This article on the struggles and hardships of the modern Native American will almost certainly be outdated the moment it is printed, rendered obsolete by a fresh wave of news reports and eyewitness accounts adding tragedies to a list which already resembles the criminal violations of a third world country. A deadline, however, and a frighteningly low level of Scotch left in the bottle, demand an end to this, even an unsatisfactory one.
You are, perhaps, familiar with the idea of Native Americans. The people we learned about in early American history classes, often in past tense and with an eye towards talking about how very many of them died due to the disease of contact (plague and small pox, to be sure, but also steel and the hangman’s rope), tended to drop out of our history books somewhere in 1876 with Custer’s last stand and the gradual realization of “Manifest Destiny.” Stubbornly, like the endangered wolves and cougars which we must maintain at miniscule numbers for the safety of our vast cattle herds, the Native peoples of America have persisted in surviving, almost as if they believed they had the right. And, like the wolves and the cougars, for their own safety we have confined them to small parcels of land (reservations) and carefully monitored their blood content in order to judge a “real” Native from one who had the audacity to be adopted or be born on tribal land. “Managing” the Native Americans has been, and continues to be, both a local and a national concern for the United States.
On a local level, we must consider the plight of the Quapaw tribe. Here in Arkansas, the land of the Quapaw tribe (from which the state takes its name) , it is fertile. It is not unusual for it to yield two, even three harvests per year, each one (corn, soybeans, and cotton). There is a river that slices through their home and routinely revitalizes the fields, impregnating them with the black earth and minerals needed to keep the crops healthy. The river keeps the people healthy, too; small mouth and large mouth bass swell to impressive sizes in its waters, which are cleaner and fresher than the Mississippi to the east.
Oklahoma, where the Quapaw live, the land is dusty and dry. Plants, when they grow, are a stunted, shriveled mimicry of their counterparts in the lush valleys. Pitcher, Oklahoma, located on Quapaw tribal land and leased by government approved contractors for the vital work of pulling lead (now considered too hazardous to use in most applications), has been declared an environmental disaster, one of the most toxic areas in the United States, and is believed to be the cause of extremely elevated cases of cancer, learning disabilities, and death amongst the population (which had to be evicted). The Tar Creek which runs through the area and was once a source of fish and drinking water for the Native people is now an alarming orange color. The University of Michigan, which conducted a study there, declared it to be “for all intents and purposes, dead.”
Though their tribe had been close friends of the French who once occupied the area, and one of their chiefs, Sarasin, was hailed as a “friend of the missionaries” and credited with the rescue of dozens of white children from the raids of hostile tribes, 1824 saw the last of the Quapaw tribe expelled from Arkansas. One hundred eighty-nine years later, in 2013, the tribe returned; posing as a dog food company with aspirations of bulldozing the area and setting up factories, the Quapaw people purchased one hundred sixty acres just south of the Little Rock airport. They are requesting that the land be recognized as belonging to their people, and so be placed in trust by the federal government. This would create the first reservation in Arkansas, and would, coincidentally, return the possibility of farming and fishing to a people which were once known to be gifted farmers.
The tribe says they are simply returning home and have the goal of protecting their ancestors’ burial grounds which have been found in the area. Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, released a statement saying “Arkansas law better protects the graves on the land than federal law and that the ‘burial sites in question would be rendered vulnerable’ if the land is put into trust.” That the area is designated as an industrial site ready to host a factory is, of course, a testament to this. What better to discourage grave robbers than asphalt and semi-trucks? Soon every graveyard worth being buried in will have them. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is opposed to the presence of the tribe, and claims that he fears “that they might use it to avoid state law…they might use it as to build a casino,” presumably forgetting that Arkansas is already home to two casinos, one in West Memphis and one in Hot Springs. The real problem, according to Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, is that “placing the land in a federal trust would remove it from county taxation,” which, as any good Christian knows, can only be tolerated when that status is applied to multi-million dollar churches. Perhaps forgetting that the land has already been paid for (and let that sink in, the idea of having to pay and ask for something of yours which already legally belongs to you), Arkansas politicians and the owners of the West Memphis and Hot Spring casinos have tried to extract pledges from the Quapaw people that they will not attempt to build a casino or insist upon control of their own home. The leader of the Quapaw, John Berrey, has refused, saying “this isn’t a ‘treaty.’”
This is, of course, an absurd stance for the tribe to be taking. Likely due, in no small part, to their appalling lack of education (Native Americans have the lowest high school graduation rates of any ethnic group in the United States, even after being adjusted for population), the tribe seems to be unfamiliar with the exemplary record our government has in protecting the downtrodden and oppressed. The Marshall Plan channeled over $12 billion dollars into Western Europe over four years (beginning in 1948) in order to help the countries, even Germany, rebuild following WWII. NBC News reports that the U.S. gives $3 billion in uncontested aid each year to Israel (a country with a GDP in 2013 of $291.3 billion) and is expected to increase this amount over the next ten years. It is true, of course, that the treaties we made with the people within our own borders, the Native American tribes, have been broken and ignored, but always for logical reasons which we cannot really be faulted for (gold, oil, farmland, and unwillingness to live too close to “savages”). We must keep in mind that these were promises made by people who are long dead, and that nothing is legally binding once the people who originally agreed to the legal papers are deceased. This will certainly be the case for our spouses if we should die before our school loans are paid off, for example, and surely the hospital bills from our parents cancer treatments will vanish the moment we lay them into the ground.
We are a civilized people, these days. Racism, we congratulate ourselves, is a thing of a past…behold, we even have a black president! While the actions of our long-dead ancestors (slave owning, genocide, kidnap, rape) are certainly reprehensible, we can rest easy knowing that those dark days are behind us. We are a land and a people of equality, where hard work and ingenuity are rewarded. These things just don’t happen anymore.
…when in 1973 Native American protestors took a stand in the town of Wounded Knee and demanded that the United States government reopen negotiations with them and acknowledge the treaties the government had broken. The National Guard was called, and machine gun fire was used on the protestors, the first of which was killed when a bullet penetrated a church wall. Vietnam veterans who were present were in shock, saying “it was just like Vietnam.”
…when throughout the 1970’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had an “Indian Placement Program” which forcibly removed young Native children from their families and placed them within Mormon households, resulting in just over five thousand traumatized children and fractured homes.
…when in 1976 a report found that four out of twelve Indian Health Service stations provided by the government sterilized, without their knowledge or consent, some three thousand, four hundred and six Native American women, targeting those with “purer” blood and ignoring a court order banning sterilizations on women younger than 21 (of which they did thirty six).
…when in 2006 the Shoshone-Bannock tribe was sending photos in to the EPA of their smoking, radioactive lakes, the result of fifty two years of the FMC Corporation and Monsanto dumping radioactive slag onto reservation lands and “safely capping it”…with a layer of topsoil.
…when in 2015 the EPA failed to oversee the cleanup of a mine close to the Navajo territories, resulting in the poisoning of the Animas river “with high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury,” according to CNN, a tragic level of pollution which has turned the river as unnaturally orange as a Crayola crayon.
…when in 2015 it was reported by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics that Native Americans, especially youth between the ages of 18 to 24, commit suicide at a high rate than any ethnic group in the United States, which has been tied to studies listing 1 out of 4 Native Americans as living “below the poverty level.”
…when it took until 2015 to allow tribal courts to pursue non-Native rapists of tribal women (80% of the rapists are reported as being white), but only allows them to be prosecuted by the tribes if the attacker was a boyfriend or a spouse (making reservations easy targets for non-Native rapists).
…when in 2016 the original path of the Dakota Access Pipeline was changed from Bismarck, North Dakota (a predominately white area which was unimpressed with the idea of contaminated drinking water), by the Army Corps of Engineers when it was deemed to be in “close proximity to source water protection areas, multiple conservation easements and residential areas,” and moved instead to an area upstream of the Standing Rock reservation, where the Corps reported it “minimizes impacts on sensitive resources.”
That brings us to the national concern: the Dakota Access Pipeline and what it means for the Native American tribes in its path. The Lakota-Sioux, the Native American tribe which the pipeline immediately effects, has set up a peaceful protest camp in the path of the pipeline. There, with prayer sticks, peace pipes, teepees and horses, they hold vigils and implore the government to help them defend land promised to them in numerous treaties from the advance of a project which, if it meets with any form of accident, will immediately result in unsafe drinking water (let alone bathing, fishing, or cleaning) for millions of people, as the pipeline goes along the Missouri River.
Energy Partners LP, the company which is building the pipeline (and in which President Donald Trump owns stock, which could affect any decision made on the matter) has assured the public that pipelines are perfectly safe and that should the worst occur, they will happily provide bottled water to the public at a discount. Residents of Mayflower, Arkansas will recall how the Exxon Mobile Pipeline Company, responsible for the spill in 2013 which sent over five thousand barrels of tar sand crude into residences when their pipeline burst, was very helpful in arresting residents who took pictures of the pollution, and how reassuring they were when telling residents complaining to this day that nausea, vomiting, increased cancer rates, and abdominal pain were perfectly normal following a spill and that one day, surely, they would taper off.
MPR reports that “according to data from the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration 184,982 barrels of hazardous liquid were spilled from pipelines from 1995 to 2015.
Data also show 859 “serious incidents” since 1995 — those in which the spills resulted in a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospital care. In that same time there have been 5,674 “significant incidents,” including “liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion.” This report includes the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the devastation of which continues to this day, as in 2016 “Diseases of Aquatic Organisms” reported that 88% of dolphins born in that area were stillborn as the result of abnormally, underdeveloped lungs, as compared to 15% of dolphins in other areas suffering the same defects. Though BP assures us that “the Gulf is a resilient body of water,” according to NPR, each storm sees more oil and sludge churned up from the depths to wash up on the shoreline, where tar balls can still be found. The water bottles provided by the BP Corporation have, surely, been a great help to the fishermen who once worked those waters.
Though the government has upheld some of the people’s rights when they insisted on fining BP for the Gulf spill and throwing out the corporations attempts at lawsuits who were “slandering” them by insisting the spill was avoidable, little concern seems to be given at present for the rights of the Native Americans who are trying to prevent a similar catastrophe at Standing Rock, and at every other inhabited place the Missouri River touches.
Mercenary companies, armed with guns and attack dogs , were the first to be employed by the Dakota Pipeline against the Standing Rock protestors (or protectors, as they can perhaps be more accurately called). Following that, police from seven states, in addition to the National Guard, have been called to remove the Native Americans and their allies from the path of the pipeline “by any means necessary.” At one point, one twenty seven people were arrested for “resisting arrest” during the protest, strip-searched, and tossed into cells without the benefit of a phone call, a lawyer, food, or water, among them Divergent actress Shailene Woodley. When the jail cells became too full to hold the Native Americans who had gathered to protect the Missouri River (the longest river in the United States), they were thrown into dog kennels. On their forearms, in permanent marker, their intake numbers were written as a means of identification, in lieu of names.
The forces deployed against the Standing Rock group have become increasing militarized, progressing from typical small-town police gear to a level of equipment and gear which would not look out of place in an overseas war, all to ensure that a line of pipe is laid. Tanks, sonic canons, rubber bullets, mace, and the shooting of horses is becoming a daily standard for the Lakota-Sioux of Standing Rock and their allies. Amnesty International sentdelegations to monitor the offenses and to urge President Obama to call an immediate halt to the construction. The pipeline continues to grow, however, and in North Dakota, winter has already arrived. Though they have held out since spring of this year, the Native Americans will soon be facing North Dakota temperatures of -60 degrees while attempting to hold out against the water cannons being used against them.
Only recently has mainstream media, notoriously indifferent to the suffering of Native Americans, began to pay attention to the actions out at Standing Rock. T-shirt companies, very few of which send anything in the way of donations, have put out numerous signs calling for the halt of the pipeline, often with the hashtag #NODAPL. Calls for donations have gone up on Native-approved sites, including GoFundMe, CrowdRise and Kickstarter. The sites specify that the funds going to the people at Standing Rock will provide them with porta potties, food, heating, and shelter before the snows force them to give up their fight.
My generation, notoriously poor and unable to compete with the likes of Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America when it comes to the brand of “freedom of speech” employed in the courts (money, a language few of us have ever learned) in order to protect the interests of business over the interests of people who may, on occasion, like to drink water or bathe in the stuff, still have the means to offer support to the water protectors of Standing Rock. Once celebrated phone users and perpetrators of round-the-clock calls, we have at our disposal on the websites of the Lakota Sioux the phone numbers of a few important folk who, inundated with our impressive and now seldom-used talent, might concede that another pipeline is, possibly, a bad idea. Various Facebook pages connected to the water protectors state that people should call their local representatives and the White House in order to make the voice of the people heard in speaking out against the pipeline.
It has been suggested that one of the most effective ways the average American can help support their efforts is by looking up and refusing business to any of the following banks which are directly funding the pipeline: Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Mizuho Bank, Citibank (CitiGroup), TD Securities, Credit Agricole, Intesa SanPaolo, ING Bank, Natixis, Bayern LB, BBVA Securities, DNB First, ICBC London, SMBC Nikko Securities, Societe General, Royal Bank of Scotland, ABN Amro Capital, Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), Citizens Bank, Comerica Bank, U.S. Bank, PNC Bank, Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Compass Bank, Credit Suisse, DNB Capital/ASA, Sumitomo Mitsui Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, UBS, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Community Trust Bank, and HSBC Bank.
So many of us are proud of our Native American heritage, no matter how small the percent. With skin often paler or darker than anything you would see on the reservations, we talk with pride about our Cherokee, Sioux, Cheyenne heritage, or any of a dozen others. We imagine purer, nobler people than ourselves who cared for the land and its creatures, speaking about our cousins as if they are long gone from this land, as if there is nothing more we can do for them. How upsetting for us, then, to be confronted with our own continuing injustice to our Native family members. How uncomfortable we are to be reminded that, once upon a time, we were immigrants here, fed and clothed when our own bumbling ineptitude would have had us starving and freezing to death in an unfamiliar New England winter. Patiently, peacefully, our Native brothers and sisters are waiting for us to acknowledge them. And while they wait, they are suffering, and they are dying.