Fortunately, 2016 might be the year in which some significant portion of the general public sees that what is good for American Indians is good for all of us, that Indian affairs are American affairs. That, for me, is one lesson of the now well-told story of Standing Rock.
(For months it was not well told; it took time and the joining of Indians from some 300 North American tribes, indigenous activists from other nations, and large contingents of American veterans and environmentalists to finally garner consistent major news media attention.)
Standing Rock is at the end of a chain of events that are embarrassing in the light of history, honesty, and the law. It began with promises made to Indians about sacred lands in the Black Hills in the nineteenth century—promises broken most famously by Custer; it went to the condemnation of Mandan Lands for the Corps of Engineers’ Garrison Dam, built in the 1940s and 50s, protested vigorously by Indian leader Martin Cross, and rectified—legally, at least—in the US Supreme Court by Martin’s son, Indian Warrior and lawyer Raymond Cross; and it comes to us today at Standing Rock and the Sioux insistence on treaty rights and clean water.
We hope that the awakening now to Indian rights will allow tribes across the country to reassess reservation lands and non-owned lands deemed “usual and accustomed” for hunting, fishing, gathering, and grazing. We hope that these lands will then be properly administered for tribal and public benefit—and not for the narrow economic interests of the few, or for the program interests of the Corps of Engineers or any other government agency.
Here’s a model: President Obama, at the insistence of and with the collaboration of several tribes, just this week designated the Bears Ears National Monument in Southeastern Utah under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe, Alfred Lomahquahu, said that “The designation of the Bears Ears National Monument is a victory not just for Native Americans, but for all who love and whose lives are intertwined with this remarkable place.” One can’t help but see the footprints of Standing Rock in Utah.
A friend who has been to Standing Rock explained two major lessons for him: The first was listening to elders. He said that successful environmental activists and military veterans—and not all were successful—learned that Standing Rock is not an environmentalist showcase, nor a veterans’ showcase, but a struggle to hold onto treaty rights and ensure clean water. And the course of action is set by tribal elders. DNA might confirm the connection of today’s Northwest Indians to the Ancient One (aka Kennewick Man) but tribal wisdom is the accumulation of 9,000 years of wisdom since his original burial. Today’s elders, my friend says, know that.
The second lesson he learned at Standing Rock is the power of intertribal cooperation. The support of tribes from across the continent, the contingents from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, from Africa and the Caribbean, the joining together of all in common cause was, said my friend, sometimes a coming together of old enemies; it was a great coming together, maybe the greatest coming together of indigenous peoples ever! He was visibly affected by the power of it.
My friend didn’t count it a lesson, and he, being an enrolled tribal member and a military veteran, might not have realized the wonder in his own voice as he described the power of peaceful action. He and elders and we who are watching from the sidelines with hope and fear should realize that this is the world of Gandhi, King, and Mandela. The North Dakota troopers and politicians were the day’s Bull Conners and the politicians of apartheid. The Indians were and are the party of and teachers of peace.
And peace, like water, can begin with a small stream, make rivers and move mountains. In times of war and conflict from Chicago to Syria, the Kremlin to Congress, that could be the most important lesson of all.
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