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President Obama Must Act Now on DAPL

Thanksgiving has come and gone, with millions of Americans stuffing their faces, watching parades and football, and perhaps mentioning a word or two of gratitude for their families. Perhaps a few considered the alleged first Thanksgiving, a supposedly peaceful meal between Natives and Pilgrims. Native Americans consider it a day of mourning, as they challenge that quaint depiction and point to the government’s long history of massacres, broken treaties, and forced cultural assimilation. Even more ironic than celebrating the destruction of Native Americans land and lifestyle is the fact that most Americans have no idea that such destruction continues today, and that our president has the power to stop at least one part of it immediately.

To be fair, President Obama has repeatedly been praised for his attention to issues faced by Native Americans. During his 2008 campaign, he vowed that his administration would pay attention to Native Americans’ grievances about the government’s reneging on treaties and its long history of federal mismanagement of tribal affairs. He declared that no group has been ignored by Washington for as long as have Native Americans. Obama has been applauded for helping broker a $492 million settlement with 17 tribes for federal mismanagement of land and funds, for creating a White House council to improve communication with tribes, for including Native women in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and for expanding the jurisdiction of tribal courts.  If he continues to do nothing about the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the protests at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, however, his administration will end with a huge black mark. And, importantly, it is clear that his successor, Donald Trump, would back the pipeline, not the protestors.

For months, Native Americans and supporters have protested the building of the 1,172 mile pipeline, which will disrupt sacred land and may have environmental and economic consequences for a number of tribes. On November 1, President Obama called on “both sides to show restraint” and said that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternate route. He also said that he wanted to “let the situation play out.”

It has played out, and not in a positive way. One side is definitely not showing that restraint. Things escalated in the last several weeks due to the militarized response from state and other authorities. North Dakota Governor Dalrymple has sent law enforcement from all over the state to Standing Rock, and has convinced seven other states to do the same.  Law enforcement has used aggressive tactics to counter the nonviolent protests. Police are using water cannons, tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets against the unarmed protestors. Hundreds of water protectors, including “Divergent” star Shailene Woodley, have been arrested for trespassing and report enduring invasive strip-searches before being stuffed into cells they call “dog kennels” without bedding for the night.  One activist, Sophia Wilanski, who was handing out water bottles to protestors, suffered a serious injury to her arm when she was hit by a concussion grenade. Some 300 were injured, and most of the patients who were treated suffered hypothermia due to the seven hour assault by police officers armed with water cannons in temperatures as low as 22 degrees.

President-elect Donald Trump reportedly has a $2 million stake in the DAPL. It’s pretty clear we can’t count on him to shut it down. In fact, given his position that the U.S. should upgrade its oil and gas infrastructure, it is likely he’ll reopen the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Obama shut down amidst similar protests. Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren believes Trump will support the company as well, and Energy Transfer Partners’ stock price climbed more than 15 percent since Trump’s election. No lover of Native Americans, Trump has previously scuffled with tribes in the northeast over casino projects. Trump is unlikely to help the protesters, either, as previous comments (such as saying Colin Kaepernick should “find a new country”) make it clear that nonviolent protest isn’t something he approves.

So, it really is up to President Obama to act before he leaves office, as the company plans for the pipeline to be moving oil by January 1. The situation is worsening and letting it play out further simply means allowing the company to run roughshod over Natives’ rights. Mr. Obama must put people over profits and shut down the DAPL.

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Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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