I’m with my family on this Thanksgiving Day. People are beginning to stir, noises are coming from the kitchen. There is much to be thankful for in my world. I’m fortunate. My biggest concern today is to not consume too many calories. If that isn’t a first world problem of the privileged, I don’t know what is.
On this same morning thousands of Native Americans (and non-native supporters) are in a stand-off with militarized police force on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation just south of Bismarck North Dakota. I don’t know enough about the legalities and the permitting process to unequivocally state one side is right and the other is wrong. I do know that the pipeline passes very close to the current border of the reservation and within the boundary of land that was part of the reservation according to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. I do know that the pipeline route originally crossed the Missouri river north (upstream) of Bismarck and was relocated south of Bismarck due to concerns of polluting the city’s drinking water south of town but still upstream of the reservation. I know that pipelines often leak. But I also know that rail cars and tanker trucks also leak, derail, and/or crash. And I also know that I benefit from fuel shipped as cheaply as possible. My hands, as all of our hands, have oil on them.
Our hands also have blood on them. This week, the protests have increased and law enforcement has responded with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures resulting in injuries and hypothermia. This matters. This matters maybe more than the actual legalities of whether the proper permitting and approval processes were followed in routing the pipeline. This land is sacred to the Sioux. This especially matters on this day. This holiday feast dates back to 1621 when a gathering between European immigrants and refugees gathered with the Wampanoag at Plymouth Rock. A brief period of peace was followed by the beginning of a long line of broken treaties and promises.
Nearly 400 years later, and on the other side of the continent the Bundy family did not agree with the concept of publicly held land (managed by the federal government). In particular, the beef started with disputes over the fees ranchers (Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven) were charged for the right to graze cattle on public lands in Nevada. The result was Cliven refusing to pay the fees, but still grazing cattle for free on public lands and then an armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by his son in Oregon. This takeover by self-described, armed militia was met with a tepid response by law enforcement. The group was allowed to hold press conferences, and were waited out until eventually they were taken into custody. This was an armed take-over of recognized public property. In Standing Rock, the largest gathering of Native Americans in 100 years (primarily unarmed with undoubtedly some exceptions) were met with a militarized police force. I find this shameful, but not surprising.
From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock the history repeats itself. European immigrants and refugees pushing further west, making treaties, and then breaking them when it’s determined that the land granted (to those already living on it) was needed by the European immigrants and refugees.
So on this Thanksgiving morning, honestly, and unfortunately, it appears that what I have to be most thankful for is that I’m a descendant of European the immigrants and refugees that conquered this country. Acknowledging this history matters. It is necessary to understand this history and to understand that this history involves the genocide and relocation of the original inhabitants of this continent. Inhabitants who, despite living in a country that guarantees freedom of religion, did not enjoy freedom of honoring what was sacred to them until the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This land at Standing Rock is sacred to the Sioux. It is necessary to understand that it is and why it is. Understanding leads to empathy. And it is only through a foundation of empathy and understanding that resolution and healing emerge.