Monday, November 28, 2016

American Indians, water, and the public good

Later, alternate title: “First Lessons From Standing Rock"

The late historian and activist on behalf of American Indians Alvin Josephy believed that Indians in America would solve the drug problem before others figured it out. “Indians,” he said “are still capable of ‘group think,’ of thinking for the tribe rather than focusing on the individual.” Josephy also believed that Indians still had things to tell, especially about the land, because they had lived on and with it for millennia.
from Huffington Post
Standing Rock is Group Think in capital letters. It has  attracted tribal members from Indian Nations across the country, white environmentalists, and veterans of all colors, who are now joining the water protectors in force in uniform. These veterans, schooled in tribal thinking (as illustrated in Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging), and realizing that Indians have and do serve in the American military in greater numbers than any other sector of American society, are there to support their comrades in the next foxhole and throw their weight against wrongs that have festered from the beginnings of nationhood.

White and black Americans who have always talked about their Cherokee grandmother or some other distant relative tied to the original immigrants—immigrants scientists now tell us came from Asia well over 14,000 years ago, probably not on the “land bridge” that we learned about if we learned anything of First Americans, but on water, along the Pacific Shoreline, hopscotching their ways to South America while settling the lands along the way—are joining the Dakota chorus. Whatever wrongs they have suffered and seen in their own lives are coming into this focus on government mistreatment of Indians and disregard for water, the principle of all life.

The environmental community, gloomy with election defeat and their own experiences—or stories they’ve heard—of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, Portland, Oregon and other urban and seemingly safe places, gradually realizing that the Indians’ fight for water and fair treatment is their fight, have awoken to and in North Dakota.

Maybe there is also guilt over the lack of support of tribes in the 1950s, when the Corps of Engineers bulldozed the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, and built the Garrison Dam on this very same Missouri River and flooded over 90 % of the then prosperous Indians’ agricultural lands. Or in the 60s, when the Corps abrogated the our oldest treaty, the Treaty of Canandaigua, signed in 1794 by George Washington, that established land boundaries and declared “peace and friendship” between the United States of America and the tribes of the Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga and Tuscarora, to build the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania. Environmentalists are on board at Standing Rock.

The mainstream media that has been castigated for not covering Indian concerns is there and reporting. To be fair, we—the general public—have never expressed much interest in current Indian affairs, preferring our Indian stories to be about deeds and misdeeds in the past, before the nation was formed and the West was won. Representatives of the New York Times and television news were actually at Standing Rock in August. The few stories they slipped past editors concentrating on the Presidential campaign and the constant drumbeats of Native media outlets helped raise national awareness. It is now national news, with daily stories from large and small media outlets, social media, and continuing Indian country media. Some days it even cracks the New York Times top ten “trending” list.

It is ironic and fitting that the tools that government used to assimilate Indians—especially the boarding schools, which began in the late nineteenth century and survive in modified from to this day, and the termination and relocation policies of the 1950s, have served to introduce tribal peoples one to another across the entire country. These tools led to AIM in the 70s, and now help bring people from 300 Indian nations in North America and indigenous people from Hawaii and Central America to Standing Rock.

And it is fitting that this attention to water and sustainability come from the first immigrants. Yes, there were tribal mistakes—did the Mississippi Mound peoples disappear because of over use of resources and exaltation of the rich and powerful? How did climate change and wars over resources play out in the Southwest 600 and 700 years ago? But in general the Indians of North America pre-contact lived lighter on the land, acknowledged the need for constant renewal, and eschewed the privatization and exploitation of lands and rersources.

They, like growing numbers of all Americans, realized that water is the key to all life, and that there are times and places when putting private goods over the public good jeopardizes everything. Standing Rock is a symbol—and maybe a beginning.

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