Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Great White Father

The Dakota Access Pipeline says they have drilled under the water and have just a bit of work to do before oil begins to flow. Earth Justice has filed an appeal on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux, and other tribes have filed other suits, but there is no word that the courts will step in and halt this threat to water and affront to Indian sovereignty.  

This after: years of deceptive practices by the oil companies in obtaining clearances for the pipeline; years after another route, one above the town of mostly-white Bismarck, was rejected; months after Obama’s executive order to halt construction and the Army Corps of Engineers’ agreement to do a full environmental impact study (rather than the cursory, expedited one they did in the first place) halted construction; and weeks after President Trump erased that effort with another Presidential executive order contravening the previous one and demanding a speed-up of the whole affair. And this drilling and flowing despite months of vigorous protest by water protectors from some 300 tribes across the Americas and allied environmental and veteran groups from across the nation.

Where have they all gone? The protectors? The veterans? The environmental action groups? The Press?

I am sure that many of the tribal people went home to confront like issues on their own reservations.  Home might be Oklahoma, where there is a Pawnee lawsuit against oil companies over the earthquakes that are disrupting their lives. The earthquakes that are conclusively tied to the fracking perpetrated by the oil companies. Some of the Indians maybe went home to Navajo land, where there are uranium tainted water troubles. Or to any number of other tribal places where water and fish and game are still important to tribal members.

And maybe the veterans, the environmental activists, and the press have gone on to other important causes not related to the Pawnee or other Indian tribes. Maybe they are busy with the women’s day protest this Wednesday. Maybe they are fighting the Republican answer to the Affordable Care Act. Or worrying about the new anti-EPA appointments in the EPA office.

But from my perch in the Josephy Library, with Alvin looking over my shoulder, and with a new novel of the Nez Perce and their tragic history my current reading, another idea comes to mind. It’s not an idea I like much, or one white Americans can be proud of, but Alvin’s words, and the Lewis and Clark scenes in David Osborne’s novel, The Coming, remind me that from the beginning and for generations, white America greeted tribes with a story of the Great White Father in Washington who had their best interests—as well as those of the missionaries, the settlers, the oil and uranium and coal companies—at heart.

Lewis and Clark brought Peace Medals, and encouraged the tribes to get along with each other and the white newcomers. The fur trade brought pots and pans, potatoes and trade cloth—and guns—and encouraged the tribes to trap and participate in the new economy. Missionaries brought seeds and plowshares, and The Book, with stories of sin and redemption, divine intervention in this world and burning or exalting in the next. (They of course brought their messages in different versions—Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.—and, to the consternation of tribal peoples, fought over them.) Settlers and developers have brought “progress” always.

The way Alvin put it, a predominant white view of Indians from the beginning was that they were like children, and we—the white interveners—would, with education, religion, seeds and plows, grow them up to be like us. It strikes me on this gray day when Indians are losing their pipeline fight, and waging lonely fights to keep land, water, game, and fish in places across the country, attitudes haven’t changed much.

They—tribal peoples—are quaint and parochial, still needing education and training in the ways of the civilized world. We—the white majority and the leaders in politics, business, and environmental activism; the Governor of North Dakota and the Great White Father in Washington himself—know how the world works and what is best for All Americans.

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