On Thursday morning, in south-central North Dakota, I climbed the edge of a small hill to get a better view of the action down below, where several hundred clergy from around the country had joined a hardy group of Native Americans to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline. They were praying together at one end of a bridge over the Cannonball River; at the other end was an array of militarized police. Set against the prairie hills with the wide Missouri River in the edge of the frame, it was an iconic American scene—or, rather, a mash-up of them.
Looking down at the highway bridge on Route 1806, all I could think of was Emerson’s “rude bridge that arched the flood” at Concord—where, a few hours after the spirited loss at Lexington, Americans won arguably the first battle against imperialism in modern history, presaging the victorious and somewhat glorious revolution that would follow. It took courage for the Minutemen to stand against the world’s mightiest army, and it’s taken the same for the unarmed Sioux and their supporters to stand against ... the world’s mightiest army, or at least the National Guard.
That’s the thing: The good guys have switched places. The heirs to the Minutemen in the U.S. Army spent the centuries since (and, really, their forebears had spent the centuries before) massacring, displacing, and all but exterminating the original inhabitants of this continent. But they didn’t quite succeed. Looking over my shoulder a quarter mile in the other direction, I could see the great Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) encampment, where representatives of 200 native tribes have been camped for months now. Smoke from a hundred campfires rose above the teepees, and young boys raced unsaddled horses back and forth. Save for the cars parked at the edge (and the solar panels on “Facebook Hill,” where there’s a little cellphone reception), it looked like a scene out of some George Catlin painting from the days of Sitting Bull (who’s buried a few miles away).
We’re in the middle of a uniquely ugly and dispiriting election, one that some nights seems like our country’s nadir. But American history is deep and long and filled with tragedies. And despite the decrepitude the campaign indicates, we’re also a young country in some ways, still with opportunities not to erase the old but to write new chapters.
The Dakota pipeline is the easiest, most obvious place to start anew that we’ll ever get—the perfect example of America’s casual racism and endless money-worshipping. The pipeline was, for instance, rerouted away from Bismarck when residents of the capital worried it might pollute that city’s water. And the company that built it fast-tracked their bulldozing operation the day after the tribe identified for a federal court the sacred sites and graves along the pipeline route; it was as if the Sioux had handed over a treasure map. Oh, and the permits were expedited by the Obama administration; Donald Trump owns lots of stock in the company putting it up; WikiLeaks revealed that Hillary Clinton’s handlers took a $2 million check (a $2 million check) from the union building the pipeline two days before the Iowa primary, and the money came with explicit instructions to back the pipeline against Bernie Sanders’s protests. The Dakota pipeline is like the perfect confluence of all the crap we’ve come to accept as everyday life in American politics.
But this time, thanks to the indigenous Americans who began showing up along the banks of the Cannonball in April, we know about it. It’s out in the open. Here, now, they are looking the rest of America in the eye and saying, no more.
The demand is straightforward: The Army Corps should not grant the final permit, the one required to put the pipeline under the Missouri River. If the company insists on finding a new route, then the whole project should undergo a rigorous environmental impact review (not the farcical, fast-tracked “environmental assessment” that it got instead). Things should be done properly for once.
Thursday night I listened to the very impressive David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock tribe. He was at the tribal council offices after a marathon meeting with the Army Corps, and though he was calm he was clearly bothered. He pointed out that the company building the pipeline—Energy Transfer Partners, which has ties to virtually every big bank you’ve ever heard of—has broken one regulation after another, some of them really serious. (I mean, bulldozing grave sites?) “But nothing ever happens to them. Whereas if our water protectors put one foot over the line that the sheriff has drawn, they get beaten, maced.”
The Native Americans camped at Standing Rock have taken the assaults for months. But now, happily, the effort is spreading out, nationalizing. Last week, more than a million people on Facebook checked in to Standing Rock, both in solidarity and to thwart local police from allegedly tracking anti-pipeline activists through their check-ins. Perhaps that doesn’t mean much, except that it’s hard to get a million people to do anything. It demonstrates that there’s support out there—lots of it, I’m guessing, because there are very few Americans who don’t feel some shame for what we did to this continent’s original inhabitants. We’ll have a better sense how much there is on November 15, when a wide range of human rights and environmental groups will sponsor demonstrations at Army Corps offices around America.
Once an injustice has been done, there’s no way to correct it. Maybe you can compensate people, but you can’t stop the bullet once it’s been fired at some black teenager, can’t un-bomb the Afghan wedding party that the drone mistook for a Taliban meeting. But this one, though the company has built right to the edge of the river, hasn’t quite irrevocably happened yet. It’s still an injustice-in-the-making. Could we just not do it, for once?
Information about the November 15 rallies in support of Standing Rock can be found here.