Splinters of Light We Choose Not to See

I am an interested follower of US politics, and though I occasionally make provisional judgments on certain issues, I hope I’m not partisan in any conventional sense. The narrow and one-dimensional liberal-conservative spectrum so dominant in US political discourse oversimplifies and distorts what we know of reality, as if one could understand everything about electromagnetism by acknowledging no more than the tiny spectrum of light visible to human eyes. In the long, lamentable story of US relations with indigenous peoples, however, there’s more than enough bad behavior to encompass the liberal-conservative spectrum and beyond. It might be good to recall some splintered fragments of that history.

I truly hope this weekend’s welcome turn in the Standing Rock protests is not short-lived. The issues are no doubt complex, but my reading of history suggests any victory for indigenous sovereignty and against shifting environmental costs onto the poor and marginalized is to be celebrated. If I understand correctly, the US Army Corps of Engineers has declined to grant Energy Transfer Partners LP final permission for an easement to construct the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe. The stated reason for this action is to halt pipeline construction until alternate routes for crossing the Missouri River are studied. That this decision is reversible, whether during the remainder of the current administration or the next, should not be lost on anyone.

Nor should followers of this standoff forget that “Lake Oahe” is an artificial reservoir created by one of several dams on the Missouri River built by the USACE and Bureau of Reclamation under the Flood Control Act of 1944 That reservoir alone flooded more than 55,000 acres of the Standing Rock reservation and 150,000 acres of Cheyenne River reservations, resulting in a massive loss of farmland, towns, and family livelihoods – losses for which the involved nations are still seeking compensation.

The Standing Rock reservation is itself a fragment of traditional Lakota lands remaining from series of broken treaties and agreements, most notably the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. No doubt Energy Transfer Partners LP has compelling reasons to route the pipeline as planned. It clearly considers the COE decision unfair and a temporary political setback. On the other hand, the Lakota people carry bad memories of nearly two centuries with them when negotiating with government or corporate interests.

The ironies and uncertainties of this weekend’s late action by the current administration call to mind the “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States” passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on December 19, 2009. If you didn’t read or hear about that event, there’s good reason. The brief apology, which specifically precludes any claims or settlements against the US, begins forty-five pages into the long and dense 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (PL 111-118) and was never formally announced. To make up for this omission, Mark Charles (Diné) gathered a small group on the National Mall for a public reading of the bill on the third anniversary of its passage. Charles’ reading of the apology (Section 8113) comes at minute 25:58 of the video below.

I make no policy recommendations here, nor do I draw any conclusions. There is nothing in this sad history that has, in fact, concluded. Yet many memories embedded in this ongoing and mostly unequal relationship go unrecognized. Like the electromagnetic spectrum, there’s more here than unaided eyes can see. If some see these nelgected splinters of light quite clearly, it’s only because they have no choice. For the rest of us, it may help to listen until we begin to see.

Photo credit: Santeri Viinamäki