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Standing Rock Story

by Antonia Shoumatoff
Fri Dec 2nd, 2016

Indigenous women pray for the water at Standing Rock and offer it to police officers who were there to keep the water protectors away from the pipeline

In September there were 1,500 hundred protestors and water protectors from 300 different tribal nations supporting the efforts of the Sioux nation to stand up for their water and burial land rights on land that was granted them as part of  the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.  By Thanksgiving the group had mushroomed to 10,000 people, now it is 7,000.

We spoke with John Willis, a professor of photography from Marlboro College in Brattleboro, Vermont, who just returned from Standing Rock.  

Willis said that the Sioux nation believes that the land that is being drilled belongs to them and that they have burial grounds and water rights there.

“The elders of the tribe say that the federal government has broken the 1851 treaty changed the boundary of the land many times and that this project infringes on their water supply and land boundaries,” he explained.

The current boundary of the reservation is adjacent to the project.  Areas of the Dakota Access Pipeline run through the territories that were granted the Sioux tribes in 1851.  

Willis explained that the elders of the Sioux tribal bands feel that the federal government has not honored their treaties or agreements going back many years.  

“Originally the project was going to go closer to Bismarck,” Willis explained, “but all the white people there put up such a fuss back in 2012, that they moved it down to towards the reservation land.  The Sioux people were very clear when they first came to meetings that they did not want it on the Treaty land and that it was a violation of the treaty.  

The CEO of Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners said that the Sioux tribe had their chance to dispute the route at the public hearing and that they did not come to all the meetings.  Willis said they did not go to all the meetings because they felt they were being ignored and had already made their stance clear before.”

Willis also explained that most of the Lakota Sioux people who live in the poorest places in the poorest conditions in this country, sometimes with no running water or heat are not interested in taking the federal settlement money for the Black Hills.  

“For them the Black Hills are sacred land. They were given the Black Hills in perpetuity by the U.S. government.  When prospectors found gold there in 1849, the federal government shrunk their land.  They fought this in Supreme Court and finally won in 1971 when it was admitted that the land was illegally stolen from them.  The compensation funds they were supposed to receive did not include the value of the gold and uranium that has been mined from that land.”

He explained the native perspective: “They would rather live deprived now, and allow future generations to have clean water, pure air and no pollution than have a depleted Earth in the future and prosperity now. They look at generosity towards the future as their biggest virtue.”

He told us that the elders are training anyone who comes into the camp to do non-violent civil action. The frown on hotheaded environmentalists who get angry.  They begin the day with prayer and end the day with prayer. Drumming and singing take place throughout the day.  When the pipeline workers hear the singing and drumming they get scared and leave, he said.

Willis explained that the land that is being drilled was found to have Native American artifacts and bones on it, which were not reported by the company that is drilling, ETP (Energy Transfer Partners).  The 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline has 22 crossings across hundreds of waterways.

Historian, Suzan Harjo,  President of the Morning Star Institute said she believes the tribe still has claims to the 1851 territories. She served as Congressional Liaison for Indian Affairs and President of the National Council of American Indians.

Harjo said she believes that the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection Act and the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites—which she helped draft, are legally binding.

In the Bismarck Tribune she recently stated: “The native people in this situation haven’t even begun to mount the kind of legal case that they can,” she said.