Standing with Standing Rock: What this Battle Means for the Dakotas

Watching the events unfold at Standing Rock has felt something like an out-of-body experience. I am seventeen hundred miles away, watching safely from my living room. But every picture and every story that comes out of Standing Rock hits with such impact that the great distance seems negligible.

I am a child of the Dakotas. I was born in North Dakota. I spent almost every holiday and summer in the Badlands of North Dakota, or with family in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When I was young, my family moved to the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, but we stayed close, just a few miles above the border. My childhood memories of the Dakotas and the Canadian prairies have blended, forming idyllic vignettes of golden sunsets, gorgeous but fierce winters and peaceful life out West.

One thing that always stood out to me in the Dakotas was the deep respect for Native American culture and history. I always felt a profound sense of love and respect for our brothers and sisters. I grew up having a real connection to the land and to the people and cultures that have always called it home.

When I was very young, I had a doll that I named Paha Sapa, which means Black Hills in the language of the Lakota Sioux. The Sioux have been a part of my life since I was born, ever-present brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents and ancestors. I am forever tied to this place. My loved ones are buried there. My heart aches to see home when I’ve been away for too long.
The battle for Standing Rock has been an incredible thing to witness. Thousands of people are standing in support of the Sioux. Millions of people have offered their support and donations. And now, hundreds of my fellow veterans have arrived to honor their oaths to protect and defend this country’s Constitution and citizens.

But I am deeply conflicted.

There is no valid argument to not modify the location of the pipeline. In the interest of giving the benefit of the doubt, maybe the planners were careless. However, considering no efforts have been made to reroute the pipeline despite the length and intensity of the protests, it’s starting to look like the planners were just heartless.

Dakota Access, LLC and Energy Transfer Partners have based their entire claim on the fact that the Sioux no longer have legal claim over the land. But their legal ground is as shaky as their moral one.

The Dawes Act of 1887 helped to usher in waves of white settlers on Sioux land. The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is one of six fragments created when Congress split up the Great Sioux Reservation on March, 2, 1889.
The legality of these actions are beyond question. They are land-grabs that violated the rights of this country’s Native American ancestors. Many people are familiar with the massacres and war, but the shadowy history of cultural warfare was conducted quietly under the auspices of legal policies.

Despite the civil-sounding language of these acts — like giving land to each “Indian” [sic] — during the 1880s and 1890s, our government was not focused on upholding the rights of Native Americans, but instead on cultural assimilation and land acquirement.
In his 1889 annual report to the Secretary of the Interior. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas J. Morgan wrote, “The Indians must conform to ‘the white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. They must adjust themselves to their environment, and conform their mode of living substantially to our civilization. This civilization may not be the best possible, but it is the best the Indians can get. They cannot escape it, and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.”

I don’t consider the words or intentions of the Dawes Act to be valid.

Clearly, the people behind DAPL are taking advantage of acts that should not have been legal, and are asserting that the Sioux only have claim over their territory. Since they have taken this route, they have acknowledged the sovereign territory of the Sioux – and in so doing have opened themselves up to the charge of willfully violating customary law of transboundary environmental harm. Pipelines are not spill-proof and Dakota Access cannot produce an impact assessment that demonstrates a zero percent risk, which violates the Sioux’s legal transboundary rights under customary law.

The Standing Rock Sioux are opposing an unfair risk to their land and health.

North Dakota and Saskatchewan have already been bearing an unfair burden of this country’s oil. For the last decade, I have seen my home destroyed as the big oil boom attracted thousands eager to exploit the land. The landscape is unrecognizable. There have been more spills than can be counted. You can see a visible scar stretching through parts of North Dakota and Saskatchewan, left by heavy tankers, filthy trains, and the traffic caused by the thousands of extra workers.

Where once we could stand in complete darkness and count the stars, we now see dozens of flares from oil wells. The towns of Williston, ND, and Estevan, SK, have exploded in population, and have seen a corresponding explosion in crime, drugs, and homelessness. There are not enough houses for everyone coming to work in the oil fields. Of course, big hotels and apartment complexes were hastily constructed to profit from the boom. But I’m waiting for the crash when my hometowns will become ghost towns.

I understand and empathize with the concern over jobs. Replacing coal and oil with renewables will change a lot, for a whole lot of people. Without coal, I don’t know how Estevan will survive. It is home to two major coal power plants that provide power to millions, and jobs to thousands. My dad worked at both of them.

When I saw that Canada aims to phase out coal by 2030, my heart sank. Not because I like coal, but because I don’t know if the people who made this plan ever gave a thought to places like Estevan. Places that have fueled society for decades with government-operated power plants. The fear of losing your hometown, your home, all of your friends, and an entire community that has been built around providing energy for millions of people — that fear is real.

When we talk about phasing out fossil fuels, we can easily point to the destruction and devastation left in their wake. It’s not hard to look at Standing Rock and think, “That’s wrong.” I can look at my ruined prairies and grieve for the beauty that is lost.

But when we talk about phasing out fossil fuels, we have to remember to not forget about the Estevans, the Willistons, the Dakotas and Saskatchewans that have been diligently bearing the cost of fossil fuels while the rest of us reap the benefits. These costs are real and measurable, not just potential collateral damage. The conversation about these costs usually focuses heavily on controlling emissions to avoid or mitigate future risks. But pollution already poses a direct and severe threat to public health.

While I was growing up I suffered from several cases of bronchitis and pneumonia, and I was once hospitalized for a week with pneumonia in both of my lungs. I will suffer from asthma and higher susceptibility to pneumonia for the rest of my life, as will many others who grew up in Estevan or similar towns with air pollution.

When we close a dirty power plant and put up a wind or solar farm somewhere else, we are punishing these towns twice: first, with all of the pollution; and second, by abandoning them when we decide the service they’ve been providing is now obsolete.

I am another veteran who has taken the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, and I stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. That is what the oath means, and it means more now than ever.

As someone of the Dakotas, I stand with my brothers and sisters, and Standing Rock, as well as Fort Berthold. I also stand up for my fellow Dakotans and Saskatchewanians, and I am saying enough is enough. We need to end this dependence on oil. Stop polluting our land, but don’t you dare leave us out of the future.