Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context

Nick Estes

Little has been written about the historical relationship between the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the longer histories of Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) resistance against the trespass of settlers, dams, and pipelines across the Mni Sose, the Missouri River. This is a short analysis of the historical and political context of the #NoDAPL movement and the transformative possibilities of the current struggle.

Thousands have camped along the banks of the Missouri River at Cannon Ball in the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which promises to carry half a million barrels of heavy crude oil a day across four states, under the Missouri River twice, and under the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico for global export. Camp Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior Camp, and Sacred Stone Camp, the various Native-led groups standing in unity against DAPL, have brought together the largest, mass-gathering of Natives and allies in more than a century, all on land and along a river the Army Corps of Engineers claims sole jurisdiction and authority over.

How and why did this happen?

In 1803 the wasicu — the fat-takers, the settlers, the capitalists — claimed this stretch of the river as part of what became the largest real estate transaction in world history. The fledgling U.S. settler state “bought” 827 million acres from the French Crown in the Louisiana Purchase and sent two white explorers, Lewis and Clark, to claim and map the newly acquired territory. None of the Native Nations west of the Mississippi consented to the sale of their lands to a sovereign they neither recognized nor viewed as superior. It was only after we rebuffed Lewis and Clark for failing to pay tribute for their passage on our river that they labeled the Oceti Sakowin “the vilest miscreants of the savage race.” Thus began one of the longest and most hotly contested struggles in the history of the world.

The Louisiana Purchase (Courtesy The Red Nation)

For the next hundred years, the U.S. led various unsuccessful military campaigns to suppress, annihilate, and dispossess us of our rightful claim to the river and our lands. Despite popular belief, we were never militarily defeated. Red Cloud’s War and the War for the Black Hills led to the military defeat of the U.S. Calvary, most famously the annihilation of General George Armstrong Custer’s forces at the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876. These wars, for our part, were entirely defensive. The Oceti Sakowin signed peace treaties with the invading settler government. The 1854 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties provided temporary reprieve and defined the vast 25-million-acre territory of what became the Great Sioux Reservation, which stretched from the eastern shore of the Missouri River to the Bighorn Mountains. Four decades of intense warfare, however, took its toll. More than ten million buffalo were slaughtered to starve us out. Settler hordes invaded and pillaged our Black Hills for its gold. Our vast land base diminished and the treaties were nullified when Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876, which abolished treaty-making with Native Nations, and the Black Hills Act of 1877, which illegally ceded the Black Hills and created the present-day reservation system.

The Oceti Sakowin has vigorously opposed these bald imperialistic maneuvers to usurp our self-determining authority over our lives and lands. Settler society entreated the Oceti Sakowin for the 1854 and 1868 agreements, not the other way around. We entered these relationships with the understanding that both parties respected a common humanity with the people and the lands. In our view, the settler state lost its humanity when it violated the treaties. Every act on our part to recover and reclaim our lives and land and to resist elimination is an attempt to recuperate that lost humanity — humanity this settler state refuses and denies even to its own.

1868 Fort Laramie Treaty Territory (Courtesy The Red Nation)

South Dakota and North Dakota statehood also played a major role in suppressing the Oceti Sakowin. Although we have never signed any treaties with these states, they lay claim to the destinies of our lands, our river and our people. To do so, they have always used violence and hatred. In 1890, a year after statehood, these two states drummed up anti-Indian sentiment to further break up and open reservation lands for settlement. As a result, they fabricated the Ghost Dance crisis; called for federal troops to intervene to protect white property that resulted in the assassination of our military and political leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull; and resulted in the killing of over 300 mostly unarmed women, children, and elders at Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.


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