Events of historic importance are slowly unfolding south of Mandan, North Dakota, near the boundary of another nation state, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest has grown into something much larger and more important for the future of white-Indian relations. It is no longer just about the pipeline. We may be witnessing the beginning of a continent-wide pan-Indian movement. It involves a firm insistence that the larger American culture show much greater respect to Indian lives, Indian concerns, Indian culture, Indian grievances, and Indian sovereignty. But it also represents a renewal of confidence and solidarity in the Native American world. A new generation of young Indians is observing the protests in North Dakota. They are learning essential lessons about how to live with pride and dignity as Native Americans on a continent overwhelmingly dominated by a more powerful culture that does not understand or admire Native American ways of seeing and making public decisions.
As we in the non-Indian community look on, it is essential that we try to shut up and just listen for a change. The truth is that white people don’t know very much about Indian lives and Indian ways of seeing. What little we know comes through two unreliable lenses: first, the tenacious popular culture stereotype of Indians as whooping savages on horseback; second, the idea that Indians are a merely dysfunctional people living in a morass of poverty, alcoholism, and failed tribal governance.
Time to clear our minds and look at things with fresh eyes.
I know of almost no white people who can really explain how tribal sovereignty works, why it is that the Standing Rock Lakota are a separate nation within the states of North and South Dakota; just how their land was confiscated by the citizens and the government of the United States; how the reservation system was born, and for what historical purposes; how reservations were shattered by the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed non-Indians to homestead on tribal lands that were deemed–by white policy makers–as “surplus.” Most white people know nothing about reserved hunting and fishing rights, about Native American spiritual dynamics, or about the ways in which legal systems (county, state, federal, reservation) overlap and interplay in Indian country.
So we should shut up and listen. This is an opportunity for non-Indians to listen to Chairman David Archambault of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and many others who are attempting to explain why this protest movement began and what it means for Indians and non-Indians alike. As the humanist Everett Albers used to say, “judgment is easy, understanding is hard.” You cannot learn when you are talking, and you have nothing much to say if you are basing your talking points on ignorance.
We non-Indians may not always agree with what we are hearing in these intense moments in the autumn of 2016. We may not always even understand what we are hearing and reading. But the important thing is that we try to listen hard and with generosity of spirit and open minds. The protests are no threat to non-Indians. We do not lose something if we listen respectfully. We do not lose something if the petroleum-industrial-government complex finds it possible to accommodate the requests of the Standing Rock nation.
It is time for a new spirit of reconciliation between the two cultures. In 1890 the non-Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas J. Morgan, said: “The Indians must conform to the white man’s ways, peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must.” Morgan lived during the high water mark of forced assimilation policies. But, if you stop to think about it, as events unfold around Labor Day 2016 in southern North Dakota, we are not so far from Morgan’s threat. It is not at all impossible that “forcibly if they must” is one of the options that state and federal authorities are contemplating as they try to manage this crisis and clear the path for the pipeline to move across the Missouri River.
What we know from Wounded Knee 1890 or for that matter Wounded Knee 1973 is that when two cultures that cannot negotiate in mutual good faith and mutual respect find themselves in a highly tense landscape with the threat of violence not very far from the surface, terrible things can happen suddenly and without either side really wanting those things to happen. We need to ratchet this situation down not up, and both sides need to explicitly renounce the use of violence. And both sides need to police their hotheads to make sure those vows are kept.
The whole world is watching.
Instead of exchanging uninformed platitudes and bravado at coffee shops around the state of North Dakota, we non-Indians should use this opportunity to inform ourselves about the Lakota world. Here are a few suggestions of books that would allow us to understand more and discuss this situation with knowledge rather than hunches and talking points:
- Robert M. Utley. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. You cannot understand the Standing Rock world if you don’t know the life and struggles of Sitting Bull. Besides, North Dakota tourism promotes Sitting Bull as one of the “legendary” figures in North Dakota history. He’s part of our official tourism package!
- Thomas Powers. The Killing of Crazy Horse. Hint: it’s not really just about Crazy Horse, but rather about the overwhelming thrust of white civilization that he was trying to resist on behalf of the sovereignty of his people.
- Edward Lazarus. Black Hills, White Justice. The “Sioux” (Lakota) world was centered on the Black Hills. The Sioux reservations as we now see them on maps are the result of land cessions and confiscations that were never agreed to by the Lakota people. In Lakota discontentment, the Black Hills are always a central factor.
- Evan S. Connell. Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. Vastly entertaining, a kind of breezy, sweeping exploration of the ways in which the two cultures could not prevent the Custer debacle.
- Paul Van Develder. Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation. Why is water so important to the Lakota? One of the principal “myths” white people hold about Indians is that the “Indians wars have been over for a century.” Not so. The damming of the Missouri river in the 1950s and 1960s had a catastrophic impact on Native American culture on the Upper Missouri River. You cannot really understand the passion behind the Dakota pipeline controversy if you don’t know about this episode.
- Michael L. Lawson. Damned Indians: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux.
Read any of these books. Read all of them. They are fascinating. They are historical, not polemical.If you only have time for one, read Coyote Warrior. Every North Dakotan should know this story. We are blessed to live among the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Dakota, and Lakota. North Dakota would be a much less interesting place without its Native American cultures. If we want the twenty-first century to be great for North Dakota, it is essential that we (all of us) pass this first twenty-first century test with grace and intelligence.
The whole world is watching, North Dakota.