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Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

August 30, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

On the North Dakota prairie a storm has been gathering for months.  Since last April, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have assembled at a point just off their reservation to pray, discuss, and bear witness to an unwanted oil pipeline construction project that threatens their lands and waters.  Required federal consultation processes continued on, but when ground was broken to take the pipeline under the Missouri River just a mile upstream from the reservation, the vigil became a full-fledged protest.  Now, a month after that start of construction, indigenous people from across North America have gathered at a camp that has thousands of occupants, work has stopped, and the matter is in the hands of judges in North Dakota and Washington DC.

Some reports indicate that this is the largest, most inclusive multi-national gathering of Indian people since the 19th century.

I have skipped over many details, of course, in this summary, but there are a number of very good accounts online (along with some that emphasize division and conflict, which don’t appear to square with the reported facts on the ground).  There is a good background explainer that carries the historical context ; Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II has an eloquent explanation of his tribe’s position here.  A Washington Post story highlights some of the powerful accounts of individuals who have gathered at this place.

There is little that I can add to the detail and immediacy of the accounts linked above.  Two things, though, do occur to me:

First, the Army Corps of Engineers, as the federal agency responsible for granting permits to the pipeline company to cross the river, has said that tribal members did not consult specifically on exact locations of burials, sacred sites and other areas protected by federal historic preservation law.  Federal law does not require such disclosure, though, only that tribal representatives argue that there is a likelihood of damage to culturally sensitive resources.  The pipeline was originally aligned to cross the river half a mile from the water intake for the city of Bismarck, but was moved because of worries that a spill might contaminate water supplies.  We’re supposed to think that indigenous culturally-sensitive lands are somehow less important?  Water has manifold meansings to indigenous people everywhere, central to their spiritual and cultural lives as well as physically essential.

Which leads to my second point: the threat to water and other resources that comes at the hands of a shortsighted, highly intrusive project that is being rammed through without appropriate consultation as required by law.  This is not just about water, although water is one of the central resources on the earth and must be protected.  As the #NoDAPL gatherings have repeatedly said, “Water is life.” Nor is this just an indigenous issue; all of us are subject to the rule of law and environmental protection processes.  When those processes are truncated, and when damaging projects are inflicted on unknowing communities, that is a threat to all of us.  Fights about pipelines are fights about our shared future, how, and by whom that future will be decided.

Finally, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch this commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.  He minces no words in placing the Standing Rock dispute in the 500 year context of genocide against indigenous people across North America, and seeing this fight as only the latest example of indigenous courage, resilience, and spiritual power in their continued enduring.

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