When the Sioux and the U.S. Army Mix It Up in the Dakotas Bad Things Can Happen



Last night in my Introduction to History course at Messiah College we got into a discussion about the many ways historians might be helpful in public debates.  A student brought up the ongoing fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The Native Americans of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are in a fierce battle with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the proposed route of the pipeline.  History has shown us that when the Sioux and the U.S. Army mix it up in the Dakotas bad things can happen.

Here is a taste of Bill McKibben’s piece on the controversy at The New Yorker:

This week, thousands of Native Americans, from more than a hundred tribes, have camped out on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the border between the Dakotas, along the Missouri River. What began as a slow trickle of people a month ago is now an increasingly angry flood. They’re there to protest plans for a proposed oil pipeline that they say would contaminate the reservation’s water; in fact, they’re calling themselves protectors, not protesters.

Their foe, most directly, is the federal government, in particular the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has approved a path for the pipeline across the Missouri under a “fast track” option called Permit 12. That’s one reason the Dakota Access Pipeline, as it’s known, hasn’t received the attention that, say, the Keystone XL Pipeline did, even though the pipe is about the same length. Originally, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri near Bismarck, but authorities worried that an oil spill there would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. So they moved the crossing to half a mile from the reservation, across land that was taken from the tribe in 1958, without their consent. The tribe says the government hasn’t done the required consultation with them—if it had, it would have learned that building the pipeline there would require digging up sacred spots and old burial grounds.

In fact, the blade of a bulldozer cut through some of those burial grounds on Saturday—during a holiday weekend, days before a federal judge is supposed to rule on an emergency petition filed by the tribe which would slow the project down, and immediately after the tribe identified the burial grounds’ locations in a filing to the court. The company building the pipe—Energy Transfer Partners—has already constructed more than half the pipeline, which, when completed, would stretch from Stanley, North Dakota, near the Canadian border, to Patoka, in southern Illinois. It apparently wanted to create facts on the ground in North Dakota—wanted to do so badly enough, it seems, that it was willing to employ a private security force, which used dogs to confront the Native Americans who tried to prevent the desecration of old graves. Tribal officials said that the dogs bit six protesters, including a small child. (The company did not respond to requests for comment, but had previously stated that demonstrators “attacked” their workers and the guard dogs. It has stressed in the past that it has been “constructing this pipeline in accordance with applicable laws, and the local, state and federal permits and approvals we have received.”)

Pictures from that confrontation recall pictures from Birmingham circa 1963. But the historical parallels here run much deeper—they run to the original sins of this nation. The reservation, of course, is where the Native Americans were told to live when the vast lands they ranged were taken by others. The Great Sioux Reservation, formed in the eighteen-sixties, shrunk again and again—in 1980, a federal court said, of the whole sad story, “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” In the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the Army Corps of Engineers—the same Army Corps now approving the pipeline—built five large dams along the Missouri, forcing Indian villages to relocate. More than two hundred thousand acres disappeared beneath the water.

Sioux history, and Native American history, is filled with one massacre and battle after another. Most of us have never heard of some of those encounters—the Whitestone, or Inyan Ska, massacre, for instance, not far from the present encampment, where at least three hundred Sioux lost their lives when Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked men, women, and children feasting after a buffalo hunt. Some we do remember, albeit differently: one man in the camp last week said it was the most diverse gathering of Native Americans “since the Battle of Greasy Grass,” known to the white world as Little Bighorn. In other words, America’s shameful history with its native inhabitants is echoing across these riverbanks this late summer.

Read the rest here.

History can’t tell us what to do in a situation like this.  This is primarily a policy, or perhaps a moral, issue.  But history does offer some perspective.  The Native Americans are certainly invoking the past here.  I wonder if the Army Corps of Engineers has (or had) a historian on board.

2 thoughts on “When the Sioux and the U.S. Army Mix It Up in the Dakotas Bad Things Can Happen

  1. “Approval of the colonizing Dakota Access Pipeline project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the resulting conflict with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation has a historical context. That context consists of the ideas and mental patterns of Western Christendom which the United States has used and continues to use against our nations and peoples. Those ideas and patterns of argumentation are now being tacitly used against the Standing Rock Dakota and the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Teton Nation) in the pipeline controversy.”


    It’s a pity the left no longer writes in English. Between pejoratives and empty jargon, the arguments are unreadable.


  2. Professor Fea – kudos on bringing news of this travesty to the widest audience possible. Sadly, the history of federal Indian law & policy has been consistently hostile to the resources, sovereignty and rights of indigenous peoples. The mantra is the same – European-American profits before Native peoples.

    This summary repeats some of what McKibben wrote, but reiterates the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers (as a federal agency) in perpetuating a double-standard about whose drinking water is protected (primarily white Bismarck, ND) and whose is jeopardized (Standing Rock Sioux)

    “In the initial environmental assessment, the maps utilized by Dakota Access—and reviewed and incorporated by the Army Corps—did not indicate that the Tribe’s lands were within one half mile of the proposed crossing of Lake Oahe. Furthermore, the company selected this route because the route to the north would be near and could jeopardize the drinking water of the residents in the city of Bismarck. The company’s initial draft environmental assessment of December 9, 2015 made no mention of the fact that the route they chose brings the pipeline near, and could jeopardize, the drinking water of the Tribe and its citizens. It actually omitted the very existence of the tribe on all maps and any analysis, in direct violation of the US environmental justice policies.”

    As a historian of religion, perhaps you might weigh-in on the Western Christendom “Doctrine of Discovery” upon which federal Indian law and policy is based. Here’s a good summary:
    “The most foundational ideas and arguments that the United States is using against our nations are traced back to the days of Western Christendom, and to the language of domination found in the papal bulls and royal charters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The United States is treating the Standing Rock Dakota and the Oceti Sakowin in a disrespectful and coercive manner based on religiously premised concepts and arguments derived from what used to be called the international law of Christendom, or “the law of Christian nations.” Those ideas from the past continue to control the present for all of our original nations.”

    PS – speaking of history, mentioning police using dogs against African American protesters at Birmingham, AL in the 1960s reminded me of the Spanish use of war dogs against the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola, Cuba, Mexico and New Mexico circa 1490s – 1680s.


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