From Little Bighorn to Standing Rock
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War and Peace in the United States

aguaesvida indigenous rising media
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In May of this year the Energy Transfer Partners company began the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that was to unite the oilfields of Bakken, North Dakota, with the refineries of Illinois. The pipeline, that is nearly 2000 kilometers long, would transport half a million barrels daily, and its construction would cost 3 billion US dollars. While the four states through which the pipeline would pass (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois) had approved the works, the authorization was pending of the US Army Corps of Engineers for the pipelines to cross below the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.


Standing Rock


At the limit between the states of North Dakota and South Dakota, on the Missouri river, is the Sioux Reservation of Standing Rock (Dakota and Lakota peoples). This reservation, of 9000 km2 and 8000 inhabitants, is one of the largest in the United States and is part of the Great Sioux Reservation defined in 1851 by the treaty of Fort Laramie. Some years after the signing of the treaty, a significant gold vein was discovered in the mountains of Black Hills, which are sacred for the Sioux, and the US Congress unilaterally modified the limits of the treaty, without consulting the Sioux, in order to take possession of Black Hills. This gave rise, in 1876, to one of the largest wars between the army and the native Americans in the history of the United States, centered around the battle of Little Bighorn, where Sitting Bull defeated and killed general George Custer. But finally the Sioux were defeated by the army’s power and in 1889 the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into six minor reservations, among which is Standing Rock.


As if in a definitive battle, or a way to finally subjugate the sacred heart of the native mountains, the US Congress approved the construction in the Black Hills of the famous sculptures with the faces of four presidents of the US: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, finished in 1941.


The people of Standing Rock manifested from the beginning their opposition to a pipeline through the lands below the Oahe lake, in the Missouri river, arguing that it would destroy their sacred sites, contaminate the water and destroy the environment. According to the indigenous leaders, the proposed route passes less than a kilometer from the border of their territory and hence the tribe defends what it understands to be their sovereign interest for the protection of the water, their cultural resources and their heritage. In addition, along the route of the pipeline, there are sites of religious and cultural importance, including ancestral burial sites. The pipeline would cross traditional and ancestral sites of the tribe that form part of the Fort Laramie Treaty, endangering many sacred places. The indigenous people argue that federal law and international treaties require their consultation and previous consent, obligations that were not fulfilled.




Some months ago, the Oceti Sakowin Camp was established to sustain the protest. Hundreds of people arrived, from different tribes and peoples of the country, to make this the greatest concentration of Sioux in the US since the battle of Little Bighorn. Oceti Sakowin (Och-et-eeshak-oh-win) is the Lakota name of the Council of the Seven Fires, the historical union of various tribal clans that gave origin to the Sioux people. At the end of November some 7000 persons were camped near the zone where the police maintained a blockade of the Backwater bridge, near Cannon Ball.


The activists of the protest were repressed on various occasions by the police and private security of the company, who employed tear gas, rubber bullets, grenades and dogs. In spite of the intense cold, as the end of November arrived, the camp continued to grow and people from distinct parts of the world came to support the demonstrators. On November 25th, the of Army Corps of Engineers sent a letter to the president of the Standing Rock Sioux, declaring that they planned to close the federal property north of the Cannonball river on December 5th, including the Oceti Sakowin camp. Anyone who was camping beyond this date would be intruders and subject to due process.


Reinforcements arrive


In the face of this threat, in the first days of December, a group of some 2000 war veterans of the US Army came to form a "human shield" of protection of the Sioux in the struggle. Convoked by Wesley Clark Jr. (a former Cavalry Lieutenant and son of the well-known retired General and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark) and Michael Wood Jr. (Marine veteran), the former military, wearing their uniforms, ranks and military flags, began to arrive at the camp. "We come together as a pacific and unarmed militia in the Sioux Reservation of Standing Rock" Clark said to the media on their arrival at the camp.


Another veteran, Jason Brocar, aged 44, said to the New York Times that he was moved by the televised scenes between the police and civilians and that this was happening in the United States. "Even in Iraq, there were rules to be followed. If these lads have no weapons, this makes no sense. This is not a shooting range".


Finally, on the afternoon of December 4th, this battle came to an end. The Army Corps of Engineers decided not to approve the present route of the pipeline. The resolution argued that after extended consultations, they understood that the best way to proceed is "to explore alternative routes for the crossing of the pipeline" and to elaborate a study of the wider environmental impact. Doubtless this is not the final battle. The threat of a rectification of this decision, once Donald Trump assumes the presidency, hangs over the heads of the Sioux. Nor is it obvious that a new route will minimize the threats to the sites and the water of the population.


The pardon


But what is most significant, or perhaps the most transcendental battle for the future, was what happened on Monday, December 5th, when the hundreds of veterans of the US Army asked pardon for the atrocities committed against the Sioux people. "I witnessed something powerful and profound today," said John Eagle, Tribal Official of the Sioux Reservation of Standing Rock. "Wes Clark Jr and the assembled veterans took a knee and collectively asked for forgiveness for the genocide and war crimes committed by the United States Military against tribal nations in this country".


Clark recognized that many of the veterans, and himself in particular, come from units that have harmed the Sioux over many years. “We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain... We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways”.  Then, on his knees before the chief Leksi Leonard (Crow Dog), he added “but we’ve come to say that we are sorry. We are at your service and we beg for your forgiveness”.


Chief Leonard, on behalf of the tribes in attendance, asked forgiveness for any hurt that might have been caused on June 25 1876, when the Great Sioux Nation defeated the 7th Cavalry leaving over two hundred and fifty US soldiers dead. "Today we forgive and ask for world peace", he said at the end of his speech. 


The hour of the veterans


Without doubt, beyond the huge support of thousands of persons, the presence of the veterans was a key element in the resolution of the conflict. It would have been very difficult for the police to attack them as they had attacked members of the community and other activists on previous occasions. In addition, these veterans have achieved a certain recognition and organization that enables them to imagine new struggles with new objectives.  These ex militaries are planning to go to Flint, Michigan, where the population is engaged in a struggle against the governor Rick Snyder over the contamination with lead of their drinking water.


"We do not know when we will be there, but we will go to Flint", said Wesley Clark Jr, who had managed to collect over a million dollars for his cause through GoFundMe, a site for the recollection of funds for campaigns of public interest. According to ABC News, on Saturday December 10th, the veterans were planning to hold their first assembly to resolve how best to support the struggle of the citizens of Flint. An unhoped for and powerful support has come to US environmental activism. This support appears to be the direct consequence of the electoral victory of Donald Trump, a victory that appears to have sown a new map of alliances in the heart of the US citizenry.



(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)


- Gerardo Honty is an analyst with CLAES (Centro Latino Americano de Ecología Social).