Standing Rock offers chance to get Thanksgiving right
© Greg Nash

In the United States, the federally-recognized holiday of Thanksgiving is typically celebrated by sharing food with friends and family and expressing gratitude for various blessings.

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The story that Americans are taught in grade school about the origin of the tradition is that in 1621 the pilgrims and Indians set aside their differences to share a feast and "give thanks" for the agricultural skills taught by the indigenous population to the new settlers and the successful growing season that followed.

However, this whitewashed holiday has a different significance in Indian Country. It is a day of remembrance and mourning of the genocide perpetrated against millions of American Indians, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.

Although pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians did share a meal in 1621, this feast was followed by centuries of broken treaties; murder, rape, and arson; theft of land and property; kidnapping and enslavement, as well as torture and imprisonment.

What is omitted from the historically revisionist narrative of Thanksgiving is the fact that the American Indian population has since been decimated and surviving tribal citizens continue to have injustices perpetrated against them to this day.

Most recently, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is protesting the construction of a $3.7 billion pipeline that is scheduled to be routed through sacred sites and could potentially threaten their primary water source, the Missouri River, should the pipeline leak oil. 

The pipeline's construction was originally proposed to run north of the predominantly white city of Bismarck, but the initial plans were quashed when those citizens raised concerns about protecting their community and water. Despite the Standing Rock Sioux tribe raising the same concerns and others, the pipeline construction was approved for rerouting north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

In response, hundreds of tribes from across the United States and indigenous populations from around the world have joined Standing Rock in protesting the pipeline. Police have been accused of committing human rights abuses against the predominantly peaceful demonstrators, by using water cannons in freezing temperatures as well as pepper spray, rubber bullets, dogs, tear gas, and concussion grenades.

Some are describing these actions as perpetuating a modern form of colonialism, while others continue to rationalize and legitimize the pipeline construction.

For example, Ron Ness, president of North Dakota Petroleum Council authored an op-ed, published in the Bismarck Tribune, where he described the plight of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as only representing the interests of "a narrow sliver of the Great Plains populace." 

He went on to argue that the construction of the pipeline is "an opportunity to embrace energy independence and chart a path toward economic growth." According to Ness, benefits include increases in jobs, millions in tax revenue, and access to "an invaluable American produced natural resource." He claims the opportunity for dissent has passed and protesters are now just disrupting the rule of law. 

Immediately before and after the first Thanksgiving, American Indians stood up against the unilateral decisions that affected their people, land, resources, and culture and they were dehumanized as "savages" for doing so.

Today, American Indians continue to be put in positions where they must assert their sovereignty and protect themselves, their land, resources, and culture. The only difference is that now they are criminalized in order to delegitimize their cause.

Ultimately, in the ethical assessment on the justness of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the "greatest good for the greatest number" argument will never come out in favor of American Indians, not following the genocide that wiped out most of their people. Instead, perhaps on this Thanksgiving, American legislators can discontinue the centuries-long tradition of using American Indians and their lands as means to an end, and begin treating them with a moral imperative that respects their rights as people and their sovereignty as tribal nations. 

The North Dakota Access Pipeline may very well bring jobs, tax revenue, and energy independence, but at what cost?

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco


 

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