Dakota access pipeline: You don’t have to be that rich to play fast and loose with tribes and their land

The movement against an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline in America’s heartland that had brought together hundreds of different American Indian tribes, said to be the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century, and multitudes of non-tribals from all parts of America, environmental crusaders, Hollywood stars, other celebrities, thousands of ex-servicemen even, hardly the activist type but pipelines in America come under the purview of the army which had given the green signal to this pipeline in the first place and had the power to stop it too.

Gouri Chatterjee December 07, 2016 08:44:19 IST
Dakota access pipeline: You don’t have to be that rich to play fast and loose with tribes and their land

The 1970s had barely begun. I was living in a small town in upstate New York, a five-hour drive from Manhattan but not quite the boondocks being home to such stellar corporations as Eastman Kodak and Xerox. Yet, it was not long before the neighbours’ kids started poking fun at me every time I walked past their homes: “Where’s your feather then? Where’s your bow and arrow?” they’d yell from the safety of their front lawns.

To them there was only kind of Indian, the ones cowboys chased and slaughtered on the silver screen. John Wayne with his leather boots and broad-brimmed hat was still the symbol of American values, a national hero. Clint Eastwood’s cowboys may have been bad or even ugly but Indians were still just Injuns – defeated, unwanted, irrelevant.

They still are. In the high-decibel presidential campaign, much was made of immigrants, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, women and, of course, angry white men, but there was not even a walk-on part for Red Indians, as we used to call them to distinguish them from us, the Indians Christopher Columbus had originally set out to meet.

Dakota access pipeline You dont have to be that rich to play fast and loose with tribes and their land

Protests against the Dakota access pipeline. AP

Even though there was an election issue ripe for the picking. Namely, the movement against an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline in America’s heartland that had brought together hundreds of different American Indian tribes, said to be the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century, and multitudes of non-tribals from all parts of America, environmental crusaders, Hollywood stars, other celebrities, thousands of ex-servicemen even, hardly the activist type but pipelines in America come under the purview of the army which had given the green signal to this pipeline in the first place and had the power to stop it too.

It was in the best tradition of the Westerns – except that the cowboys are all ersatz, the Indians the real deal. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the indigenous peoples of America, a small handful to begin with, camped on the banks of the river Missouri, north America’s longest, on the edge of their reservation, at the point where the pipeline was going to be drilled under the river bed. Word of their heroic resistance spread, their numbers swelled rapidly.

For months they braved the harsh, inclement weather, first hot sultry summer, then icy, freezing winter, and the wrath of the state that included police dogs, rubber bullets, water cannons, sonic weapons, pepper spray and tear gas. Yet, they stood their ground, peacefully, non-violently, to prevent, at times by laying down in front of bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment, the construction of the abhorrent pipeline.

Their fear: The pipeline would threaten their water supply when, inevitably, there’d be a leak, desecrate ancestral lands and cause undue hardship to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe which has the most to lose as the pipeline would be going within half a mile of their reservation and little to gain as any commercial activity resulting from the project would pass them by. Because, of course, the defence for the pipeline is, as always, that magic phrase: economic development.

Ironically, the issue that gained no purchase before the elections has suddenly become a political hot potato after the results, when most of the 1,172 mile steel pipeline is complete, except for a 20-mile section near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. And not just because the army’s deadline for the demonstrators, or “water protectors” as they call themselves, to vacate their sprawling “spiritual camp” on the river bank was Monday, 5 December. The army had even allotted a plot nearby where the activists would be corralled and carry on protesting while work on the pipeline went on unhindered.

Even as the thousands shivering in an icy blizzard that had already blanketed their tents and tepees in several feet of snow readied for a last-ditch confrontation the next morning, the army announced, last Sunday, that it was going back on its earlier decision and withholding permission to start work on the pipeline there. More, it would explore alternate routes “through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”, something that couldn’t happen overnight but precisely what the tribal leaders had been asking for all along.

Fireworks lit up the sky over the river bank, the protestors hugged each other and rejoiced, the leaders thanked all supporters for “standing up for Standing Rock” – and then hunkered down in their encampments to face a cold, bitter winter in the open. A battle may have been won but the war was still far from over.

Evidently, this is one of Barak Obama’s parting gifts to his successor. Obama hadn’t appeared that receptive to the protestors all these months. While Hillary Clinton had released a vague “all voices should be heard” type of statement after a group of Standing Rock youth staged a protest at the Brooklyn campaign headquarters of the Democratic presidential nominee in late October.

That was before they realised Donald Trump could be left holding the baby. And even though it might appear a no-brainer for someone who has professedly no time for environmental concerns, has earlier expressed support for such projects, had in fact at one time owned a sizeable stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline itself, and counts Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners, among the major contributors to his campaign, nullifying the Environmental Impact Statement already instituted won’t be that easy.

True, his friends and supporters are already looking to him to undo the harm done by Obama. Within hours of the army rescinding its order, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for America’s oil and natural gas industry, called on Trump to “reject the Obama administration’s shameful actions to deny this vital energy project, restore the rule of law in the regulatory process, and make this project’s approval a top priority as he takes office in January.” Republican politicians have followed suit while Energy Transfer Partners has declared its intention to stay put.

The choice is stark – a group of unquestionably “forgotten people” versus his rich and powerful friends, the little men in opposition to the Wall Street goliath – a choice Donald Trump cannot welcome in the early days of his Presidency, not after all those fire-eating words on the campaign trail to serve the poor. Now to rush to the aid of his business buddies so brazenly, that won’t come without its quota embarrassment even for a President who is turning his cabinet into a billionaires’ club.

But then, you don’t have to be that rich and famous to play fast and loose with tribes and their lands. Just look at what’s happening closer by, in Jharkhand specifically, home to some of the country’s most iconic tribal leaders and with a rich history of movements waged from the days of the Raj, all very democratically, legally, constitutionally and, again, in the name of development.

Sadly, the Adivasis there have not been able to capture the imagination of their fellow countrymen the way their far-off Sioux brothers have. Nor is politics coming to their rescue, quite the reverse in fact. But that is a tale for another day, on another occasion.

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