Police arrested more than 140 Native American and environmental protesters challenging an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, a project touching the raw nerves of water and global warming, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
The months-long struggle to stop the Dakota Pipeline near the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota has raised passions among Native American activists and environmentalists who have clashed with police trying to sweep the protesters aside.
To explain the intensity of the resistance, I interviewed Bill Means, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and chairman of the International Indian Treaty Council, which has supported the North Dakota pipeline protests.
In late August, the Treaty Council joined forces with the local tribes of The Standing Rock Sioux and appealed to the United Nations to intercede and take formal action in support of the their fight against the construction of the Dakota pipeline over sacred Indian lands.
“We specifically request that the United States Government impose an immediate moratorium on all pipeline construction until the Treaty Rights and Human Rights of the Standing Rock Tribe can be ensured and their free, prior and informed consent is obtained,” stated Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault, and the Treaty Council, in their joint appeal to U.N. human rights officials. They requested actions by four U.N. human rights Special Rapporteurs citing “ongoing threats and violations to the human rights of the Tribe, its members and its future generations.”
The interview preceded this week’s latest round of arrests.
Dennis Bernstein: Bill Means, your work with the American Indian Movement as a co-founder and your knowledge of the treaties, and how many times are broken, and how they’re broken by the United States government, has always been enlightening and important. I know you are monitoring Standing Rock, and have taken an active stand, as a current board member of the International Indian Treaty Council.
Why don’t you just say first what it signifies at this point, in the struggle. And then some of the things that come to mind in terms of what you’ve been observing about it.
Bill Means: Well, first of all the overall struggle against global warming is really the backdrop to Standing Rock. And that’s the reason why I think so many people around the world, and the tribes all over America, are beginning to find affinity and support and solidarity with the people at Standing Rock, because it represents this world-wide struggle for sacred Mother Earth. So having that backdrop we’ve got various types of good news, and some sad news.
Of course, the very good and healthy news is we had the first baby born on the base of the Missouri River, at the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock, which was beautiful. Born with the midwives there, and all the attention and support of the community. The women came forward and brought this new life here into this world at Standing Rock. So we hope that this young child will have a Mother Earth that she can be proud of, that she can grow up in that’s clean, and has clean water, and so that represents the future.
Also developing was the fact that our good friend and colleague, Miss Amy Goodman, had her case thrown out … by a federal judge in Bismarck, North Dakota. Where he said that she’s a journalist, doing her job, and she shouldn’t have been charged with these type [of] charges in the first place, and completely threw the charges out. So that’s a good development, as well as several other people she was arrested with. So I think that’s a beginning to turn the table on the illegal use and manipulation of the law to prevent legal, shall we say, dissent, to prevent people that are protesting legally and peacefully from their acts of courage. So that was good news, on that front.
And then, of course, we have the ongoing problem that people have recorded …, massive trucks, semis carrying pipe. And so they are anxiously and quickly trying to get as much pipe laid towards the Missouri River as humanly possible, before there’s any type of interruptions of specific places they can’t go, which we know right now is being held up from crossing under the Missouri River. And we’re hoping that this extends itself out to other areas.
And so right now the company, the DAPL, Dakota Access Pipeline people are, where they can, they’re still building as fast as they can without any regard to the restraining orders or any regard to the federal authorities that asked them to quit and to cease and desist from building until the tribe, and other proper authorities have been, shall we say, counseled with, have been involved in some type of negotiation on [these] whole various issues of treaty rights, water rights, environmental issues. And so there’s plenty of law that needs to be settled but yet the Dakota Access pipeline continues to be built.
So we have in the face of these positive developments, we have yet to see the company cease and desist in the other areas.
DB: Bill, let me ask you to … step into that role for a moment and talk about the stand that the council has taken and the significance in history in terms of this stand, and this place, that we’re talking about in North Dakota.
BM: Well, first of all to give you a larger picture, the Missouri River, as you know, covers about four states, and bisects the state of South Dakota from north to south, I should say north-west to south-west. Also, including North Dakota, and Montana, and Iowa, and a little bit of Nebraska. So, having said that, you get that picture in your mind, they built at least four dams on the Missouri River that are directly built on Indian treaty land.
See, in our treaty of 1868 and 1851, those two treaties significantly for time immemorial set the borders of the Great Sioux Nation on the east bank of the Missouri River. And the 1851 treaty was even past east of the Missouri River. So you see those treaties being violated from the beginning of building all these dams. Because the dams are built on federal reservations and flood, primarily, federal Indian land.
So there’s many communities, including Standing Rock, which was flooded by the Oahe Dam, built in Pierre, South Dakota, in that region, which flooded not only Standing Rock but Cheyenne River Reservation. And then you have Yankton Reservation flooded twice, once by the Gavins Point Dam, and another time by the Fort Randall Dam. […] There’s a famous act known as the Pick-Sloan Act of federal government that was passed back in the ’40’s that allows these dams to be built.
And so we have a situation where [there is] the continued violation of treaty rights and water rights. The water, by treaty, belongs to Indian people. Now, Indian people have the philosophy that the water belongs to everyone. But we have to maintain these treaty rights and these water rights. And there’s a famous case in the water rights that says, “All the water necessary for the survival of Indian people should be granted in any kind of negotiation, should be under the jurisdiction of the Indian tribes.” And that was a famous case up on the Milk River in Montana. And so it’s called the Winters Doctrine of Federal Indian Water Law. So that’s kind of a doctrine that’s been there for many, many years.
Now, in spite of that, the government began to develop these dams on the Missouri River, and […] the Missouri River was never litigated, that is, the water was never divided up like it is, say, on the Colorado River over further west. And so, since their water rights have never been litigated, the water has not been quantified like who owns what drop of water, who owns this bank, who owns that bank, has not been decided.
And so, in our mind, in the federal law’s mind, we still have authority over the Missouri River, not only by treaty but by federal Indian water rights. So that’s the idea and the legal fight for Indian people. And that’s how Standing Rock got involved because of all these dams being built on the Missouri.
And there’s also the issue not only of the environmental issues, in which the federal government is required by law to do what they call environmental impacts statements, environmental impact study, which is supposed to give warning. [But] they’re supposed to give the impact of these massive development projects on the people. Not only Indian people, but non-Indian people.
So a lot of these rules and regulations are either being trampled on by the corporate entities or ignored by the federal government, or given some kind of a lip service to state government, or what they call the Public Utilities Commission. So this is kind of the backdrop, where we have state and federal authorities negligent throughout this process, historically, and even today, in protecting the rights of not only American Indians, but American citizens. So this is why we fight.
DB: We saw their struggle at Wounded Knee, many of their struggles, but a big one at Wounded Knee. Bill also is on the Board of the International Treaty Council, and they’re working with the local tribes in this struggle. And, Bill, can I ask you to just talk a little bit about the stand that the Treaty Council has taken and how you’ve been working with the local tribes legally, if you will?
BM: Ah, yeah, we’ve been working in two areas. [First] helping them to organize through the National Lawyers Guild– legal defense for those water protectors that are being charged with various crimes as they do their legal, and peaceful, protests to the pipeline. So that’s one area that’s very important. And we want to give kudos and strength to the National Lawyers Guild for lending that support, and other lawyers both that work for the tribe and others.
Another area that’s significant is that the International Indian Treaty Council along with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed [a] human rights complaint with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of the United Nations under the Human Rights Laws and Protocol that the United States has agreed to as being part of the United Nations.
Here we’ve presented the evidence of which I’ve talked about–federal/state regulations, treaty rights, water rights that are facts in law–and presented those human rights as human rights violations in the struggle of Indian people to maintain clean water, and access to clean water, and drinking water. So we presented to specific, what they call, repertoires. These are people that study the issues, internationally in the Human Rights Commission. And those special repertoires, or the issues they’re studying, of course, is the special repertoire on water, the special repertoire on indigenous peoples, the special repertoire of sacred places.
As you know, in Syria and in other wars around the world, these armies, these militants, these people have destroyed many, many graves, artifacts, in an attempt to promote their way of life. And so this has become an international issue. […] The DAPL pipeline in particular has destroyed graves already. And so all these issues, whether it’s water, whether it’s the rights of Indigenous people, are now being studied by the United Nations. And the United States has to answer these questions as party to these human rights treaties that they signed.
So, we have pressure being exerted internationally by the United Nation’s human rights system. While all these other issues are going on both locally, in the courts from the water resisters, as well as the water protectors, as well as the tribe itself in federal court. So we have a court case going against various federal agencies, and now some negotiations are taking place with the Department of the Army which handles Corps of Engineers, which governs the river ways and waterways of America. Also, we have involved the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice. So we can tell from those various words that they have significant interests in these issues.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is totally within the Department of Interior. And, of course, the Department of Justice is supposed to be protecting us, the Indian people, the American people from these corporate carpetbaggers, and these corporate interests that continue to ignore the laws of the United States and treaty laws.
So, here we have three agencies now involved in trying to carry out negotiations and what they call “consultations” with the tribes and the local communities of non-Indians who are also protesting.
DB: There’s a couple things in terms of the terminology I want you to expand on, but first of all, in terms of the graves… you say that sacred grave sites, burial sites have already been destroyed. Who would have been in those graves?
BM: Well, these ancient sites, some of our ancestors were buried along the river, as you know, we have a saying in our language which goes “water is life.” So in respect for the life, many times historically our people were buried overlooking the river, overlooking the water. And that attachment goes back centuries, in our culture the role of water [is] as the first medicine to our people. And the role that water plays in humanity, and its need for purity. Its need to allow our people to grow, to live.
And so, this is one of the areas that historically our people were buried and then, as this pipeline goes, there’s even a federal act for that called American Indian Graves and Historical Preservation Act. And in that federal law, federal entities and companies are supposed to consult and they’re supposed to work with Indian tribes when they come across these ancient burial grounds.
And so, these go back for many centuries, some of these burial grounds, as well as fairly modern day areas. So rather than consult, they generally just go through and destroy them. Or when they do consult, their way of consulting is they call the local state university, have the anthros come out, dig up the bones that are left and haul them off to the university, in total disrespect for our culture, for humanity, for our way of life.
And so, this is a problem that has [been] seen time and again with these pipelines, these development projects, in and around the Missouri River, especially because water being life, there’s a lot of, shall we say, generations that have grown up around that river, and continue to live in those areas. So that’s why it’s important. It would be akin, I guess, like if we went in and started digging up maybe some famous cemetery. You know, what if we went to say the National Military Cemetery, in Washington, D.C. and started digging them up.
DB: …over there at Arlington, where they have the ceremonies every year.
BM: Yeah, if we went there and started digging them up, or maybe to the Cathedral of Saint John, in New York. And where they have their burial ground, outside there in New York, we go there and start digging up and say we want to look for the size of the heads, or we want to study the white man, in these Indian universities and Indian colleges. People would be outraged. But, yet, when it’s Indian people calling for justice for destroying our culture, and our historical artifacts, and our graves, somehow we get ignored. Somehow we get a dual standard of justice when it comes to Indian people.
And so, we have to make this resistance in order to send a message to America that, “We’re still here as Indigenous people.” Not only here in America but wherever the minerals, wherever the clean water still exists, that’s where Indigenous people are today, all over the world.
DB: And, to put this in the political context, obviously there’s a presidential election going on. Have any of these candidates expressed any sympathy for the Indigenous community for this case against destroying sacred burial grounds and digging up graves, so that universities can study the bones? Has anybody stepped forward? Have you been impressed by any of the politicians?
BM: Ah, no not at all. As a matter of fact, Donald Trump said there’s a war on coal, and that he’s going to stop that war. Now, coal is probably the most devastating form of energy production that we have in America, or in the world. So that gives you an idea about his concern about Mother Earth. Hillary, on the other hand, has only paid lip service to Indian issues. We haven’t heard her come out on the DAPL pipeline, or any other pipeline. She did say that she changed her position on the XL pipeline, which President Obama stopped, along with some white ranchers in Nebraska, and Indian people that worked together–what they called the CIA, Cowboy and Indian Alliance, which is getting stronger by the day, where white people and Indian people have come together–to protect their land.
And so, the candidates, they haven’t even voiced a public statement, for sure. And it only comes out when asked maybe in a local rally or something, then they give basically lip service, and talk about window dressing on the issue.
DB: Before we let you go, and this is something I’ve really been wanting to speak with you about. I think one of the most powerful parts of this movement is that the Indigenous community is really taking the lead. They’ve really come together and opened the door in a way that white people and all people can sort of come in and be a part of it. But the fact is, that… and the power is, we now refer to the protestors as water protectors, or water resistors, this is through the Indigenous communities vision of life which is really a vision in the context of global warming, it’s the only vision that can save us.
BM: Exactly right. I think that what Indigenous people have to offer the world is the fact that we have to build our policies and our governments around the future of Mother Earth. And so whether you’re left or right, we all have to live on the Earth. Whether you’re left or right, you have to drink water, water that is pure.
And, so these basic issues of human life are what Indigenous people have been calling for respect, all these years. It’s only when we protest that it brings this issue into the forefront of the rest of the world, where they decide hey, maybe this global warming does have an impact on Indigenous people, because it’s impacting us. Whether that’s in Europe, whether that’s in the United States, Latin America. The pollution has gotten so bad that it’s beginning to affect our daily lives. And so, until you respect Earth itself, and the power of Mother Earth, then you will never respect the future of our future generations, and those who come after us.
The Indian philosophy of life is that we have to look seven generations ahead when we make these decisions about development, about exploitation of natural resources, about all these extractive industries. What harm does that do to our Mother, the Earth? And what is the impact on the future generations? So that’s the philosophy that’s beginning to come out in terms of political variations in government policy around the world, is that we really have to, no matter what form of government you have, you have to be able if you look at Mother Earth as the leading policy, as the primary very function of government – just protect the Earth, not corporations. And so, until we can do that then I think we’re in a losing battle.
And we hope that these types of struggles, which we have no intention of changing because it’s going on all where Indigenous people are around the world, which is now 400 million Indigenous people who still speak their language, still have their traditional government, still have their culture and language. These are the people who are protecting the Earth. And we hope to enlarge that Earth protective family, to include each and every American, each and every citizen living on Mother Earth.
DB: Bill, it’s almost a tradition with us in terms of remembering Leonard Peltier. Now, last we spoke you gave President Obama an F for keeping his promises in terms of really making a difference in the Indigenous communities of North America. Do you think, and what would you say, do you think he could raise his grade from and F to a D or a C, if he decided to take a courageous action and finally, finally free Leonard Peltier?
BM: Yes, I think he really could because Leonard Peltier represents the treatment the United States government has given to Indian people throughout the history of this great country. And so until we can deal with the basic issues of human rights and justice, then I think Indian people will always be on the bottom rung of the ladder of social justice. And so I think it’s up to President Obama, before he leaves to try to take this one act of clemency, in which everyone will be able to sit down at the table and say, “Leonard Peltier is finally free. He’s going home. He’s going to see his children, for the first time in 41 years.” And we hope and we pray that that happens before the president goes out of office.