Troubled Waters: A Tale of Two Protests

Remember the occupation earlier this year of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon by the Bundy brothers and friends? They had come to the rescue (in their opinion) of locals who had been convicted of burning forest land and were protesting. They saw these rural Oregonians as fellow victims of the federal lands policies — policies that deny them free use of public lands. They were not welcomed by most locals who preferred to handle the situation in their own way and resented outside interference.

standing-rockNot long after Malheur, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline project began at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Thousands of sympathizers, Indian and non-Indian, flocked to the encampment to ally with the Sioux. The Standing Rock Chairman expressed thanks to all who are raising their voices with the Sioux against the actions of the pipeline company and what they see as the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for permitting the route under the Missouri River just upstream of the tribe.

But not all are happy about the out-of-state supporters. Local non-Indian residents in the area claim vandalism of private property, blockaded roads and harassment. Some are frightened by  the presence of thousands of Indians in the neighborhood.

So, is this the same scenario – Malheur and North Dakota? In both cases outsiders flocked to support a local cause. But I would argue that the stakes are different, that this is an issue of tribal sovereignty, not an individual citizen complaint against the feds.  This is about US history, treaties, court cases, and policies that define the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government. A tribe’s sovereign status has been affirmed in various venues, and the federal government has a commitment to respect that status and deal with Indian Nations as they would any other sovereign power – to the extent possible. The extent possible is defined case-by-case, depending on the agency and the tribe, but in the end it seems that the US usually prevails. If a pipeline needs to be built, a sacred mountain mined, a river diverted the tribe is likely to lose.

standing-rock-tentsStanding Rock is calling for scrutiny of this relationship and a recognition of abuses in the past as well as the present. This is an objective shared by every federally recognized tribe across the country. The encampment at Standing Rock has galvanized tribal voices into a powerful protest. Many feel they are reclaiming a cultural identity and finding a new unity among tribal people which they hope to maintain and nurture.

Although the Army Corps lived up to its legal obligation and met with tribes to hear their concerns, the tribes did not prevail. “Hearing concerns” is a great first step, but sovereign to sovereign negotiations need to follow, where mutual respect and careful listening are the rule, and where both sides honestly seek a solution. This is why Standing Rock has stood up and why others around the country have rallied around. This is not simply about a citizen at war with the federal government; this is about the definition of sovereignty and our responsibility as a nation to honor our commitments.

Oh, and back to the Bundy gang. After their five week siege, they were charged with obstructing justice, firearms violations, destruction of federal property and theft. In October a federal judge acquitted the Bundy brothers and five others of all federal charges.

And in North Dakota, last I heard authorities shot water hoses at the protesters in freezing temperatures and attacked them with a variety of clubs, sticks and rubber bullets. There’s another difference between the two situations.

10 thoughts on “Troubled Waters: A Tale of Two Protests”

  1. It was a jury (in federal court), not a federal judge that acquitted the Bundy brothers. Another difference, I am headed up to Standing Rock this Saturday to participate in Veterans Stand for Standing Rock.

    1. Thanks, Ken, for the correction — important distinction. And bless you for standing with Standing Rock. I heard Chairman Archambault on the News Hour tonight speaking with such appreciation of the veterans’support. Stay warm! Sending love your way.

  2. Some time I’ll tell you the McGovern incident, but now I’m too bummed out to do much of anything.
    peace and love

  3. Good morning Lucy,

    Always good to hear from you to learn what one may not normally be paying attention to. My first reaction to both cases was and is, where are the mediators? There is always more to the story than we get in newscasts and the like–as we learned in the Scott-Lewis shooting and others. I always hate to see outside, reportedly paid protesters getting involved as it muddies the waters for sure. A sit down with all pertinent stakeholders would seem to be in order. I do not know all, or even a fraction of the issues involved. Are there differences in reservation lands vs ancestral lands, are there more risks or less in rail transport, do the tribes get water directly from the river or from wells that may be connected the river, >>>>many, many  questions. There is no question that aging pipelines are a potential problem, but we have over 2 million miles of natural resource pipelines in the country already. What have we learned about making them safer? What construction practices have been put in place to minimize risks. Was there not an EIS conducted along the Route? We learned so much from native Americans about circles and resolving conflict, why are these procedures not being utilized?? A7KT

    1. You nailed all the right questions, Larry. It is really complex, more than we know. One part that interests me especially is the consultation question — the requirement that every federal agency must “consult with” a tribe if a proposal or project may have a damaging impact. Just how this done varies a lot from case to case, but I think it usually does not include the kind of serious negotiations that are necessary so that tribes have a fair chance of protecting themselves.

  4. I suspect there is a lot of “communicative preparations” that could have improved whatever NEPA analyses were performed related to the Standing Rock pipeline case. It all goes back to communication, communication, and more communication. When an agency spokesperson says they do not have time to adequately address tribal needs, they need to provide that feedback to higher level administrators. or do the work themselves. Meet often, talk often and consult often. Many federal agencies have a lot of learning ahead of them if they really desire to work effectively with sovereign nations. The comment about circular discussions needs to be invoked more frequently when dealing with Native American tribes.

    1. Thanks, Dave, I couldn’t agree more — it’s all about communicating, and doing so clearly and honestly. I work with a lot of federal agencies, and have run into many staff who really want to do the job right and are constrained by time and money, or lack of political will. I am grateful they are there, trying their best.

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