Once again, the United States failed to recognize the sovereignty of Native Americans, along with the legitimacy of other pressing issues facing their community. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just another example of the U.S. government, along with interested corporations, trying to encroach on Native land, which could severely impact Native American culture and well-being. American history is full of battles against Native Americans, who were devastated by the land cessions that followed. Over time, Native land was ceded to opportunistic individuals seeking it, and, eventually, added to the ever-expanding country of the United States. Legislation such as the Dawes Act exacerbated to the loss of millions of acres for Natives. Eventually, Native Americans were enclosed and often displaced into reservations, which had only a small fraction of Natives’ original land. Even with the diminution of Native lands, it seems that not enough profit can be squeezed out of the lands and the people themselves.
Some argue that by building the pipeline, the U.S. government will be helping further develop the reservations. Before pressing ideas of development that may cause damage to an already weakened community, the government should first address more pressing health concerns within Native American community, specifically the two major crises of suicide and addiction. The suicide rate for Native Americans and Alaska Natives is an astounding 34.3 percent the highest of any ethnic group, and a rate several times higher than the general population. The federal government does partner with tribal leaders to make education available for suicide prevention. However, the Indian Health Service, a federal institution, notes that prevention can be found in “strong tribal/spiritual bond[s],” something that could be at risk following the development of sacred land.
While development may exacerbate damage, these invasions must also be viewed from a Native perspective. We quantize land in acres, not in the deep ties that often accompany sacred terrains. In so many ways, Native land is Native culture, and any actor trying to take that land is thus taking Native American culture. Different folklore rituals, customs and traditions are based on the land that a tribe resides on. Being part Cherokee, I knew from a young age how important things such as corn and deer were. If, one day, the deer were to suddenly disappear, the culture of the Cherokee would change as well and a vast portion of our rich culture would be lost. Deer hunts help organize the community around activities, such as preparing for the hunt or tending to the freshly hunted deer. Good hunts ensure celebrations, and less successful ones demand resourcefulness. The year can be planned around deer mating and hunting seasons, as well as crops grown on the land. The land that the proposed pipeline would cover is not only worth protecting because of the legal technicality of tribal sovereignty, but also because the land itself is an integral part of Native culture that has been targeted for centuries. The creation of the pipeline would change the ecosystem central to Native American culture.
Native Americans have the right to be environmentalists and to protect the landscape on which they live. If they wish to conserve their lands and leave them untouched, so be it; we wouldn’t build upon Yellowstone or another national monument. If the government wishes to develop on Native land, it must do so with the permission of the community and only after having established good rapport with the community. The continual undermining of Native American lands and culture perpetuates the system in which the epidemics faced by the tribes continues. Not only does the Dakota Access Pipeline infringe upon the rights of Native Americans, it disrespects the land on which they live.
Photo courtesy of it’sgoingdown.org