In bad movies (and bad history alike), the Native American ceremonial pipe figured prominently as symbol of defeat -- typically in a cliched scene of subdued chieftains signing a treaty of surrender and passing around a "peace pipe" in a sorrowful gesture to seal the raw deal.
The reality is that the communal smoking of a ceremonial pipe, often filled with tobacco, is a centuries-old tradition rich in spiritual meaning for many Native people who see it as an eternal channel through which tribes seek metaphysical strength, courage and endurance. The ceremonial pipe both shapes and conveys Native people's living history, a story that's perpetually being written.
Indeed, a dramatic new chapter is unfolding this year in a volatile confrontation on a remote stretch of the Northern Plains in rural North Dakota. It's a "Battle of Two Pipes," pitting the cultural power symbolized by the Native American pipe against the bruising financial power of a giant pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer Partners.
In 2014, ETP, a Texas oil behemoth, went public with its scheme to build a massive oil pipeline from the fracking wells of the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota. ETP's 30-inch-wide Dakota Access pipeline would cut a 1,172-mile-long scar diagonally through the heart of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.
If ETP's $3.8 billion line is completed, it would carry 570,000 barrels of oil a day through most of the four states' watersheds and wildlife habitats; it would transit hundreds of farms and ranches and make 200 river crossings. All the water and land in its path would be endangered, for one unpleasant fact about pipelines is that they regularly leak, sometimes rupture and can blow up (an especially relevant concern with fracked Bakken oil, which is not only some of the dirtiest crude on the planet but also is exceptionally flammable and "more prone to explosions than earlier thought," according to U.S. officials).
Kelcy Warren is the honcho of Energy Transfer Partners and its parent financial outfit, Energy Transfer Equity, a fossil fuel colossus that also owns Sunoco oil and Southern Union gas. Warren's company -- with such an unkempt environmental record plus national notoriety for bulldozing over opposition from outraged landowners and communities -- regularly has state and federal regulatory authorities to clear its pat. This is done the old-fashioned way: Warren, ranked by Forbes as the 86th richest American, pumps big bucks into the campaign coffers of key politicos, drawing from corporate funds as well as his personal $5.45 billion fortune.