Lucas Reynolds
If the Black Snake pipeline prevails over the indigenous people of the Dakotas, there are circles of concern that take in Bismarck, North Dakota, the U.S. and Canada.

‘The Whole World Is Watching’: The Political Crossfire of DAPL

Steve Russell

The struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has many levels. The people most immediately affected, the people being told they are in the way, are the Standing Rock Sioux in particular, and the Great Sioux Nation in general. They are backed by tribal nations coast to coast that see their interests rising or falling with Standing Rock’s.

If the Black Snake pipeline prevails over the indigenous people of the Dakotas, there are circles of concern that take in Bismarck, North Dakota, the U.S. and Canada. It’s no exaggeration to say the fight to kill the Black Snake lends a whole new meaning to a chant from the days of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement: “The whole world is watching!”

Treaties and tribal sovereignty for the Great Sioux Nation are at the core of this movement, but Standing Rock has attracted allies who know nothing of that history and are protecting their own interests.

The history is as complicated as any attempt to describe the Great Sioux Nation to persons who come to it cold. As simply as can be stated, that great nation normally refers in the U.S. to the constituents of the Seven Fires Council, principally the Lakota and Dakota. The Nakota or Assiniboine people are linguistic relatives but live mostly in Canada in political confederacy with the Cree.

Another way to understand the Great Sioux Nation is through geography rather than linguistics, encompassing the totality of the Indian reservations in the Northern Great Plains region of the U.S. and consisting of lands called by the colonists the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana.

The shooting part of the Indian wars ended with two iconic engagements between the U.S. Army and the Great Sioux Nation. The Sioux, with Cheyenne and Arapaho allies, were attacked by the Seventh Cavalry under the colorful Indian fighter and Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer. The resulting engagement destroyed five of the Seventh Cavalry’s 12 companies and is remembered by Indians as the Greasy Grass Fight. The colonists call it the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand. Regardless of the name, both sides have reason to remember the bloodshed of June 25-26, 1876.

Greasy Grass was the high point of post-Civil War Indian resistance on the Northern Plains. The low point was the massacre of non-combatants set in motion at the Standing Rock Agency when Hunkpapa holy man Sitting Bull was “killed while resisting arrest” on December 15, 1890. Sitting Bull’s vision had guided the Indian resistance at Greasy Grass and foretold the outcome.

Upon Sitting Bull’s death, about 200 Hunkpapa fled Standing Rock to join Miniconjou Chief Spotted Elk. The reconstituted Seventh Cavalry forced Spotted Elk’s band to camp at Wounded Knee Creek, where they were outnumbered and facing four Hotchkiss guns. On December 29, 1890, the shooting part of the Indian wars ended with the massacre of some 300 Sioux, mostly non-combatants. Photographs of frozen bodies of women and children and the elderly Spotted Elk turned public opinion against the killing that had become so one-sided.

The Indian wars—understood as the process of separating indigenous people from their property—continued by less violent means and are being fought to this day.

A part of the history that is more obscure to the colonists than Greasy Grass or Wounded Knee but is in the face of the Standing Rock Sioux every day is the Black Snake’s encroachment on a spiritual battleground. The first camp of the water protectors was called Sacred Stones, after the perfectly round formations that used to be produced by the currents at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers.

The river quit disgorging sacred stones after 1958, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rearranged the currents of the Cannonball by dredging for the construction of the Oahe Dam to create the lake of the same name. The Standing Rock people, having had their spiritual values and practices trampled by the creation of Oahe Lake, now object to that same lake becoming the lair of the Black Snake.

Even colonists who find those spiritual values to be the stuff of superstition should be able to understand that the Oahe Dam destroyed more Indian land than any other single public works project in North America. The Corps of Engineers inundated almost 56,000 acres of Standing Rock land and 104,000 acres of the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Like the Eastern Band Cherokee after the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Tellico Dam, the Sioux were left with sacred sites only reachable with scuba gear. Like the Cherokee, they adopted the practices suitable for the surface water and the rest became another blood memory of the colonial onslaught.


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