Dakota Access pipeline continues America’s oldest narrative: Cowboys vs. Indians
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Despite ongoing prayerful protest by an unprecedented coalition aligned against its completion, drilling has recommenced on the Dakota Access pipeline.

Even so, we must not lose hope. So many people, so many groups, continue to join our resistance. It’s only natural that we Lakota lead this struggle. Native nations have been ignored and our people killed in the name of progress for centuries.

Nothing surprises us. When the Army Corps of Engineers rerouted the pipeline, we were not surprised the powers that be quickly approved running it through our land and waterways instead. We were not surprised with this week’s ruling against our temporary restraining order. I was not surprised to be arrested and charged with felony counts for peacefully demonstrating.

The cruel truth is, when a black person in America attempts to confront injustice, he is all too often arrested — or shot. It is no different for us. We understand the Black Lives Matter movement, and we empathize.


This is not a new battle for us, but the pipeline has expanded its scope. Our protest represents the intersection of several powerful ideals: protecting human, civil and indigenous rights; respecting the Constitution; and safeguarding Mother Earth, our sacred relative, whose lineage and wonders we all enjoy the privilege to share.


I was born and raised in Standing Rock Nation, the home of Sitting Bull. I drew my first breaths on and around the Missouri River. I hunted and fished this beautiful land, and learned of its sacred sites and the relationship that our Lakota cosmology creates for us around water. As we say, “Mni Wiconi”—“Water is Life.” It is imperative that we care for this place.

In mid-August, when the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline kicked into high gear, my heart was lifted as concerned citizens assembled to peacefully and prayerfully protest its construction. My heart was then broken as I witnessed attack dogs and water cannons deployed against those generous souls in subfreezing temperatures.

On Dec. 4, 2016, President Obama answered our prayers. His order to the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a comprehensive environmental review was lauded as a victory by everybody on the ground. But even then we knew it was a hollow, if welcome, gesture from an outgoing president — everything could change in an instant. And then, well, we all know what happened next.

Now, not only have the drills begun their descent under Lake Oahe, but more than 700 of us have been arrested while peaceably assembled on treaty lands. It’s still much too easy for those in power to frame our struggle as Indians versus industry, law enforcement, and progress. It’s the same old narrative from the 1800s. Just substitute billionaire oil barons and sheriffs for cowboys and marshals.

Two historic parallels illustrate how little has changed. On Dec. 3, 1875, the US Army ordered my Lakota ancestors back to the reservation, including Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others who were out hunting at the time. The full might of the US military would subdue all those who did not comply. More than 140 years later, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a similar directive, in effect right now. Those who do not leave our protest camps by February 23rd will be considered trespassers. I have a letter from the Army Corps saying they will remove everything, whether that be a structure or a human being.

Also, in 1863, Brigadier General Alfred Sully led the Whitestone Hill Massacre (400 hundred men, women and children killed, wounded or captured) near where the Oceti Sakowin Camp sits today. He then crossed the river and built Fort Rice near modern-day Cannonball. Today, on the same piece of land, stands a new structure, a fortified presence with barracks, trucks and military equipment. The Indian Wars seem never to have ended.

Thankfully, the battle to preserve our Lakota Nation’s sovereign rights has inspired a coalition unlike anything we have ever seen. It has brought Native nations together. It has summoned patriots, former soldiers and even constitutionalists, who see the clear violations of our First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly, and our Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting illegal searches, seizures and surveillance. It has brought forth human rights activists because they see the brutalization of unarmed, peaceful people by a state-sponsored, militarized police force. It has inspired environmentalists who know that clean water is the foundation of life.

It’s our civic duty and sacred call to stand and resist. Please stay with us as our struggle continues. My great hope is that we keep our alliance together, and through our collective power, one day find a way to retire the oldest, saddest narrative in America once and for all.

Chase Iron Eyes is lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project.

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