English and American Studies professor Kara Thompson hosted a presentation about the Standing Rock protests Friday Nov. 18.
Wilson Wewa, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, spoke to students, faculty and community members at the event.
“To us Native Americans, water has been very sacred because we look at it as a medicine and we’ve prescribed it when our people got different kinds of ailments” Wewa said. “And so, our medicine people, our holy people … would prescribe water for their health.”
Wewa said that his tribe has also been battling the Army Corps of Engineers and local governments in order to preserve resources on the Columbia River.
“In our neck of the woods on the Columbia river, we have always had a continuing battle with the forces that be to protect the salmon on the Columbia River,” Wewa said. “Currently, one of the federal judges has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to re-examine their mitigation efforts for the four damns on the Snake River.”
History professor Andrew Fisher then spoke about the history of the Standing Rock protest and the legal issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“It is part of a very old story of Native Americans being told that they’re in the way of progress and you can’t stand in the way of progress,” Fisher said. “It is part of a very old story of tribal sovereignty being ignored and overridden in the rush to develop natural resources for the greater good of the United States. So, it started really as a battle between the people of standing rock, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and not only Enbridge but also … the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Fisher said that the first treaty that is important to understand is the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 signed by eight Native American nations, including the Lakota Sioux in present day North Dakota.
“This was at the height of Manifest Destiny, when Americans assured themselves that their nation was going to stretch from sea to shining sea and that anyone who stood in its way would be crushed,” Fisher said. “As Americans began to cross the plains in the 1850s, the United States government negotiated the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 to try and guarantee them safe passage. The Indians there … agreed that they would not molest travelers along the overlook trails and that they would allow the government to build posts both for the protection of Indians as well as for new American settlers.”
The United States then signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1864. This treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, which includes almost all of what is now western South Dakota and the Black Hills region.
“An important point was that not all of the Lakota’s accepted the treaty … They refused to accept confinement on a reservation and they were branded enemies of civilization and progress for that reason,” Fisher said. “Shortly after that was signed, gold was discovered in the Black Hills … and what ensued was a rush by the United States government to force further land cessions from the Lakota’s to get at the gold. This resulted in another Indian war, which included Custer’s Last Stand.”
Fisher said that these treaties established a trust relationship between Native American tribes and the United States government. The treaties held the government accountable to the Native Americans and made sure that officials communicated with tribes before starting projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The area that the DAPL is going through is territory that is recognized to have belonged to the Sioux in 1851,” Fisher said. “They argue that is has never been ceded and therefore that the DAPL should not go through there without their permission. Even if it is ceded land, it is destroying cultural sites and cemeteries and other sacred sites that are still important to the Lakota people.”
According to Fisher, the Pick-Sloan Plan is also important to understand. It is a water development project that was authorized by the U.S. government in 1944 in order to provide non-Native American farmers and ranchers with irrigation water.
“The Army Corps of Engineers was involved along with the Bureau of Reclamation, which provides irrigation water in the semi-arid areas of the west,” Fisher said. “The Pick-Sloan plan was authorized in 1944, and over the next decade and a half or so all these dams were built including Oahe which, along with others, flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal lands including over 200,000 acres on the standing rock and Cheyenne River Sioux reservations alone.”
The Pick-Sloan Plan also caused the Missouri River to become enlarged. This not only flooded sacred Native American lands, but it also made it difficult for Native Americans to travel across.
Thompson said that part of the purpose behind the lecture was to educate students on the historical context of Standing Rock and the indigenous led movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“How do we begin to understand the historical context for this moment that were witnessing,” said Thompson. “Which again as Wilson alluded to is an incredible indigenous led movement that unites indigenous people all over the world. And people are watching and people are gathered together at Standing Rock, but also in solidarity all over the world.”