On this day, as many of us gather with friends and family to eat and drink ourselves sick—before trampling over each other tomorrow in a mad race for Black Friday deals—police in North Dakota are firing grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters.
Settler colonies like the United States, as Patrick Wolfe famously wrote, are “premised on the elimination of native societies. . . . The colonizers come to stay—invasion is a structure not an event.” What that means is: the elimination of Native Americans did not just happen; it is always happening. Liberals like to look back on the genocide of Native Americans and cry. It is no longer just acceptable—it’s downright sexy—to acknowledge that this country was founded on violence and murder and that our national myths like Thanksgiving are myths, which obscure the truth of American history.
But there’s another—maybe even more dangerous—myth that this Thanksgiving Day is asking us to confront: the violent elimination of Native Americans is not a thing of the past. To give thanks that “it’s over” and that we are so much better than them—those racist religious fanatics from the distant past who did those awful things about which we can do no more than cry—is to ignore the fact that it is not over and “we” are no less complicit than the Pilgrims in the ongoing effort to eliminate Native Americans.
In 2014, a subsidiary of the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners began constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground crude oil pipeline that will extend more than 1100 miles from North Dakota to Illinois. Initial plans for the first leg of the pipeline proposed a route across the Missouri River 10 miles north of the city of Bismarck, North Dakota. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to approve that route because they “worried that an oil spill there would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. So they moved the crossing to half a mile from the [Standing Rock] reservation, across land that was taken from the tribe in 1958, without their consent.”
The Corps granted final permits in July, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court. (Earthjustice, which represents the tribe, has a detailed timeline of the legal battles here.) After the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the tribe’s request for an injunction—and under increasing outrage over the brutal treatment by Energy Transfer Partners and their police allies of protesters at the site—the Department of Justice, Department of the Army, and Department of the Interior released a joint statement politely “request[ing] that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.” On November 14, the Army “determined that additional discussion and analysis are warranted” before it makes “a final decision on whether to grant an easement” for construction of the pipeline.
But the real work had already begun—and it continues—outside the courtroom. In April, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer, established the Sacred Stone Camp, which has become the focal point in a fight for “cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline.” Thousands of Native Americans, including members of over 100 tribes, and supporters have gathered at the camp. Over the weekend, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department launched an all-out attack against the camp, and it is now conducting a very Thanksgiving public relations campaign:
Eyewitnesses describe the police lobbing grenades from armored trucks at protesters and “laughing. One of them said something like ‘That was a beautiful shot.'” At least one activist, who was hit with a grenade, may lose her arm. Police responded by posting images of rocks and charred propane tanks on their Facebook page and suggesting that protesters were “using improvised explosive devices.”
Linda Black Elk of the Standing Rock Tribe described the scene as police unloaded water cannons on protesters: “What it was like was people walking through the dark of a winter North Dakota night, some of them so cold, and sprayed with water for so long, that their clothes were frozen to their body and crunching as they walked.” The sheriff’s department responded by reassuring the public that they “don’t have water cannons . . . This is just a fire hose. It was sprayed more as a mist.”
But this is a structure not an event: “we must remember,” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard writes, “we are part of a larger story.” On one level, it’s a story about water: a struggle over a space “at the confluence of . . . two rivers . . . a place held sacred not only by the Sioux Nations, but also the Arikara, the Mandan, and the Northern Cheyenne,” a place where a whirlpool used to “[create] large spherical, sandstone formations” (until, in the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the mouth of the river and constructed a dam), a place where, a few miles away, in 1863, thousands of Native Americans who had gathered to celebrate, “meet relatives, arrange marriages, and make plans for winter camps” were attacked in a campaign led by Brigadier General Alfred Sully, as “part of a broader U.S. military expedition to promote white settlement . . . and protect access to the Montana gold fields via the Missouri River.”
But on another level, it’s a story about life (and death) and who gets to live (and who is left to die): “We are the river, and the river is us,” Allard writes. In the summer, a group of Standing Rock youth created an organization called ReZpect our Water and organized a cross-country spiritual run, at the conclusion of which they presented a petition opposing the pipeline to the Army Corps of Engineers. Chanting “Mni Wiconi, Water is Life,” the protesters at Standing Rock call themselves “water protectors.” And in this fight, the state has obscenely, perversely—but not, in the end, altogether surprisingly—turned that which is most sacred and vital into a weapon. “They used our medicine as a weapon. . . . They used it to inflict pain and suffering on the water protectors.”
Now, as white America slowly begins to pay attention—and confront, again, the stubborn refusal of the native to disappear—lawmakers are feverishly calling on President Obama to “pave the way for completion” of the Dakota Access Pipeline, because the natives “are taxing law enforcement and are costing millions of dollars.”
History, they say, repeats itself. On this Thanksgiving Day, let us pray—if we pray—that they’re wrong. Or better yet: let us say Fuck Thanksgiving and, if packing up this holiday weekend and heading out to North Dakota to stand and fight for life is too much, why not divert a few dollars from the Black Friday fund to something that actually matters?