the Keystone XL Pipeline, slated to bring especially carbon-heavy tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast, was killed thanks to years of fierce environmental protests, the stakes were raised for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Keystone was a disaster for the energy industry. In its wake, opponents claim, the new project was fast-tracked without the usual environmental reviews so that construction could be completed before a Keystone-style opposition formed. Fast as they were, it turns out that they weren’t fast enough.
Keep in mind that such a project wasn’t exactly a first for the native peoples of the region. In the wake of their defeat and confinement to reservations in the nineteenth century, they lived through a profound transformation of their landscape. Settlers let cattle loose on meadows cleared of wolves, cougars, and bears. The rude stamp of progress followed: fences, roads, dams, mines, sawmills, railroads, power lines, towns, condos, resorts, and in the twenty-first century, vistas increasingly pockmarked with fracking’s drill rigs and service roads.
In the Dakota prairies, hundreds of species of grass and flowers were replaced by monocultures of soy and corn, while millions of cattle were substituted for herds of free-roaming bison. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, the neighboring Sioux and Cheyenne lost 200,000 more acres of valuable reservation farmland to dams built without their permission. Entire villages had to relocate. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just the latest of these assaults and yet, in every way, it’s potentially more disastrous. As Lakota Chairman David Archambault puts it, “To poison water is to poison the substance of life.”
Slaughter, internment, and neglect were bad enough, say tribal leaders, but threatening the people’s life-giving water was the last straw. As a result, thousands of Native Americans drawn from 280 tribes across the country and even around the world are now camping out at the construction site where the Dakota Access Pipeline nears the tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Almost two million signatures have been gathered on a petition opposing the pipeline; dozens of environmental groups have signed on to the resistance; and tribes nationwide have expressed their solidarity.
On September 3, the private security guards hired by Energy Transfer Partners used pepper spray and dogs on those trying to block the pipeline. This eruption of violence halted work until U.S. District Judge James Boasberg could rule on the tribe’s request for an injunction to block construction while its case was heard in court. On September 9, while conceding that “the United States’ relationship with Indians has been contentious and tragic,” he denied that request. Then, in a move described even by the Sioux as stunning, the Obama administration suddenly stepped between the protesters and the pipeline construction crews. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and even the Army Corps of Engineers called for a halt to the process until the permitting procedure could be reviewed.
Although putting an oil pipeline under a major river should have triggered an environmental review, the Corps chose not to do one. Now, it will take a second look. The administration also committed itself to finding better ways to include Native Americans in future land-use decisions.
Where this goes next is anyone’s guess. The construction halt could, of course, be lifted if the protesters were to disperse under a false sense of victory. The Sioux now plan to litigate vigorously against the pipeline. One prediction, however, is easy enough. The unity and purpose experienced by the people in that encampment will resonate powerfully for years to come. A movement has been born along the banks of the Missouri River.
Native Americans have played the crucial role in this campaign to “keep it in the ground,” just as they were leaders in the successful struggle to block the Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that would have carried dirty crude across Canada to the Pacific, and the building of a massive coal export port on Canada’s Pacific coast. As Native American leader Winona LaDuke puts it, “For people with nothing else but land and a river, I would not bet against them.”
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the cowboys have been engaged in a not-so-old-fashioned range war over who can best manage 640 million acres of public lands now owned collectively by the American people. Backed by the Koch brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, legislators across the American West, where most of the public lands are located, are calling on the federal government to cede control and management of them to counties and states. This would include some of our most beloved national parks.
In Utah, where I live, the Republican-dominated legislature has put forward the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). It’s the latest round in a 30-year-feud pitting conservationists and businesses tied to tourism and recreation against ranchers and miners. At stake: whether to give the last publicly controlled wild places in the state formal wilderness status and federal protection or (though this isn’t often directly said) let private interests exploit the hell out of them. Every few years the Utah legislature’s “cowboy caucus” has pushed just such a “wilderness bill” filled with poison pills and potentially devastating loopholes that the local conservation community can’t abide.
Billed this time as a potential grand bargain to settle who controls public lands and how they can be used, the PLI has proven no different. It was, in fact, generated by local fears that President Obama might use his wide-ranging powers under the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument in the state as he left the Oval Office. This was exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996, establishing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of land in southern Utah’s spectacular canyon country, already the home of five national parks.
That 1906 act, passed while Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, gives the president wide-ranging authority to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. Since activities like drilling for oil and gas, mining, timber cutting, and grazing are barred or tightly restricted on such protected lands, Western politicians tend to regard them as a tool wielded by conservationists to suppress economic development.
Grave Robbing for Fun and Profit
Sure enough, the nightmare of the cowboys is being realized. A coalition of five tribes, all either presently in Utah or claiming ancestral lands there, is now pushing a bold proposal for just such a national monument—a park co-managed by the five tribes and the National Park Service (which in itself would be a significant first for the Native American community). It would include 1.9 million acres of the ancestral grounds of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain, and Ute Indian tribes and would be known as the Bears Ears after the area’s most famous landmark, twin buttes that are said to resemble a bear’s ears.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewel recently toured the proposed monument and was amazed by what she saw, including spectacular cliff-house ruins, as well as paintings and rock carvings depicting clan signs, shamanic visions, and ghostly herds of bighorn sheep and elk. Bears Ears would possess more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including many of the oldest and most spectacular ruins in the United States. Members of the coalition of tribes regard them and the ground littered with their ancestors’ artifacts and bones as sacred.
A grassroots group, Utah Dine Bikeyah, did extensive groundwork collecting data and interviews to create cultural maps of the region. The extraordinary archaeological and historical record they built effectively made their case that the ancestors of the coalition tribes have relied on that landscape for hunting, gathering, and ceremonial activities for centuries. The Utah conservation community, which had mapped out its own plans for such a monument, stepped aside for the tribal proposal.
Protecting the Bears Ears is considered an urgent matter. A mere handful of rangers currently patrol thousands of square miles of rugged canyons where the looting of archaeological sites for fun and profit is a rural tradition. In remote outposts like Blanding, Utah, Indian grave robbing was considered an acceptable family pastime until agents from the FBI infiltrated the black market for artifacts and busted a prominent local family. Ute leader Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk expresses a motivating concern of the tribal leaders. “Without swift action,” she says, “we fear that the archaeological and cultural riches of the Bears Ears will suffer shameful, disgraceful dissolution and obliteration.”
Her fear is well founded. In recent years, for instance, rural county commissioners have led illegal all-terrain-vehicle rallies on a route through Recapture Canyon that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers shut to motorized traffic because it crosses several key archaeological sites. State and county politicians were not content to challenge the BLM’s closure of that canyon in court. Instead, they openly promoted such rides to defy the feds. The last of these protests in 2014 did, in fact, significantly damage unprotected archeological sites. The indigenous community saw it as a shocking show of disrespect, like driving directly over cemetery graves. The well-armed vigilantes who rode through Recapture Canyon were led by Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and the famous hothead of the Bundy clan.
You may remember the colorful Bundy boys. After all, they became the stars of the “cowboy rebellion” against federal regulation on public lands. In 2014, BLM rangers were dispatched to Nevada to remove Cliven Bundy’s cows from lands on which they had been grazing illegally for 20 years. The feds claimed that he owed the taxpayers a million bucks in unpaid grazing fees. He, on the other hand, insisted that such public lands belonged to the ranchers whose grandparents first grazed them. The rangers sent to enforce the law were met by hundreds of armed cowboys, many of whom took up sniper positions around them. Faced with such overwhelming firepower and the prospect of bloodshed, they withdrew and a range war was on.
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
That retreat in Nevada undoubtedly emboldened the Bundy clan and their militia allies to seize Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. Well-armed, they occupied the visitor center at that bird refuge, leaning on every cowboy cliché in the book. They dressed the part with chaps, boots, buckles, and Stetson hats, carried American flags, and regularly posed with their horses for news photographers.
In the end, despite the Marlboro Man look and the Clint Eastwood demeanor, the Bundyites came across as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The “constitutional revolution” they wanted to spark by seizing Malheur fizzled amid a festival of cognitive dissonance and irony: men carrying assault rifles and threatening to use them proclaimed themselves “peaceful protesters” and, while declaring it off limits, attempted to “return” land to the American people—land that they already owned. Federal agents eventually arrested all of the principal players in both the earlier Nevada standoff and the Malheur fiasco, except for one killed at a roadblock when he charged armed rangers and reached for his gun. Trials began on September 7 and are slated to last for months.
Given the open hostility of state and local politicians to the protection of sacred sites, as well as their willingness to break the law and offer tacit support for vigilantes like the Bundys, tribal leaders decided to take their concerns about protecting their ancestral grounds to the top. A delegation traveled to Washington and met with President Obama, while a media campaign was begun to persuade others to endorse the plan.
A broader coalition of tribes and the conservation community rallied to the idea, especially because it was the first time that Native American tribes had proposed such a monument. The vision of a park to honor sacred indigenous lands, shaped and directed by Native Americans themselves, caught the public imagination. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both written editorials urging the president to create such a park and Utah polls show a solid majority of citizens in favor of it.
Peace Pipes, Not Oil Pipes
The genocidal policies that accompanied settlement across North America crested in Sioux country at the close of the nineteenth century. The survivors of the vanquished indigenous nations there were interned on reservations. Their children were taken from them and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut, and their language and ceremonies banished. This was—and was meant to be—a form of cultural genocide. In the Bears Ears and Sioux country today, however, the culture of Native Americans endures. The descendants of those warriors who died defending their homeland and of those children taken from their families and their native cultures have proven remarkably resilient. They are once again defending their world and, as it happens, ours too, because even if you don’t share the Missouri River watershed, you live on a planet that is being rapidly transformed by the sort of toxic cargo that will fill a future Dakota Access Pipeline.
In the Hollywood Westerns of my youth, Indians were often one-dimensional villains who committed atrocities on good white folks trying to bring civilization to the frontier. As with so many notions I inherited in my youth, reality has turned out to be another story.
Certainly, before the onslaught of colonialism, the way indigenous people across the planet viewed what we now call our environment has come to seem like sanity itself. The land, as the Sioux and other tribal peoples saw it, was a living being saturated with spirits that humans should both acknowledge and respect.
The Indians whom the cowboys and bluecoats fought didn’t share European concepts of cash, property, profit, progress, and, most importantly, technology. Once upon a time, we had the guns and they had the bows and arrows, so we rolled over them. But here’s the wondrous thing: a story that seemed to have ended long ago turns out to be anything but over. Times have changed, and in the process the previous cast of characters has, it seems, swapped roles.
An economy hooked on carbon is threatening life on Earth. The waters of seas and oceans are warming fast; the weather is becoming unpredictable and harsh. Perhaps it’s time to finally listen to and learn from people who lived here sustainably for thousands of years. Respecting Sioux sovereignty and protecting the sacred sites of tribes in their own co-managed national monument could write the next chapter in our American story, the one in which the Indians finally get to be heroes and heroines fighting to protect our way of life as well as their own.