President Obama’s election was not only the remarkable once-in-a-lifetime event that many of us who remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s hoped for, but also a first in the history of the United States. For the people of this country to vote in a person of color was monumental and ground-breaking. Many of us had very high hopes that injustices would be righted, racism diminished, and discrimination reduced. While progress has been made, these changes have not occurred. The history of the United States is deeply entrenched in white privilege, with the world only now getting used to the phrase, what it means, and its power in our lives. Yet, it is important to realize that despite the need for much more progress for human rights, President Obama has reached out to all citizens during his two terms.
Under his leadership, all citizens can access healthcare, whether they are working or have a pre-existing condition. Citizens who are in same-sex relationships can marry and provide insurance and survivor benefits for those they love. Citizens are now protected from the abuses of the banking establishment that caused the Great Recession with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Low-income college students have access to additional Pell Grants, and all citizens have benefited from the passage of credit card reform and improved food safety. However, there is a segment of the population that has not received much attention despite support from the president. President Obama campaigned hard to win the Native American vote with a promise to deal with federal mismanagement of treaty obligations. He delivered with the resolution of more than 100 tribal claims and the settlement of a complex lawsuit regarding the federal mishandling of land trust accounts, as well as the establishment of a White House Council of tribal leaders and the inclusion of tribal women under the protection of the Violence against Woman Act. However, Native Americans still need help. Here is President Obama’s final chance to have a lasting impact.
What is occurring at Standing Rock in North Dakota is another once-in-a-lifetime and once-in-the-history-of-the-country event. The country’s first people, Native Americans, are fighting to protect their ancestral burial grounds and the drinking water for not only their people, but all people whose source of water is through the Missouri River. While this is the only source of water to the Oceti Sakowin, known as the Sioux to non-Natives, it is also the major source of water to many more who live downstream. The United States government established the Great Sioux Reservation in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 of which Standing Rock is a part. In 1877, the government unilaterally removed the Sacred Black Hills from Great Sioux Reservation because gold had been discovered. Continual theft of lands has occurred since as the reservation continued to shrink and shrink. Referring to these actions, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in 1980 that “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
So now in 2016, thousands of people, from more than 200 Native American tribes, indigenous peoples from across the globe, and white allies are peacefully protecting the sanctity of their lands. Those present at Standing Rock refer to themselves as water “protectors,” not “protestors.” Descendants of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse have joined forces to tell all that “water is life.” What many do not realize is that the Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners LLP, originally routed this pipeline near Bismarck but authorities worried that an oil spill would wreck the state capital’s drinking water, so the crossing was moved to a half mile from the reservation across land taken from the tribe in 1958 without their consent. If the tribe had been consulted, the government would have learned that this route requires digging up sacred places, old burial grounds and Lake Oahe, but the Army Corps of Engineers approved this path under a “fast track” option called Permit 12.
Why is this a safety concern? According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, since 1995, more than 2,000 significant accidents involving oil and petroleum pipelines have occurred. From 2013 to 2015, an average of 121 accidents happened every year. Pipelines are approved by states, but access via waterways and federal lands must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. On September 9, 2016, the Departments of Justice, the Army and the Interior stated they would not authorize the building of the pipeline near the tribal lands and asked the pipeline company to voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe. The company has not followed this directive. Only a few days later, Energy Transfer Partners LLP sent contractors back to work near Standing Rock, where over 20 protestors who discovered this were arrested. President Obama can not only order the work to stop, but he can also deploy the Army Corps of Engineers, or even the National Guard, to stop the violence being perpetrated by local, regional and state officials against the nonviolent protestors.
President Obama is at the end of his two terms. He can change the course of this black snake, as the Native people refer to the pipeline, and the future of the Sioux people and the history of our country. He stopped the Keystone XL pipeline which would not have ensured greater energy security for the U.S. or provided a significant number of jobs, but it would have undermined the United States leadership fighting climate change. At Standing Rock, nonviolent protestors and peaceful protectors are willing to camp in the cold and have put systems in place to keep people fed, warm, and safe, but the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, dogs, and grenades have caused confrontations reminiscent of Birmingham circa 1963.
Two days ago on November 25, ironically the day after Thanksgiving, John Henderson, a district commander with the Corps announced that all water protectors must leave the area by December 5. President Obama is the Commander in Chief. He can assure protection for the water protectors by removing this unrealistic request for those who see this as a matter of life and death and have vowed to stay. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II, released a statement that said, “Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the treatment of our people. We have suffered much, but we still hope that the President will act on his commitment to close the chapter of broken promises to our people and especially our children.”
What the president does next will determine Obama’s legacy with Native Americans. He has protected and provided for many Americans who were ignored until his presidency. However, the First People on this land, who know the past in a way descendants of immigrants and colonists cannot, are uniting to protect the land. Is oil the new gold or is water the ultimate prize since we all need it to survive? (hint: a bottled gallon of water is about $10—a gallon of gasoline is less than $3) After hundreds of years of dishonorable actions and broken treaties, President Obama can stop this destruction of land, water, and people. Please take action, Mr. President, and assure your legacy to all Americans.