Standing Rock: the fortitude of Native Americans


"What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?" -Massasoit

"We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?" -Sealth

"My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away" --Black Hawk.

There are many minority groups which compose the United States, but none can call themselves the first Americans or First Nation, with the exception of the indigenous people.  It is these people, Native Americans, who find themselves at the epicenter of a brutal conflict at Standing Rock.  At stake, native lands vs. pipe lines, a treaty vs. oil, broken government promises vs. money, and moral imperatives vs. national interest.

The history of Native Americans has been one of continuous warfare, racism, and marginality.  The current conflict is an unfolding of three hundred years of struggle over cultural misunderstandings and land rights.   A fundamental question that remains is who has the right to maintain their cultural heritage in a specific geographical space vs. who has the right to exploit the national resources of the land?  In this push and pull scenario the indigenous population has suffered unspeakable tragedies as a result of legislation intertwined with philosophies designed to justify the uprooting and removal of a people.

As far back as the English Colonies, the differences between the two societies were distinctive, particularly the philosophies concerning property and cultural norms. The British view of the world was diametricallyopposed to the Native people’s way of life. From the English perspective indigenous men were lazy, sincethey did not cultivate crops, neither planted seeded, nor harvesting in mass quantity First Americans did plant and harvest, however, only what was needed for the winter. The idea of buying and selling their crops wasinconceivable. Native men hunted, an alien concept to the British.Since hunting was viewed as a sport, not work. This of course was not entirely true, since most England menhad to hunt for food. It was the aristocracy which saw hunting as a spot not the common man.

Concepts of property, particularly private property, did not exist in the Native American holistic view of heaven and earth.Land was held collectively by the entire group.

Therefore, it could not be brought or sold, as the land belonged to God. As Massasoit,chief of theWampanoag Indiansstated, “What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?"On the other hand, the English were familiar with the concept of individual farmers who had the right to buy and sell their land.  The English absolutely rejected the legitimacy of Indian rights to traditional hunting grounds, asserting that only land intensively cultivated could be viewed as owned or occupied. Further, they had no right to hunt on landheld by an individual.

As one colonial officialstated, “savage peoples who rambled over a region without farming it could claim no title or property in the land.”  Ownership of such unclaimed property, the English alleged lay with English realm.

Above all, the English settlers never wavered in their viewof both their superiority and their civilization.  They persistently assumed they could dictate the terms of coexistence. The thesis of individual property and European dominance never ended, as British colonialism ended, and the U.S. was born. Despite the Constitution, the two remained separate and unequal, one superior the other inferior. The American Constitution did not address Native people rights or citizenship and the statement “All men were created equal,” did not apply to them.In fact, American Indians were not granted citizenship until 1924. Over the years, however, as a result of having not resolved native rights, in the name of nation building and expansion, indigenous people lost tens of thousands of areas of land and were relegated to reservations which were viewed as autonomous nations in and of themselves. 

Reservations are considered sovereign, which denotes their inherent authority to rule themselves in the boundaries of the United States. The federal government differentiates ethnic homelands as “domestic dependent nations”and created numerous judgements attempting to demonstrate the association between them (Native Americans) and various agencies within the governmentsin a hopeless attempt to define them. 

The Constitution and federal government allowed local sovereignty to tribal nations, yet did not give them full sovereignty analogous to foreign nations, they were known as “domestic dependent nations.”

In the final analysis, however, thesignificance of delineatingIndianTerritory was defined by those who drove them off their land and herded them into some of the furthermost regions of the U.S., and in fact the land was inhospitable. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was created to precisely for the purpose, toremove and eliminate them.

The fundamental principle or justification for Indian removal was that Native Americans had a natural right to the soil as unique occupants within the U.S.The problem, however, was First Nation people occupied the richest land. Consequently, indigenous properties had to bepurchased, principally by negotiations which encompassedcontracts and treaties. Further, these treaties allowed the United States government to use theconcept of discovery. This notionmaintained since Euro-Americans found the land or discovered it, by natural rightsthe land belonged to them, never mind the fact they “discovered” land that Native populations werealready living on. If a treaty did not suffice to remove them,armed forces accomplished the task.

The rationalization of creating a reservation was twofold: Native American possessions could be exploited with little cost and the milieu of the area they occupied would create a research laboratory in social reconstruction or engineering. Reservations were perceived as a sanctuary for a diminishing race that could be lifted from their inferior standing by assimilation. Hence, theFederal Government created the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  This office was entrusted with the duty of destroying the life style of the “savages” by encouraging them to become “civilized”, through compulsory education, claiming that agricultural work was a necessity, and above all that private property was the essence of sophisticated societies.

“To this end, the reservation was conceived as a controlled society where the habits of civilization could be molded under the direction of the Indian agent and agency personnel. From 1880 to 1934, ethnocide became an officially sanctioned policy (known in the later twentieth century as ethniccleansing).”  

This form of killing was composed of three approaches, training Native American youth to adjust to white culture, massacres, and the slaughter of the buffalo.

The most famous educational experiment took place at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was widely believed if Indian youth at the institutioncropped the lengthy of their hair, learned to speak English, changed their traditional apparel, and were prevented from preforming traditional ceremonies, that they could “kill the Indian and save the Man.”  In essence, they would transform students from a state of savage to that of bring civilized.

Wholesale killingof Native people was frequent, the most famous were “The Battle at Bear River, 1863, Sand Creed, 1864, and wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890. The ultimate blow to Native life, was the virtual annihilationof the buffalo, who were essential to Plains Indians existence. The killing began in the 1860’s, as the concept of building transcontinental railroad from coast to coast became more than a statement but reality and the discovery buffalo hides were an important capital gain; it could be used as lather. The commencement of their demise was a necessity. In perusing the building the rail line, it became clear killing buffalo would also kill the Native population.As Colonel Richard Irving Dodge stated, “Kill every buffalo you can….Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

The Lakota, however,considered the buffalo a gift from heaven and viewed them as a relatives. As John (Fire) Lame Deer stated in a collective work with Richard Erdoes, “The Buffalo was part of us, his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood.  Our clothing from the buffalo’s body. It was hard to say when the animals ended and the human began.”  From 1872 onwards, three million buffalo were killed per year. By 1883, the buffalo had vanishedand with them the end of large Indian uprisings.

In 1890, with Native people forced onto reservations, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, andthe acceptance of new states into the Union, the West was effectively consider closed by the U.S. Census Bureau.  As far as the Federal Government was concerned, the country east to west was one Nation under its Judaification.

The great transformative experiment to recreate Native people into civilized whites, failed. The relics of that experience litter the country in the absence of First Nation people working in governmental agencies, higher education, hospitals as doctors, to say nothing of the manufacturing sector producing goods for the larger society. Three hundred years of interaction between two diverse cultures did not create a single cooperative strand.  What is left, however, are reservations in whole or in part unable to sustain themselves. Native people continue to struggle for the most basic needs. Standing Rock is one moredisingenuous act in a long series of unfilled promises, broken treaties, and government inaction.

If history has taught us nothing, it has clearly defined the relationship between Native people and the Federal Government as adversarial. Thus the current victory of having stopped the pipeline from moving forward at Standing Rock is temporary at best. A comprehensive strategy must come into play, which will address all First People’s concerns and rights. New tactics will be needed to uphold their rights and concerns. Whatever decisions are made, they must include all Nations with the knowledge that their struggle is not defined by one victory over a single issue, but multiple ones with tangible and long lasting results. In the end, only First Nation People can truly change their situation, the rest of the society is obvious to their plight. As Chief Red Cloud stated many years ago, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”