Ongoing prejudice means Native Americans must constantly fight for their rights. That’s what’s happening over construction of a controversial oil pipeline.
What’s going on in North Dakota is rooted in historical wrongs. The original damage can’t be repaired, but it certainly shouldn’t be compounded by contemporary harm.
Indigenous people from all over the Americas have gathered in North Dakota to fight for their present and future. They have to fight because the attitude of entitlement and indifference to others that fueled European expansion across the continent is still alive.
Protesters are blocking completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a crude-oil pipeline being built by Energy Transfer Partners. The Standing Rock Sioux say the pipeline will endanger the water supply for their reservation, and that it will pass through sites the tribe holds sacred.
- Background stories: Here's a primer on the pipeline project, including the key players on all sides, a brief history of broken treaty promises and a closer look at the courtroom battle. And here's what we're reading related to the controversy.
- March 28: What the completed Dakota Access pipeline means for key players.
- Feb. 23: Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp closed; 46 holdouts arrested.
- Feb. 22: Preparing to leave, Standing Rock protesters ceremonially burn camp.
- Feb. 13: Judge rejects tribes’ bid to halt Dakota Access Pipeline; feds plan to shut down protest camp.
- Feb. 1: Hundreds rally as the Seattle City Council considers divesting from Wells Fargo because of its role as a Dakota Access Pipeline lender.
- Jan. 24, 2017: Donald Trump signs executive orders advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe says it will push back.
- Dec. 4, 2016: Tribes celebrate as Corps rejects Dakota Access pipeline easement
- Nov. 21: Washington tribes urge that Obama stop, reroute Dakota Access Pipeline
- Nov. 12: Hundreds rally in Tacoma against Dakota Access Pipeline
- Live updates from from Seattle Times journalists on the scene Oct. 26, 27 and 28.
- Oct. 25: Tribes in Washington state call on President Obama to improve federal consultations over infrastructure projects
- Oct. 24: Citing treaty claim, protesters occupy land a rancher recently sold to pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners.
- See photos from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Their fight has drawn attention and support because it is part of an ongoing struggle on the part of indigenous peoples in the Americas to protect themselves from further harm and to assert their rights.
That’s why people from so many other tribes have traveled to North Dakota to participate in the protests, including people from the Northwest. A recent victory by the Lummi Nation has been cited as an inspiration for the pipeline protests.
The Lummi and other tribes successfully argued that a proposed coal port at Cherry Point in Northwest Washington would jeopardize their treaty-protected fishing rights. The U.S. Corps of Engineers agreed and declined to issue a permit for the project.
Treaty rights were what some groups of Native Americans got from the U.S. government in exchange for land, resources and power, and the government has had a poor record of honoring those rights when they conflict with something the majority wants.
Fighting for one’s rights is a highly valued tradition in America, except when it’s inconvenient, and it is almost always inconvenient to someone.
Maybe Northwesterners will remember how hard Native Americans had to fight to have their fishing rights honored. Western Washington tribes had been promised fishing rights in treaties signed in 1854 and 1855, but Native fishermen were gradually moved aside. In the 1960s, Native Americans began staging protests, and a federal judge, George Boldt, in a 1974 ruling upheld the rights derived from the treaties.
Violent clashes between Native and non-Native fishermen followed, and the ruling was fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1979 affirmed most of Boldt’s ruling.
The Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota have filed a lawsuit to stop the pipeline project, but it’s the protests that have brought attention. Protests began months ago, but national attention grew after the numbers of protesters grew large and police, sometimes in riot gear, cracked down on protesters. Scores of people have been arrested, some of them on the anniversary of the Sept. 3, 1863, Whitestone Massacre, in which the U.S. Army killed or injured as many as 300 people in a Sioux village.
Everywhere in the world, groups of people fight over land, resources and power, but Europeans in the Americas were advantaged by diseases and superior weapons that devastated groups who resisted conquest.
That’s history, but it still affects lives in the present. Why is it so hard to be fair?
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What’s happening in North Dakota isn’t isolated. It’s part of a continuing failure to value the rights and even the lives of all people.
Pollution is just one sign of that disregard, but it is a problem on Indian lands around the country.
This year the Navajo Nation sued the Environmental Protection Agency over a mine spill last year that sent dangerous waste into rivers the Navajo depend on for water. Three million gallons of toxic, heavy-metal sludge, including lead and arsenic, poured into the Animas River and from there into the San Juan River.
The suit says the EPA cleanup has been inadequate.
So has the nation’s protection of Native American rights.