A court ruling over the religious impact of DAPL reveals another look at American history.
Energy Transfer Partners LP will soon send oil through its controversial Dakota Access pipeline, having defeated a Native American tribe’s effort to prevent that on religious grounds.
Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, rejecting arguments made on behalf of the Cheyenne River Sioux, all but ensures the conduit will come on line after final construction and testing. Attorneys for the pipeline consortium have told the court crude could flow as soon as March 13.- Bloomberg
Yesterday’s ruling by Boasberg–the third time he has ruled in favor of the Dakota Access pipeline–seemed to put an end to the movement. The suit that the Cheyenne River Sioux brought up seemed to some like a desperate, last-gasp, and maybe too-clever effort to inject religion into what had been a legal battle over water access and land rights.
What was the argument? Well, legally (and maybe deliciously) it was about interference with religious rights, using the same grounds that allow for holy yarn stores to not cover contraception. But of course, it wasn’t about contraception. It was about the terrible black snake.
“Boasberg rejected a last-minute argument made by the Cheyenne River band that the mere presence of oil in the pipeline under the man-made lake taints its waters and interferes with their sacred rites. The Sioux argued that the project violated their religious freedom and symbolized the “terrible black snake” in a Lakota prophecy that would bring destruction to their homeland.”
As Tara Dowd explained last year, this in an old Lakota legend which says “there will be a great black snake that will run through the land and bring destruction to the people and to the earth.” And, obviously, that’s a particularly apt metaphor for the black destruction of a pipeline, especially one running underneath water–especially for one running underneath a sacred lake.
For the court, though, this didn’t hold water, so to speak. Dakota Access (who of course “continues to have the greatest respect for the religious beliefs and traditions of Cheyenne River and the other tribes that have participated in the process,” company lawyers said in a Feb. 21 filing.), said that they had no real claim, and anyway, why hadn’t they brought this up before?
On the outside, they seem to have a point. Sitting in the American 21st-century, that seems like some mumbjo-jumbo, a hodgepodge of old superstitions that are almost designed to invoke guilt. Before the issues seemed more real: they were based around tribal rights to water access and to land, and the various treaties that have been signed guaranteeing the US rights on reservations.
But really, it’s part of the same argument, and it is an argument that is, as much as slavery, at the heart of American history: that the nation has multiple owners, and that the process of colonization of the continent is still ongoing.
Colonization is what it was. The history of the last 500 years is one group of people (largely Europeans) coming to a “new” continent and displacing and exterminating the people who had been here, in one political formation or the other, for tens of thousands of years.
But it wasn’t just murder for the sake of murder. And it wasn’t just “We needed to expand” once we became the United States, as if it were inevitable and natural for one nation to expand to the size of a continent. The expansion of the United States was merely a continuation in a slightly different and more unified form of the process that started with Columbus: waves of disease-and-violence based appropriation of the land.
In fact, even that appropriation was just a tool of the program, and not the program itself. No, the program was to transform indigenous territory into capital. That territory was the land itself, the water, the resources underneath, the animals within.
Whether it was exterminating the buffalo that kept the grasslands fertile or digging up the grasslands and turning them into dust bowls, the process was the same. It was the same as damming up the great rivers to make them avenues for merchandise, and the same as using saws and axes to transform the impossibly vast forest into planks to be sold off. It was the same as wiping out beaver and mink and stoat populations for European fashions. It was about taking homelands, imbued with history and sacred significance, and trough the alchemy of an endless boiling marketplace, transforming it into capital.
That’s what is still happening with the Cheyenne River Sioux today, and the broader Lakota Sioux. The water that they still drink are being threatened, and their water and religious ceremonies are put at risk for an oil company. To argue that even the Department of Interior doesn’t think it is needed, but that Trump does, is crucial in our political context, but sort of misses the point.
The point is that the pipeline runs through territory that about 150 years ago was ceded by treaty and then revoked. The point is that Lake Oahe is just outside the Standing Rock reservation, which is why the oil companies won. The point is that they won, even though the land is disputed. They won because “disputed” doesn’t mean what it is supposed to mean.
We’ve forgotten and ignore that this land was forcibly taken, and that the broken treaties are still, rightfully, a matter of dispute. That in a very real sense, the reservations aren’t the United States, and nor should they be. This land wasn’t gifted to them: it was negotiated through battle and an attempt to hold onto their nations. It is land that is from any historical point a view surrounded by occupied territory. And they are a people that are being poorly treated, still, as the UN just reminded us. Historically and morally, it is no different than the Russian empire continuing to oppress, say, the Dagestanis.
(The New York Times has a very helpful map of all this)
We smoothed that over under the veil of multiculturalism and the patronizing adoption of “Native American“. We’ve pretended that since the United States considers the past irrelevant, so should the people from whom we stole the future.
In a sense, that’s one of the great contracting forces of American life. We have a stark tendency to look at history in stages, without one blending into the next. Once our country was settled, set in stone with the closing of the frontier, we went out of our way to imagine it was ever thus. But a huge part of the land was colonized from Mexico, and all of it was stolen from the indigenous, as part of the 20,000-year history of human activity on the continent. The United States is, chronologically, barely a blip, but our national myth is “twas ever thus”.
Our oversized impact on the continent–genocide, extinction, a reordering of the natural world–occludes the brief time that things have been settled. But just as dams collapse under the weight of water, slowly eroding any sense of permanency, so too must the United States reckon with its history. Understanding that the right of First Nations must exist outside the solipsism of our self-centered cosmology is as good a place as any to start.