At President Donald Trump’s request, a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson now hangs in the Oval Office. Commentators have cast Trump’s populist appeal and inaugural address as “Jacksonian,” while others have tried to emphasize their major differences. One writer lauded Jackson as “the president who, more than any other, secured the future of democracy in America.”
However, these comparisons overlook experiences of marginalized people while defining history in terms of the ideologies of progress and American exceptionalism.
Jackson’s intolerant attitudes and harsh treatment of African-American and Native American peoples have not gone without mention. They are indeed inescapable. As a scholar who has written about Native American history and literature, I am aware of just how often the perspectives of native people are neglected in conventional historical discourse.
The criticisms Trump has directed against Indian casinos in the 1990s, along with his insult of calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” casts his veneration of Jackson in a particularly disturbing light.
Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears
Jackson was a staunch supporter of slavery and policies that forcibly removed Indians from their lands. The passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act was aimed at isolating native peoples to prevent conflict over territory and allow increased settlement.
The solution, originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson, was to empower the government to evict native peoples living east of the Mississippi River from their lands. Those subjected to removal would be moved “beyond the white settlements” to distant reservations in the West, known at the time as “Indian territory.” It was a form of segregation.
In 1832, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia laws aimed at depriving the Cherokee people of their rights and property in Worchester v. Georgia. The court affirmed a degree of native political sovereignty and annulled state jurisdiction over native lands. It was the final case of the so-called Marshall trilogy, named for Chief Justice John Marshall – the author of the majority decisions – and established major precedents of federal Indian law.
The immediate effect of the decision was to grant protections to the Cherokee Nation, and by extension to other tribes. It could have prevented forced removals, but Jackson was reportedly indignant at the result. According to the famed journalist Horace Greeley, Jackson was said to have responded, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Whether Jackson spoke those words has been contested by historians ever since. But his strong support for removal policy and subsequent refusal to enforce the court’s decision made his position clear. The response was a stern rebuke of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the rule of law and ultimately the Constitution.
The result was the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee and other native peoples of the Southeast were forced at gunpoint to march 1,200 miles to “Indian territory.” Thousands of Cherokee died during the passage, while many who survived the trek lost their homes and most of their property. Ironically, much of the land on which the Cherokee and other removed tribes were settled was opened to homesteading and became the state of Oklahoma some 60 years later.
Yet, the violent manner by which removal was carried out had been ruled illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Worchester case.
New assault on native rights?
The new administration is showing similar malice toward the legal status and rights of native peoples secured in American law. For example, Trump recently lifted President Obama’s injunction halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last week’s eviction of pipeline opponents from Sacred Stone Camp, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, under threats of arrest has led to renewed uncertainty about native rights.
Statements by Trump’s advisers and government officials calling for the privatization of native lands guaranteed by treaties to seize valuable natural resources have only heightened these concerns.
This rhetoric echos policies that oppressed native people in the past. These include allotment, extending from 1887 to the 1930s, which eliminated communal ownership and led to the taking of millions of acres of native land. This was followed by termination and relocation of the 1950s, aimed at eliminating the legal status of native people while sending individuals from reservations to urban areas, further depriving native peoples of their lands, liberty and culture.
Tribal leaders negotiated treaties in good faith to reserve what amounts to a fraction of their original lands, with all attendant rights. Privatizing tribal lands would be a violation of these treaties.
The casual rejection of these covenants heighten the insecurity among native people evoked by Trump. His esteem for Jackson and their shared attitudes toward their legal rights and status should give us pause. That journalists and historians continue to offer positive views of Jackson’s presidency in light of this legacy underscores how the suffering of native people continues to be ignored.
On Feb. 8 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course and issued an easement allowing the installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. That decision followed a presidential memorandum indicating that construction and operation of the pipeline would be in the “national interest,” and set the stage for a final showdown over the pipeline’s fate.
In response, two Indian tribes, the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux, filed new motions to halt the pipeline’s construction and operation. After an initial hearing on those motions, the federal judge on the case allowed construction to proceed but will be considering the Tribes’ claims before oil will pass through the pipeline under Lake Oahe. That means, unlike the voices of thousands who joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protest against the pipeline, the next chapter of this fight will be argued by a few lawyers in the pin drop silence of a federal courtroom.
Although the details of those arguments will be complex, as a legal scholar focused on Native American law I see the case addressing an essential question at the heart of our legal system: namely, how does federal law and judicial process protect the fundamental values and structure of the Constitution?
The central issues in the case are now whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline and easement illegally interferes with the tribes’ religious beliefs and whether the corps adequately considered the tribes’ water and other treaty rights before issuing that approval.
Religious Freedom and Restoration Act
According to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, oil running through the pipeline would represent the fulfillment of a generations-old prophesy, passed down through the oral traditions of tribal members, that warned of a Black Snake coming to defile the sacred waters necessary to maintain the tribes’ ceremonies. Beyond the environmental concerns often at the center of the pipeline protests, the tribe’s motion for an injunction squarely defines final authorization of the pipeline by the Corps as an existential threat: destruction of the tribes’ religion and way of life.
The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the exercise of religion free from governmental interference. But the Supreme Court, in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association, in 1988 upheld the Forest Service’s approval of a road across an area on federal land sacred to local tribes even while recognizing the road could have devastating effects on their religion.
Then in 1993, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which requires that the government demonstrate a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means to achieve that interest if its actions will substantially burden religious practice.
In other words, even if approving the Dakota Access Pipeline served a compelling governmental interest, RFRA may require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to show that the pipeline easement under Lake Oahe would have the least impact on tribal religion. That approach would be consistent with the Supreme Court’s broad application of RFRA in a 2014 case not involving tribal interests or federal lands and may pose a significant challenge to the corps, which considered but rejected a different route that did not pose the same threat to the tribes.
Both the Corps and company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline argue that the risk of spill from the pipeline is minimal and that the tribes failed to raise these religious concerns in a timely manner. In addition, the Corps contends that, consistent with the Lyng case, governmental action on federal land should not be restricted because of religious concerns raised by local tribes.
Thus, resolution of the case will turn upon whether the court recognizes the legitimacy of the tribal religious concerns and broadly applies RFRA or, instead, chooses to prioritize federal authority over federal land to the detriment of those concerns. The parties will argue whether the religious freedom issues support an injunction on February 27.
Arbitrary or capricious decisions?
In addition to their religious concerns, the Sioux Tribes challenge the Corps’ decisions based on the rights they reserved in treaties made with the federal government in 1851 and 1868.
The Constitution recognizes treaties as the “supreme law of the land” and, according to a 2016 analysis done by the Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior, both the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux retain treaty-reserved water, hunting, and fishing rights in Lake Oahe.
Before reversing course in February, the Corps refused to issue the easement last year in order to further understand and analyze those treaty rights.
Importantly, federal law generally allows courts to set aside arbitrary or capricious agency decisions. In a February 14th filing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe asks the court to review the Corps’ about-face under that standard and argues that the federal trust responsibility,recognized by the Supreme Court since the early 1800’s, demands more than just a cursory review of tribal treaty rights.
The parties will be briefing the treaty rights issues into March but the judge is keeping a close eye on Dakota Access’ progress in the meantime.
The ultimate fate of the pipeline will turn on how the courts recognize the rights asserted by the Sioux Tribes, rights rooted in the Constitution’s values and structure – precisely the type of rights our rule of law and federal courts are meant to protect.
However, this viewpoint focuses on the profits that go to the oil and construction industries, while ignoring the price that will be paid by other sectors of America’s economy, including tourism and preservation of our cultural heritage – a point I’m quite aware of as an anthropologist focused on the American West. A more accurate reckoning of the economic benefits of pipelines needs to consider the negative impact of pipelines on other parts of our economy.
The business of preservation
The management of America’s heritage begins with a suite of important federal laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, which affirms that “the spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage.” The NHPA’s starting point is that patriotism, preservation and profits are not contrary goals, declaring that “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”
Preserving America’s past for its future is a monumental task. A National Park Service report, for example, found that just in 2014 16.5 million acres were surveyed for cultural resources across the United States. More than 137,000 properties were evaluated for their historical significance and added to state inventories, while more than 1,000 new sites were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The industry that fulfills this trust responsibility is known as cultural resource management, which is made up of a small but highly skilled set of technicians in archaeology, architecture, engineering, geography, history and related fields. There are about 1,300 CRM firms nationwide – nearly all of them small businesses – which employ some 10,000 people. These businesses in turn feed more work, such as equipment suppliers, IT and HR professionals, accountants and administrative support.
The 2014 NPS report also documented the role of historic preservation in the country’s economy. Between 1977 and 2014, under the Federal Historic Preservation Tax program, more than US$73 billion in private investment has been generated to rehabilitate commercial historic properties and nearly 140,000 low and moderate housing units were built in restored historic buildings. Since 1978, an estimated 2.4 million jobs have been created through these projects focused on the preservation of America’s heritage.
The places that are protected have economic tendrils that reach far across the country through tourism. In 2015, for instance, more than 305 million people visited national parks. These tourists spent nearly $16 billion on an array of local services – hotels, gas stations, restaurants – helping to sustain nearly 300,000 jobs. Tourists and travelers visit scores of other national, state and local parks, spending their money to enjoy nature and cultural sites.
Cost of spills
In announcing their support for expediting the pipelines, Trump’s allies also failed to acknowledge the negative impacts of environmental damage.
These accidents can directly impact everyday Americans. As of last year, some 50,000 claims were still sitting with BP. Transporting oil via pipelines is generally safer than rail, truck or barge, yet pipeline spills do occur and cause financial problems. According to the federal agency the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, since 1995, accidents involving oil and petroleum pipelines have caused approximately $3 billion in property damage. The change to people’s sense of place and the trauma caused by oil spills are also a negative effect, though hard to enumerate.
In the end, we all are likely to pay as tax dollars are used in part for the Superfund program to clean up spills: for example, a Texaco oil pipeline in California that has contaminated the soil and groundwater.
In other places, it’s not only a question of accidents but accepting the negative effects of extraction over the positive effects of preservation. The recent decision to allow oil and gas drilling around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico – considered one of the best-preserved centers of Pueblo culture in the American Southwest – will likely destroy irreplaceable archaeological sites and could dissuade some tourists from visiting the World Heritage Site – a place deemed as important as the Taj Mahal, Easter Island and Statue of Liberty.
A different economic development
The Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines in some measure threaten to undermine the possibilities of the heritage industry – particularly if the projects were to bypass standard environmental mitigation, as happened recently at Oak Flats in Arizona. According to a State Department report done under the Obama administration, the Keystone pipeline would disturb more than 15,000 acres, 10 percent of that public lands. The corridor would cross 265 archaeological sites and 132 historic structures – 44 of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The pipeline would also be a risk to more than 2,500 water wells, soils, wildlife and vegetation.
In contrast, heritage provides a different kind of economic development. Not only does it protect places that honor our past and living cultures, but also increases property values, protects natural resources needed for communities to thrive and grow, supports small businesses and provides sustainable long-term jobs in tourism and associated commercial ventures.
Trump’s apparent preference for the oil industry shouldn’t be surprising – after all, only last month Trump sold off his stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline. But a president who professes to care so deeply about business should see the economic benefits of protecting heritage and preserving nature, too.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for investigating, developing and maintaining water and related environmental resources, recently announced that they would not allow the Dakota Access pipeline to be constructed under the Missouri River and through Lakota territory.
This decision essentially ended the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protest against the pipeline, which they claimed would both desecrate their sacred sites and cause potential environmental harm.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe was able to achieve this victory in part because of the assistance of thousands of “water protectors.” In his letter of thanks, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman David Archambault Jr. wrote,
“Standing Rock could not have come this far alone. Hundreds of tribes came together in a display of tribal unity not seen in hundreds of years. And many thousands of indigenous people from around the world have prayed with us and made us stronger.”
Thousands of people, both those within Native American communities and their non-Native allies, felt called to go to Standing Rock. But what drew that many people to Standing Rock?
As a Native American scholar of environmental history and religion, I believe that for most individuals who gathered at the site, it was a modern-day pilgrimage.
Their answer was twofold. The Turners contended that individuals on a spiritual quest seek both an “out of this ordinary world” experience and a sense of community, “unity” or “oneness” with those on a similar quest. Individuals on a pilgrimage usually have these experiences both while traveling to certain places of transcendence and while at those sacred places.
Lakota scholar Philip Deloria, has also described how the transformative experience of Native American sacred places provides meaning and personal growth for individuals who journey to be in their presence. In the book “American Indian Places,” Deloria discusses how people are likely to return to these important places again and again.
Going to Standing Rock evolved into a pilgrimage for many Native Americans: they left their “ordinary” lives behind to journey to a Lakota sacred place, and participate in a larger collective action.
My cousin Renee LaPier and her daughter Modesta LaPier, for example, journeyed 2,600 miles to and from Standing Rock. As Ojibwe women, with family on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, they felt inspired to go to Standing Rock after meeting hundreds of like-minded individuals at a “water protectors” gathering they organized in their hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Going to Standing Rock forced them and others to step out of their “ordinary” modern lives and travel to a remote rural area of the U.S. with few amenities including no cellphone coverage. And once at the site, they encountered a transformative experience. Reflecting on her experience, Renee said, “It’s personal. It’s deeply deeply personal. It’s important for all of us to stand up together.”
It is not just Native Americans who have gone to Standing Rock. On Dec. 5 an estimated 2,000 U.S. veterans, both Native American and their non-Native allies, made their pilgrimage to Standing Rock in a freezing blizzard. They came from across the U.S. and other parts of the world; they represented American veterans from many conflicts and wars, including older Korean and Vietnam vets and younger Iraqi vets. They said they came to Standing Rock for “peace and prayer.”
What does this mean?
Religious scholar Laurel Zwissler has studied why and how young people are “refocusing their personal religious practices” to include “religious practice with public action.” She explains how they are blending their individual religious ideas and political activism into a new form of religious expression.
Zwissler’s research reveals participating in protests, even those across a great distance, becomes a new place of individual and collective spiritual practice.
Many Native Americans and non-Native allies viewed going to Standing Rock as a pilgrimage. I have read hundreds of social media posts of people who were drawn to go there as a spiritual quest, reflecting on how the experience changed their sense of identity, gave meaning to their lives, provided a sense of community and transformed them forever.
Even Chairman David Archambault Jr., in an address to the veterans, said their pilgrimage had meaning because “What you’re doing is sacred.”
I believe a modern kind of pilgrimage for Native Americans is emerging in which people travel to sites of collective action as a form of religious practice. It is true that some come for personal goals of spiritual awakening and some to journey to a sacred place. And, there are others who undertake a spiritual journey to find community, and purpose.
In the end, utilizing prayer and ceremony, they would have all experienced a pilgrimage – returning to their home different from when they left.
Every Thanksgiving weekend for the past 17 years, Arapaho and Cheyenne youth lead a 180-mile relay from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to Denver.
The annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run opens at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre near Eads, Colorado, with a sunrise ceremony honoring some 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne people who lost their lives in the infamous massacre. This brutal assault was carried out by Colonel John Chivington on Nov. 29, 1864.
While the Sand Creek massacre has been the subject of numerous books, much less attention has been given to two heroes of this horrific event: U.S. soldiers Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer.
These were men who rejected the violence and genocide inherent in the “conquest of the West.” They did so by personally refusing to take part in the murder of peaceful people, while ordering the men under their command to stand down. Their example breaks the conventional frontier narrative that has come to define the clash between Colonial settlers and Native peoples as one of civilization versus savagery.
Soule’s noble act of compassion at Sand Creek is humbly conveyed in a letter to his mother included in the Denver Public Library Western History Collections: “I was present at a Massacre of three hundred Indians mostly women and children… It was a horrable scene and I would not let my Company fire.”
Refusing to participate, Soule and the men of Company D of the First Colorado, along with Cramer of Company K, bore witness to the incomprehensible. Chivington’s attack soon descended into a frenzy of killing and mutilation, with soldiers taking scalps and other grisly trophies from the bodies of the dead. Soule was a devoted abolitionist and one dedicated to the rights of all people. He stayed true to his convictions in the face of insults and even a threat of hanging from Chivington the night before at Fort Lyon.
In the following weeks, Soule and Cramer wrote letters to Major Edward “Ned” Wyncoop, the previous commander at Fort Lyon who had dealt fairly with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Both harshly condemned the massacre and the soldiers who carried it out. Soule’s letter details a meeting among officers on the eve of the attack in which he fervently condemned Chivington’s plans asserting “that any man who would take part in the murders, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch.”
Describing the attack to Wynkoop, Soule wrote, “I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would.” His letter goes on to describe the soldiers as “a perfect mob.”
This account is verified by Cramer’s letter. Detailing his own objections to Chivington, whom he describes as coming “like a thief in the dark,” Cramer had stated that he “thought it murder to jump them friendly Indians.” To this charge, Chivington had replied, “Damn any man or men who are in sympathy with them.”
In Soule’s account, he writes, “I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.”
While few Americans – especially those living outside of Colorado – may know their names, Soule and Cramer are honored and revered by the ancestors of the people they tried to save. According to David F. Halaas, former Colorado state historian and current historical consultant to the Northern Cheyenne, without their courage in disobeying Chivington’s orders and keeping their men from the massacre, “the descendants probably wouldn’t be around today,” and there would be no one to tell the stories.
The horrific descriptions of Soule and Cramer prompted several official inquiries into the atrocity. Both men also testified before an Army commission in Colorado as witnesses. While the officers and soldiers responsible escaped punishment, their testimony brought widespread condemnation upon Chivington, who defended the massacre for the rest of his life.
These investigations also ended the political career of the Colorado territorial governor, John Evans, who had issued two proclamations calling for violence against Native people of the plains, and for organizing the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment in which Chivington was placed in command.
Sites of reverence and healing
The Cheyenne and Arapaho will return to Denver this year to honor their ancestors and remember Soule’s and Cramer’s conscience and humanity. This will be done through an offering of prayers and blessings, along with the performance of honor songs.
On the third and final day of the healing run, they will gather for a sunrise ceremony at Soule’s flower-adorned grave at Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. The participants will then continue on to 15th and Lawrence Street in downtown Denver. There, a plaque is mounted on the side of an office building at the place where Soule was murdered on April 23, 1865. His death, for which no one was ever brought to justice, occurred only two months after he testified against Chivington before the Army commission.
Over the last few decades, Soule’s grave and place of death have been transformed into sacred sites of remembrance within a violent and traumatic frontier past.
The catastrophe of the Sand Creek Massacre is recognized by historians as among the most infamous events in the annals of the American West. Even now, it is the only massacre of Native people recognized as such by the U.S. government, with the land itself preserved as a national historic site for learning and reflection.
In Cheyenne and Arapaho stories, this event remains an ever-present trauma and persists as part of their cultural memory. In addition, it encapsulates the stark moment of betrayal against their ancestors and the theft of their lands.
The story of Soule’s and Cramer’s actions and their courage to say “no” to the killing of peaceful people at Sand Creek is an important chapter of U.S. history. I maintain that it is people like Soule and Cramer who truly deserve to be remembered through monuments and memorials, and can be a source for a different kind of historical understanding: one based not on abstract notions of justice and right, but upon the courage and integrity it takes to breathe life into those virtues.
On the 152nd anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, as we honor the memory of those who died at Sand Creek, may we also be inspired by the heroic actions of these two American soldiers.
Over the past months, hundreds of indigenous persons and their allies have gathered near the crossing of the Missouri and Cannon Ball rivers in the ancestral territories of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Using nonviolent means, their goal is to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that would connect production fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois. Their primary fear is that an oil leak would threaten water quality for many members of the tribal community.
As a scholar of indigenous studies and environmental justice, I’ve been following these developments closely. The pipeline’s construction has already destroyed some of the tribe’s sacred burial grounds. During protests, the protectors – as many gatherers prefer to be called – have endured violence, including being pepper-sprayed, attacked by dogs, denied nourishment and threatened by lawsuits.
But despite the national attention to this case, one point has gone largely ignored in my view: Stopping DAPL is a matter of climate justice and decolonization for indigenous peoples. It may not always be apparent to people outside these communities, but standing up for water quality and heritage are intrinsically tied to these larger issues.
Climate justice – the idea that it is ethically wrong for some groups of people to suffer the detrimental effects of climate change more than others – is among the most significant moral issues today, referenced specifically in the landmark Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Climate scientists, through organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and U.S. Climate Assessment, are finding more evidence of climate change from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. These destabilize the climate system, producing environmental conditions that disrupt human societies, through impacts such as rising sea levels, more severe droughts and warming freshwater.
The same climate science organizations also show that indigenous peoples are among the populations who will suffer more, on average, than other communities from changing environmental conditions. Some are suffering right now.
This is an injustice because, as indigenous scholar Dan Wildcat writes in “Red Alert!,” the suffering is occurring “not as a result of something their Native lifeways produced, but because the most technologically advanced societies on the planet have built their modern lifestyles on a carbon energy foundation.”
DAPL, a 1,172-mile connector of the Bakken and Three Forks fossil fuel basins to major oil refining markets, maintains the carbon energy foundation Wildcat writes of. The protectors, meanwhile, are bringing public attention to the urgency of reducing a fossil fuel dependence. Because indigenous peoples suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately, continuing fossil fuel dependence will inflict more harms in years to come.
But there is more to this story, as climate change and U.S. colonialism against indigenous peoples are closely related.
While “colonialism” is not a term many nonindigenous persons typically use even in climate activism, it is the academically rigorous term for describing a significant part of the political relationship between the U.S. and indigenous peoples. It also sheds important light on indigenous understanding of what climate justice really means and what solutions are required.
History of exploitation
Put simply, colonialism refers to a form of domination that involves at least one society seeking to exploit some set of benefits they believe to be found in the territories of one or more other indigenous societies already living there. These benefits can range from farm land and precious minerals to labor.
Exploitation can occur through tactics including military invasion, coercion, slavery, policing and geographic removal of indigenous peoples. Sexual and gender violence are integral to undermining indigenous leadership customs, many of which were tied to nonpatriarchal gender systems that empowered women and nonbinary genders.
U.S. colonialism is about continued U.S. control over how indigenous peoples govern themselves internally and their territories as Tribal Nations. The U.S. Congress officially has plenary (absolute) power over tribes. The U.S. considers indigenous jurisdictions, including reservations, as U.S. federal land held in trust for tribes.
While the U.S. federal government is required to consult tribes before it undertakes action that will affect tribal well-being, a brief glance at history reveals it is most often a policy that legitimizes federal infringement. Indeed, the U.S. has not fulfilled all of its treaty responsibilities to tribes, especially when treaty obligations interfere with the economic interests of settlers.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the center of this current protest has already suffered from this practice. Until U.S. mining interests were at stake, it retained sovereignty over the sacred Black Hills and parts of the Missouri River and certain off reservation hunting rights in the Treaty of Ft. Laramie of 1868. But then in 1877, U.S. Congress, without tribal consent, passed an act removing the Black Hills from Standing Rock’s jurisdiction, curtailing tribal members’ capacity to honor the sacred places of the Black Hills.
U.S. colonialism, then, serves to pave the way for the expansion of extractive industries which scientists have now identified as contributors to human-caused climate change. Damming and deforestation of indigenous territories enable mining and industrial agriculture; pipelines, roads and refineries create dependence on fossil fuels for energy.
Colonial exploitation of indigenous lands through these industries has already inflicted immediate harms on indigenous peoples, from water and air pollution to destruction of sacred sites. Many of these environmental harms can be compared to climate change, as land-use change alters land temperatures, soil composition and hydrology. Herein lies a pattern of harms arising from colonialism.
But not all of the impacts of carbon-intensive industries are felt immediately. Climate change impacts occur in greater force some years later, as the effects of changing environmental conditions are felt more and more, all of which is made worse by U.S. colonialism.
Tribes are susceptible to loss of cultural, spiritual and economic relations to species such as moose or salmon as habitats change occur faster because their reservations are too small or fragmented to allow indigenous communities to follow the species’ movements to more suitable ecosystems. U.S. treaties are supposed to guarantee continued tribal access to the species even when they change location or their habitats are threatened by environmental stressors, but it’s not clear the U.S. will honor these treaties in this way.
This further oil exploration will likely lead to the same detrimental effects we’ve already seen. The workers camps, or “man camps,” created to support drilling and mining in regions like the Bakken, introduce more sexual and gender violence through increases in the trafficking of indigenous women and girls. Of course, some of the sites of violence are the very same North Dakota fracking fields that seek to send fuel down the DAPL.
It’s worth noting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is not alone. A major supporter of stopping DAPL is the Lummi Nation, which has taken action to block the establishment of a coal shipment terminal and train railway near its treaty-protected sacred area of Xwe’chi’eXen in Washington state. The Lummi is part of a group of tribes that have documented the U.S. negligence in honoring its treaty responsibility to refrain from economic and consumptive activities that destroy the salmon habitat that the Lummi and other tribes in the region depend on.
The initiative, Treaty Rights at Risk, suggests the vulnerability of salmon habitat to climate change is part of a larger story of environmental damage done by U.S. dams, agriculture, and other land-use practices.
Similarly, for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, shifting plant and animal habitats from climate change combined with loss of jurisdiction over land, both due to U.S. colonialism, will make it harder for tribal members to maintain relationships with those plants and animals into the future.
So as the protests and legal battles over the construction of the pipeline continue, we need to realize that protection of sacred sites and worries over contaminated water supplies are simultaneously concerns about climate justice and its relation to U.S. colonialism. Nonindigenous environmentalists are only allies if they work broadly toward decolonization, instead of aligning with indigenous peoples only when a particular issue, such as opposition to one pipeline, seems to match their interests.