For most of this past week, a winter storm has lashed at the North Dakota prairie camp where the Standing Rock Sioux are making a stand to keep an oil pipeline away from water that is a source of life for them.
The sight of native people shivering in a blizzard, while government authorities threaten to starve them out or forcefully remove them, is a living diorama of so much awful history between the First Americans and those who took everything from them.
The authorities have brought water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, helicopters and dogs against what has become one of the largest gatherings of tribes, from all nations, in a century. They’ve given the protesters, who will soon include a brigade of veterans, until Monday to disperse.
Now flash back a few years to another Western standoff, the Nevada siege of Cliven Bundy, the deadbeat rancher who drew heavily armed white militia members to defend a man who stiffed the government while grazing his cattle on public land. There, the feds backed off.
Bundy and his thugs on the range were praised by Fox News and Tea Party Republicans. His two sons later took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, occupying that sanctuary of birds until they were arrested. In October, the Bundys and five others were acquitted of conspiracy and weapons charges.
At the heart of these cases is land – who owns it, and the narrative justification for a way of life. The Bundy brothers are comic-book cowboys. One of them runs a valet service in Phoenix. The other has a construction company in Utah. But they look the part; playing the role of principled Western men doin' what a man’s got to do.
For the Indians, the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will run from oil fields in North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, is an existential threat. “Water is life” is the protest name. As planned, the pipeline would pump an artery of oil under the Missouri River – the source of the tribe’s water. The Indians want the pipeline rerouted.
The new administration of Donald Trump will be heavy with people who see public land, and Indian Country, as just one thing – a place to drill for oil, move it along, or get out of the way.
The story behind the policy is all-important here – what Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called “the complex burden of historical trauma.” Consider how Jon Stewart once described the national holiday just passed. “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way,” he said. “I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
Now consider what the Bundy brothers said they were fighting for when they took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by armed force earlier this year. They wanted the government to give up turf owned by every American and let a handful of white ranchers “come back and reclaim their land.”
This prompted collective whiplash from members of the Paiute Tribe, whose people have lived in the high desert of Oregon for centuries. “For them to say they want to give the land back to the rightful owners – well, I just had to laugh at that,” the tribal chairwoman, Charlotte Rodrique, said at the time.
The Indian view is much more than P.C. revisionism, if you believe in the rule of law. A huge swath of the northern Plains was promised to bands of the Sioux in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, one of the few times when Native Americans forced the government to terms after defeating it in war.
The tribes lost much of that treaty land to intruders, backed by the Army. “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all possibility, be found in our history,” the Supreme Court concluded in 1980. One of the legacies of the great Sioux tactician, Red Cloud, was an apt description of how the big emerging nation treated the diminished ones. “They made many promises,” he said. “But they kept but one: They promised to take our land, and they took it.”
The “complex burden” of trauma that Franken referred to includes images of frozen Indian bodies in the snow after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. And yet, even with that history haunting the present protest, many of the natives at Standing Rock are not bitter, and see this stand in spiritual terms.
“In the face of this we pray,” Lyla June Johnston, a young Native leader, told me the day after the blizzards blew in. “In the face of this we love. In the face of this we forgive. Because the vast majority of water protectors know this is the greatest battle of all: to keep our hearts intact.”