The news this week on the Fort Berthold Reservation was not good. One million gallons of brine from fracking operations spilled in an 8,240 feet long flow down a ravine near Bear Den Bay and Lake Sakakawea. The pipe carrying the chemical byproducts of oil and gas exploration is owned by Arrow Pipeline LLC, a subsidiary of Crestwood Midstream Partners Inc. The reservoir provides drinking water to the Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.
As the Canadian oil company, Enbridge, plans potential pipeline routes to transport North Dakota oil from the Bakken reserves and dilbit from the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes, the past offers a valuable lesson. Promises of prosperity and easy money are eerily familiar and reminiscent of those made to indigenous peoples in the mid-nineteenth century when President Thomas Jefferson desperately sought American domination in the fur trade. Energy, like the fur trade of the nineteenth century, is manipulated on world markets. Oil is the new fur, and will be sold to the highest bidder. Clean water, health, sacred lands, and the future of the next generation hang in the balance.
An hour's drive north of Bismark, North Dakota, the National Park Service oversees the archeological remnants of a First Nation agricultural society that hunted, traded and farmed the Knife River region for at least 500 years. Prior to the river settlements, the region was inhabited for at least 11,000 years by nomadic tribes that hunted now extinct animal species. As the hunter-gatherer tribes gradually turned to agriculture on the fertile soils of the wooded banks of the Missouri and Knife Rivers, round earth lodges became the dominant architecture. This was an advanced society in many ways. Oral history was rich with tradition, and creation stories recounted the Mandan Nation's birth on the upper Missouri. The neighboring Hidatsa learned how to grow corn from the Mandan, traded with them, and eventually the tribes shared so much intermarriage that the cultures merged. Because of an unofficial alliance with the Arikara to the south, the tribes dominated trade routes that were the economic backbone of the Great Plains.
By the time the first Europeans arrived in the mid 1700's, the three nations were at the height of prosperity and influence. In a little over 100 years it would all be gone. Smallpox all but obliterated 11,000 years of culture on the Knife River, and the epidemic followed the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Columbia River into the land of the Nez Perce, wiping out many of the Columbia River people. The buffalo were decimated, salmon destroyed, and sacred lands overrun by European settlements hauled west by the railroads.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was predicated on a lie. And the lie destroyed a civilization.
Most Americans learn that the Lewis and Clark expedition was a scientific exploration of a possible route to the Northwest Passage. In reality the expedition was covertly planned with Congress to fulfill Thomas Jefferson's goal of subjugating First Nation people under the legal cover of the Doctrine of Discovery. Jefferson coveted sovereign rule beginning at the gateway to the plains in St. Louis. However, there was a problem. Indigenous tribes were in the way and they also harbored a secret that Jefferson wanted.
Fur trade routes were the prize that justified the deception. Fur was worthless unless it could reach world markets.
So, Jefferson lied to France, England, and Spain when he requested passage for a "scientific" expedition through their territories. Spain realized the expedition was a ruse to steal the fur trade from England and sent a military mission to stop it. Jefferson's scheme involved convincing the tribes that by taking fur routes from England, they would be able to buy American goods such as horses, cloth, metal and other items not available to them. The hollow promise of prosperity involved welcoming trappers on Indian land. America would become the biggest fur trader in the world if it could utilize the river system to the Northwest Passage to undercut the British fur trade with China. The key to success involved bypassing established routes through Hudson Bay and Montreal.
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Today, the remnants of the great Mandan and Sioux societies are living on reservations; suffering the consequences of the broken Fort Laramie Treaty and the lies Jefferson sold to Congress. The descendants of European settlers now own what was once First Nation land and exist in seeming prosperity on the Great Plains with the promise of greater riches to come as oil companies dangle Bakken oil as the new prize. Oil leases and pipelines are the new treaties.
With seeming impunity, oil companies are obtaining pipeline routes under the guise of "critical energy structure." Using the Patriot Act as a fig leaf, Enbridge has obtained an order that says the exact location of a proposed pipeline through North Dakota is protected under the 2011 Patriot Act.
The information sought to be protected is detailed design information and imagery pertaining to what would be classified as critical infrastructure under both state and federal law, and if publically disclosed, it would provide detailed information on the precise location and design of the critical infrastructure potentially putting the pipeline and the public at risk of terrorism or other foul play.
Fear is a convenient pipeline for the big lie.
The fight for oil routes, whether it be the Keystone XL or the obscure Sandpiper, is the modern day equivalent of the search for the Northwest Passage. History repeats itself and the takings are easy from the descendants of the first Europeans who do not have 11,000 years of history on the Great Plains to connect them to the land. Money trumps tradition, and the sacred is no longer sacrosanct.