Thursday, December 22, 2016

Lessons from Standing Rock

According to the NY Times, there have been over 30 film crews capturing the events at Standing Rock. Some of them have been there continuously for months; others have moved in quickly for a few weeks to get a story.

A friend who has been there says that the elders have taken charge, that film crews, young environmentalists, veterans—supporters of the Sioux water protectors who have come for whatever reasons—have all listened to local elders and found wisdom and humble roles for their own participation. Or they have moved on.

The issues at Standing Rock have to do with water, and with sovereignty. The calls by North Dakota politicians and government agency workers for abiding by the “rule of law” and respect for “private” property are ironic at best! The Army Corps of Engineers has high-handedly taken land from the Sioux and ignored or abrogated treaties with impunity in its march along the Missouri and its tributaries for decades.

From a recent article in the Washington Post: “Originally, according to the law passed by Congress in 1889, the tribe’s territorial boundary stopped at the low water level mark on the east bank [of Lake Oahe], giving it ownership of the water and river bed. After building the dam, the Army Corps seized strips of land on either side of the river. Those strips are the areas in dispute now, giving the Army Corps a central role in letting Energy Transfer Partners complete the line, or not.”

This long-standing assault on Indian treaty rights—and on Indian Sovereignty as defined by Justice Marshall in the 1830s!—has echoed across the country continuously from the first signings of treaties. Standing Rock is just the latest and currently biggest story, but other recent and ongoing disputes have involved the Garrison Dam, also in North Dakota, the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania, and Pyramid Lake in California.

It’s interesting to note that in all of these cases treaty rights and water are tied together. The big gifts from Standing Rock to the entire country might just be the attention to clean water and the involvement of the environmental community in the issue.  With hard work and a little luck, the environmental community that has awakened in the Dakotas might follow Indian eyes to the uranium polluted water on the Navajo Reservation and the water fights between tribes and commercial water bottling companies that dot the Western landscape.

“Cool, Clear Water,” as the Sons of the Pioneers sang it, will—or should—continue to be in the news beyond Indian Country as well. It turns out that Flint, Michigan is not the only place in our country with a lead in the water problem. CNN says that 5,300 water systems in the US are in violation of lead rules, and The Guardian claims 33 cities with Flint-like problems. One New Jersey news source claims that 11 of her cities have lead problems worse than Flint’s!

The elders at Standing Rock are teaching us the value of strong wills and just causes; against almost insurmountable odds, the Indians at Pyramid Lake taught all Nevadans to love their Lake again and celebrate the return of the Lahontan cutthroat trout. The Indians on the Umatilla teach us that the first of the “first foods” is water.

Let’s listen together in the New Year to the wisdom of Indian elders, and listen for and celebrate the sounds of cool, clear water.

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