Black Snake and Our National Disgrace: Pipelines Across Sacred Land

“I feel like I got my future back.”

– Thirteen-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes, at Standing Rock, December 2016

In 1961 in an introduction to a volume titled American Heritage Book of Indians, President John F. Kennedy explained that Native Americans were “the least understood and most misunderstood Americans,” and that even many of their heroes—he called out Osceola of the Seminoles and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce—were “largely unknown to other Americans.”

Sixty years later, Kennedy’s statement is still largely true, though Indians made history and headlines during the occupation (or was it the liberation?) of Alcatraz in 1969-1970, the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, when demonstrators briefly stopped the flow of oil from the Bakken Formation in the northern plains to the rest of the nation.

Again and again, over the past 250 years, the U.S. as a nation, a culture and as a world power, has tried to erase, ignore and forget about Native Americans. Again and again, Native Americans have refused to be erased, ignored and forgotten. They have survived cultural warfare, the might of the American military and the onslaughts of corporate power.

Katherine Wiltenburg Todrys, a lawyer and a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells a riveting tale about oppression and resistance in her new book, Black Snake: Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Environmental Justice. (Bison Books; $24.95)

I don’t feel comfortable telling the CounterPunch faithful that they ought to read this book. There are many new books that ought to be read and savored. Still, Black Snake is definitely one of them. While it is written by a lawyer and a researcher and published by an academic press, the University of Nebraska, it is not an academic study meant only or mainly for lawyers, researchers and academicians. It’s for all of us.

To write this book, Katherine Wiltenburg Todrys conducted dozens of interviews with Indians and non-Indians, read dozens of newspaper and magazine articles about Standing Rock and the pipeline. She has linked the past to the present, and the present to the past, and she has told a story that is both intensely personal and profoundly political.

Todrys focuses on four feisty Indian women—Lisa DeVille, Jasilyn Charger, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and Kandi White. She deftly weaves their individual stories into what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls, “an absolutely epic environmental drama.” The reader meets “the water protectors”—the thousands of people, both Indian and non-Indian, young and old—who gathered at Standing Rock to demonstrate against the pipeline that was designed to run through sacred Indian land, trash the environment and garner profits for Wall Street and its fat cats.

Jane Fonda, Jan Hasselman from Earthjustice and presidential candidate Jill Stein—who spray-painted private property—make cameo appearances. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Lewis and Clark rise from the dead and haunt the landscape of North Dakota.

Todrys depicts the damage that has been inflicted on Indians because of poverty, alcoholism, violence, the white man’s abuse and neglect, and also because of the narrow-mindedness of some Indians who have opted for short term material gains and have lost sight of history and tribal life. The author unearths the resilience of the four feisty Indian women who are at the heart of her epic. She brings them to life, often in their own words, in the pages of this book.

She also animates many of the young Indians who flocked to Standing Rock in 2016, with the race for the White House in the background, Obama, the outgoing president shilly-shallying, and Donald Trump boasting, “I approved two pipelines that were stuck in limbo forever. I don’t even think it was controversial. I think everyone’s going to be happy in the end.”

A thirteen-year-old Indian named Takata Iron Eyes observes, “I feel like I got my future back.” Other Indians with names like Dale “Happy” American Horse and Danny Grassrope also appear.

There are bad guys galore, including the locals who call Indians “prairie niggers” and the thuggish employees of TigerSwan, the racist counterterrorism company, that aimed to disrupt and sabotage the protests and that violated the basic civil rights of the water protectors.

If JFK, our greatly imperfect president, were alive today he might say that Indian heroes are not all dead and buried, but rather alive and defiant and determined not to allow the “black snake” of the Dakota Access Pipeline to devour their lands, their lives, their memories and their tomorrows.

In his 1961 introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians, JFK urged Americans to study Native American history.  If the nation did not come to terms with the Indian past, he warned, “our treatment of the American Indian” would be “marked down for all time as a national disgrace.”

In Black Snake, Katherine Wiltenburg Todrys offers Americans of all races, classes, cultures, creeds, ethnic groups and genders the opportunity to look in the mirror and to see a reflection of where we have been as a nation and where we are going if we are to escape the poison of fossil fuel.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.