Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2016
WHILE mainstream America goes through the frenzy of the November elections speculating and forecasting among co-workers, debating and fighting among friends and family, glued to social media, waiting for the first presidential general election debate thousands of Native Americans from all over the country have travelled to and gathered in North Dakota to put up a strong fight for their rights to water and their ancestral land, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Said to be the single largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years, the resistance, highlighted mostly by the alternative media, has neither captivated the nation’s attention nor sparked a mainstream debate on the rights of those people who have lived on that land for thousands of years and are the original inhabitants of the Americas — before the European colonists arrived there some 500 years ago. Those who actively support their struggle are just a handful of human rights organisations, environmentalist groups and the Green Party, whose presidential candidate, Gill Stein, and her running mate were issued with arrest warrants on Sept 8 after spray-painting a bulldozer during the protests.
At stake is the water of the Missouri and the land with burial sites sacred to the Native Americans. A private oil company is laying a pipeline that is to cross under the Missouri, close to where the Native Americans live in one of the settlements. Originally, the pipeline was to pass the state capital of Bismarck but the direction was diverted when its residents strongly opposed the route, claiming that it posed a serious threat to their water supply!
Although the environmental impact assessment carried out by federal agencies raised serious concerns, the US Army Corps of Engineers granted permission nonetheless. In July, Native American activists filed a case against the US Army Corps for the pipeline’s construction from the Missouri to the Cannon Ball River, and launched an international campaign — Rezpect Our Water — to stop the pipeline’s construction.
The tactics of the private oil company, Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partner, is the same as of any capitalist venture in any other country in the world: walk over people’s rights, particularly those who are rendered weak and disempowered through structural injustice. The company sued protesting residents for unlawful interference with construction! When Native American activists filed a motion to stop the construction, the company brought in a private security firm, used pepper spray and dogs to attack the protesters, and began to dig a part of the pipeline route on the site under litigation.
The story of the Native Americans, the forgotten people, is one of the cruellest sagas in human history. According to an estimate, the Native American population shrunk from over 50 million to 1.8m — a decline of 96pc — after the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ by Columbus. “For them, the arrival of the Europeans marked the beginning of a long holocaust,” wrote Prof Russell Thornton in his book, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, in 1987.
Native Americans were massacred in wars, killed through deliberate infection by the distribution of ‘smallpox blankets’ and the remaining forcibly relocated. Mainstream America and conservatives in particular, however, refute the use of the words ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’ to describe this history, and argue that their near extinction was caused by natural diseases.
Today, 28.3 per cent of the 3m Native Americans live in poverty, compared to the 15.5pc national poverty average. Only 13.9pc have a Bachelor’s degree or above. They still suffer deprivation, ridicule, rejection and oblivion.
According to a recent study by Prof Sarah Shear, most college students believe that “all Indians are dead”. In a 2016 book, The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians, Naomi Schaefer Riley, American writer and syndicated columnist, argues for rethinking of the reservation system, which has rendered them “powerless over their own economic and political destiny”.
Native Indians have also been robbed of their distinct cultural and linguistic identities. A middle-aged Native American woman, who I chatted with at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, told me that “they took away our names because they couldn’t pronounce and spell them.” When I asked a Native American man if he speaks his own language at home, he said, “My children are ashamed of speaking in our language. Previously, the education system was bilingual so my wife and I converse in our own language, but in 1998 bilingual education was banned.”
I was naive enough to ask him the name of the town he lives in. “I live in a reservation,” he replied. Why not call it a town or village? I wondered. Perhaps ‘reservation’ served to rob them from a sense of belonging in their own homeland.