Thousands of American Indians and their supporters gathered in a frozen expanse of North Dakota for what could’ve become a needlessly violent showdown Monday with police at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Instead, on Sunday afternoon, the federal government did the right thing and capitulated. The Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not approve the final permits to complete construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline – a leg of which would’ve crossed under Lake Oahe, a sacred site and a source of drinking water for the tribe of Indians.
“It’s clear that there’s more work to do,” the Corps’ assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, said in a statement. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
The about-face is miraculous and rare. Throughout history, various arms of the U.S. government have shamefully dismissed the rights of tribes, usually siding with those seeking to make a profit.
Indeed, it was fear of a tribe of Indians being steamrolled again that inspired so many people of all races and political persuasions to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, including members of California’s Yurok tribe and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.
Until Sunday, though, the situation appeared bleak. The Corps had issued an ultimatum. The protesters were to vacate their campsites by Monday.
“This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area,” Corps district commander John Henderson wrote, “and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.”
At the time, it didn't seem to matter that the departments of the Interior and Justice were still weighing whether to give Energy Transfer Partners the permits it needed to finish the nearly $4 billion pipeline. Or that the Standing Rock tribal members say they own the land on which they’re camping because it was given to them by the U.S. government in a 165-year-old treaty. The government said it considered the land “Corps-managed federal property.”
“It is both unfortunate and ironic,” Standing Rock Sioux’s chairman, Dave Archambault II, wrote Henderson in November, “that this announcement comes the day after this country celebrates Thanksgiving – a historic exchange of goodwill between Native Americans and the first immigrants from Europe.”
The Standing Rock Sioux fought the system on multiple levels. Even President-elect Donald Trump has a financial stake in the pipeline.
From the beginning of the project, the tribe had been unable to give much input, even while Energy Transfer Partners negotiated with cities and the Corps to determine the pipeline’s route. The Standing Rock Sioux had to sue just to get the Corps’ attention.
The response from local law enforcement was deplorable. As the protesters’ ranks grew, police resorted to cruelly soaking everyone with high-powered water hoses in the freezing cold. One woman nearly lost her arm in a melee. More than two dozen others were hospitalized, several for hypothermia.
Law enforcement had refused to apologize. “We are just not going to allow people to become unlawful,” said Kyle Kirchmeier, sheriff of Morton County, N.D.
It was past time for the Obama administration to step in and resolve the volatile situation peacefully, the way the FBI did when a group of armed white people took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year.
Impatiently pushing people off land that they may own was never the way to resolve the tribe’s legitimate concerns about sovereignty. We commend the Obama administration for, as Archambault said Sunday, having the “courage” not to repeat the sins of history.