Over the past year, a remote area of North Dakota has been the improbable and prophetic site of a struggle with profound ramifications for us all. The confrontation has pitted the Water Protectors -- the Standing Rock Sioux, other Native American tribes, and their allies -- against the oil profiteers of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. The source of conflict is completion of the $3.8 billion, thousand-mile Dakota Access Pipeline -- the Black Snake -- that Energy Transfer Partners has built to carry fracked oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
The current planned route for the pipeline takes it beneath the Missouri River treacherously close to the Standing Rock and other Sioux reservations. A serious leak will threaten the water supply of these tribes and millions of people who live further downstream. Meanwhile, pipeline construction has already caused irreparable harm to Native American ancestral burial grounds and sacred sites.
The Water Protectors
Beginning last April, Water Protectors from across the country -- indigenous and non-indigenous alike -- began to gather in the thousands at the Oceti Sakowin Camp, established just north of the Standing Rock reservation. Around the camp's sacred fires, they shared and honored the rituals, stories, and principles of community fundamental to the traditional values of the Lakota tribes: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, and wisdom.
At the same time, the Water Protectors sought to block construction of the final section of pipeline. Their non-violent acts of civil resistance were met with attack dogs, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, percussion grenades, water cannons, aerial surveillance, and hundreds of arrests by militarized law-enforcement personnel. The standoff ended a few weeks ago when the Governor of North Dakota, citing safety concerns, issued an emergency evacuation order. Shortly thereafter, authorities forcibly shut down and razed the camp.
Assaults like those that took place at Standing Rock are really nothing new for our nation's Native peoples. Their history of removal, dispossession, degradation, attempted forced assimilation, and betrayal at the hands of White America runs as long and as deep as the Missouri River itself. Spanning centuries, these experiences form a chronicle of unresolved grief and historical trauma, which Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart has described as "the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over one's lifetime and from generation to generation following loss of lives, land, and vital aspects of culture."
The consequences of these brutal colonization practices are visible too in a range of cold, hard statistics. Today Native Americans have a median household income barely two-thirds that of the general population, and their poverty rate is nearly twice as large. They're half as likely to have a college degree, and their life expectancy is six years shorter. They also suffer from higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, incarceration, depression, and PTSD, as well as suicide among their youth.
The survival of Native Americans, their diverse communities, and their rich cultures -- despite hardship and oppression, and against such long odds -- is a powerful testament to their extraordinary resilience. This abiding strength deserves greater recognition than it receives; like historical trauma, it too is transmitted across lives and generations. Shared narratives, traditional practices, spiritual teachings, the prayerful appreciation of time and place, and respect for the interconnectness of all things serve as crucial protective factors for indigenous tribes and their members.