Coming Full Circle

A sheath of snow and ice encases the North Dakota Prairie. In photos captured early this year, teepees and tents and trailers stand atop the snow, full of people who have stayed after a victory by protesters there late last year, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

They protesters, according to National Public Radio, said they’d like to repurpose and clean up campsites that held thousands of people last year – a multiracial coalition from all over the country – who had come to protest the building of a $3.8 billion oil pipeline running from South Dakota to North Dakota to Iowa to Illinois. Its original route, they said, would encroach on land important to Native American tribes. The majority of the pipeline is to be built on private land, but there’s a small portion that would run through government property. Part of the federal lands border Lake Oahe, which is considered a sacred and ancestral site for tribes at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. 

Last June, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the building of the pipeline due to concerns of potential water contamination and infringement on ancestral land. Supporters of the pipeline route argued the pipeline does not cross Standing Rock reservation land and would be buried underground. They pointed out eight other pipelines that cross under Lake Oahe. When the court denied Standing Rock’s request for an injunction and construction resumed, protesters converged at Standing Rock.

The area has been a familiar territory of injustice against Native Americans. In the 1960s, Native Americans were forced to relocate from Lake Oahe region when the federal government flooded 200,000 acres of the reservation for a dam. 

Since the inception of America in 1776, the U.S. Senate has ratified more than 370 treaties with Native American tribes, resulting in promises broken and the seizing of swaths of tribal land. At the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., an exhibit examining the history of these treaties and their consequences of Native Americans quotes President Andrew Jackson in 1830 saying this: “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms?” 

Views like President Jackson’s resulted in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, in which Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River were deported en masse to lands west of the river. This forced removal also instigated the “Trail of Tears,” in which 4,000 people from the Cherokee nation died while they were herded away like livestock from their homes. 

More recent policies, like the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, again tried to funnel the movement of Native Americans, this time into cities and urban areas as Indian termination policies of the same era stripped numerous Native Americans of tribal recognition and decreased subsidies to Indian reservations. 

As many as 750,000 Native Americans migrated to cities in the 1950s and 1960s, with some government assistance for moving expenses, and by 2000, according to PBS, the U.S. Census showed the urban population of Native Americans had risen by 64 percent compared with the 1940s. 

The mass relocation to cities, however, left thousands of Native Americans isolated and unable to find meaningful work. Organizations like the American Indian Center, in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago – which just announced its move to Albany Park in November – opened in the 1950s to assist with jobs as well as provide cultural and community hubs.

So it was, amid centuries of painful, broken history that the Dakota Access Pipeline protests reached their heights last fall. And then, on December 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit to continue the construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe, halting work and instructing that alternate routes be explored.

The protesters had won. At Standing Rock, rhythmic drumbeats broke out, as did songs and joyous shouts.

“Today, for the first time, we as indigenous peoples in the United States were able to have people see us and hear us,” Eryn Wise, an organizer for the International Indigenous Youth Council, told The New York Times.

The denial by the Army Corps of Engineers does not guarantee the pipeline won’t go under Lake Oahe, as the incoming Trump administration has the power to let the original route stand. But for now, there’s calm and hope at Standing Rock.

After the Army Corps’ decision, Marcella LeBeau, a 97-year-old U.S. Army veteran and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told PBS NewsHour: “Our people were warriors, and it’s kinda coming full circle again.” 

Resources: For a heartbreaking and meticulous account of how Native Americans were decimated in the American pursuit of land, read a classic that awakened much of America, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West” by Dee Brown. 

In “Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations,” Suzan Shown Harjo edits 31 essays and interviews exploring treaties made and betrayals involved, and in “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz frames U.S. history from the perspectives of Native Americans. 
And this free and fascinating documentary, “American Red and Black: Stories of Afro-Native Identity” explores the biracial experiences of people who trace mixed ancestry through both African American and Native American bloodlines.

For more information on the Dakota Access Pipeline, check out this site by supporters and this site by protesters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also documents its work on the Dakota Access Pipeline here

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