Cannon Ball, North Dakota is the kind of place that you’d never hear of, normally. It’s a tiny dot, in a remote corner, of an isolated Native reservation, in the wide open spaces of sparsely populated North Dakota. In short, it’s 70 kilometres from nowhere; if Bismarck North Dakota counts as nowhere.
For the last seven months, beginning with a handful of activists, a small protest has grown into a full-fledged confrontation between hundreds of native protesters, and law enforcement teams gathered from seven U.S. States.
The fight, in its simplest terms, revolves around the protection of water.
But in larger terms, it’s about the power of private enterprise, and its use of law enforcement might, to pursue business interests, and profits.
Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is in the process of constructing a $3.7-Billion dollar pipeline to ship crude oil nearly 18-hundred kilometres from the fracking fields of western North Dakota, to a processing plant in Patoka, Illinois.
A stretch of that pipeline crosses near, but not on, the land now recognized as the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
While the pipeline has met resistance and protest in other areas, nothing has equalled the size, or determination of the demonstrators at Cannon Ball.
More than 260 people have been arrested over the course of the protest, including high profile independent journalist Amy Goodman, and Hollywood actress Shailene Woodley. Goodman was charged with inciting a riot. The charges were later dismissed, buy a North Dakota judge.
Other celebrities: Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio have also taken up the anti-pipeline cause.
The authorities have pushed the protesters back with pepper spray, tear gas, riot gear, tasers, armoured vehicles, drones, helicopters, surveillance aircraft, and sound cannons. So far, they have resisted using the hundreds of automatic assault rifles, and other firearms that they brandish constantly, while confronting the unarmed demonstrators.
You may be asking why the Standing Rock nation is trying to shut down a pipeline that is not even on their land, and that is really the key issue.
What right do these Native activists and their environmentalist allies, have to trespass on private property, erect barricades, burn tires and their own vehicles, in a bid to halt the legal construction of a major infrastructure project?
Part of the problem, is that the “private land” now in contention, is land that was given to the Lakota and Dakota Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. They have never relinquished their rights to that land.
On it, they say, are native burial grounds, and sacred sites, that will be destroyed, or removed from access.
They are also concerned about the threat of an oil spill, into the waters that supply their reservation.
The Fort Laramie treaty, has been continually violated since the moment it was signed. The most famous example is the outright theft of the Black Hills by the U.S. Government, when gold was discovered there.
In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Sioux in that long-standing case, awarding them one Billion dollars in compensation, and concluding in a written decision that : “ A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”
The Sioux didn’t take the money. They want the land.
In 1958, a much smaller parcel was taken by Washington, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to build the Oahe Dam and reservoir on two hectares of reservation land. Despite clear language in Article 12 of the Laramie Treaty that said that the Standing Rock Sioux had to consent to cede the land, the Government’s decision was unilateral.
Many times in the past, I have heard (white) people say things like: “ That was hundreds of years ago. When are they ( aboriginals ) going to stop blaming us for things we never did? We didn’t have anything to do with that. They need to get over it, that was the past.”
Only, it’s not just the past. It’s still happening today.
I don’t know what bothers me most about the Cannon Ball standoff.
The callous disregard for concerns and historical rights of Native Americans, or the use of naked, brute force, against citizens exercising their rights to register dissent, and peacefully protest.
Clearly, State authorities in North Dakota believe, that using armed force against civilians at the behest of a private company, is perfectly legitimate and acceptable; even though the officers, vehicles and equipment used, are paid for by public funds specifically meant to uphold the rights, and protect the people of North Dakota.
All, of the people.
In this instance, I can only think of the famous words of anti-Nazi clergyman, Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.