The Dakota Access Pipeline (also known as the Bakken Pipeline) is trampling sacred Lakota land, and its attempt to bury a crude oil pipeline beneath burial grounds and under a major river could have devastating repercussions, both ecological and cultural. But it’s not the first time Native Americans have had to fight for their right to keep their land, and it certainly won’t be the last, for the United States has a nasty history of stealing land that it does not own.
In the 19th century, much of the conflicts with Native Americans revolved around the country’s quest for gold. From California, Colorado, to the Dakotas, American Indians were pushed further and further off their lands, all in the name of greed. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just one more in a long line of injustices Native Americans have endured.
California Gold Rush
School children learn about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California, but they often do not learn how this affected the local indigenous populations. Prior to the gold rush, Euro-American settlement had already put a strain on local native populations through diseases, with large swaths of Maidu, Pomo, and other tribes losing people to illness.
Once gold was discovered, though, a crush of people invaded their lands and forced them out. American Experience, by PBS, tells the all-too-common story of white men rounding up Indians, forcing them to cross rivers (many drowned because they could not swim), penning them in small reservations, and killing entire villages. April Moore, a Nisenan Maidu, told a harrowing story of her family’s struggle to survive.
“And suddenly all this noise started up — the gunfire, the screaming, the shouting — and then they heard all these different people screaming and shouting. So they ran out to … see what was going on, and had seen these soldiers on horses who were taking people and killing them, slamming children against rocks and trees, and just running down men and shooting them.”
Moore’s ancestors made it to safety in another village but many were not so lucky. Native Americans in Northern California were forced to either blend in with the local Mexican population, adopting Mexican names and culture, or they were always on the run from soldiers.
Colorado’s Gold Fever
A decade later, Colorado entered the gold rush. According to the National Park Service, “over 50,000 people came to the Pike’s Peak area in 1859 alone.” This large migration of people forced the local Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes off their ancestral lands. Although both tribes desired a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflicts between settlers and Indians, tensions remained high.
Black Kettle and his band were confined to a small reservation on Sand Creek that was barren of game. Young warriors went out in search of a hunt, or attacked stagecoaches. Colorado’s governor couldn’t secure forces from the federal government because the Civil War was raging, so he called on volunteers. One of those volunteers was a former Methodist minister, John M. Chivington, who was more than happy to solve the governor’s Indian problem.
In September of 1864, Black Kettle and six other Cheyenne chiefs traveled to Fort Weld in an attempt to make peace. PBS’s The West notes that the regular army officers had promised peace, but John Chivington was not regular army. His thirst for blood became too great, and in the pre-dawn hours of November 29, 1864, Chivington and the Colorado Third volunteers attacked.
When regular army officers protested his attack on a peaceful camp made up of mostly old men, women, and children, Chivington scorned them.
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
When the carnage was over, about 200 people lay dead in the snow, including a little boy who had been used as target practice.
South Dakota Black Hills
In 1874, when gold was discovered in the Dakota territory, the white men “came in like a river,” according to the great Lakota medicine man Black Elk. Despite a resounding defeat of General George Custer in 1876, the life of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux became increasingly difficult and they were eventually confined to small reservations.
By the autumn of 1890, the Ghost Dance had gained popularity. It was thought that a return to their Lakota roots would revive their ancestors and drive the white men away from Dakota once and for all. The History Channel describes how the dance angered and frightened the local white population, who feared it would lead to another uprising. They called on the U.S. military to help squelch the movement.
On December 29, soldiers surrounded the camp, seizing any and all weapons, including axes. After a misunderstanding with a deaf Lakota man, shots rang out.
In the end, more than 150 people lay dead in the snow, with half of the victims being women and children. Big Foot was killed and left to die in the snow.
Dakota Access Pipeline
Nearly 126 years after Wounded Knee, another standoff ensued. This time, it’s between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners, L.C., the parent company of the Dakota Access Pipeline. One day after filing an injection against the pipeline, tractors razed a swath of land, purposefully destroying sacred burial grounds, prayer sites, and “culturally significant artifacts.”
KTLA5 reports that the tribe is attempting to halt construction of the pipeline until a judge rules on a previous motion to stop the contraction. The judge is scheduled to rule on Friday, September 9. Again, the U.S. government is at fault, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failing to properly consult the tribe before approving the Dakota pipeline through sacred Lakota ancestral land.
Another major concern is the possibility that the Dakota Access Pipeline — which is planned for construction at just five feet beneath the Missouri River — could leak, contaminating the drinking water. This is a legitimate concern, as the U.S. government’s own Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration documents nearly 12,000 pipeline incidents between 1996 and 2015, with 360 deaths and nearly $6.9 billion dollars in damages.
Official reports from Morton County sheriff’s office in North Dakota claim protesters became violent and wielded knives. Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman documented an altogether different scene where hired mercenaries encouraged their security dogs to attack unarmed pipeline protesters.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is just one more in a long line of actions the American government and private enterprise has taken against the indigenous people of the United States. It is a money grab, and one that has already damaged spiritually significant land, and could irreparably devastate the environment if allowed to continue.
[Photo by James MacPherson/AP Images]