The Dakota pipeline and the assault on Native Americans


Thanksgiving is a day for spending time with family and friends, but also a time to remember some of the simple moral values that make America the nation that it is — or at least that it can be. The elegant origin story of the holiday is a tale of unity and overcoming differences, when the first European settlers in America and Native Americans combined the bounty of their harvests to produce not only a feast but a moment of true brotherhood. It’s a legend that we’ve celebrated for nearly 400 years — but even today we struggle sometimes to honor its spirit.

Few would dispute that Native Americans have not fared as well under the American Experiment as one would hope. After bloody conflict throughout the 19th Century, many of these indigenous people were forced onto reservations in remote and sometimes barren corners of the United States — places that continue to be plagued by poverty and the social ills that come with that. In recent weeks, proud Native people from around the country have flocked to a rural expanse in North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux are leading the fight against the massive Dakota Access pipeline project. This $3.8 billion project is cutting a swath through burial grounds and other sacred tribal sites, and poses an environmental threat to the main source of drinking water not just for the Sioux but for the northern prairie states, the Missouri River.

In 2016, as Thanksgiving dawned, police and other security forces along the pipeline route launched a stunning, violent assault that violated the civil rights of the largely peaceful protesters:

A confrontation between law enforcement and Native American tribes protesting the controversial Dakota Access pipeline turned violent once again late Sunday night. As temperatures in Cannon Ball, North Dakota plummeted below freezing, protesters reported being attacked with water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray.

The night began as protesters, who refer to themselves as water protectors, attempted to remove burned military vehicles that were blocking Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806. Protesters say they were clearing the route to improve access for emergency services reaching the camp. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department said protesters’ actions were “very aggressive” and that the water cannons were necessary because protesters were lighting fires.

The police retaliation resulted in significant injuries among the hundreds of protesters, according to a statement from several indigenous groups: “Multiple people were unconscious and bleeding after being shot in the head with rubber bullets. A member of the International Indigenous Youth Council was sent into a seizure by a flash grenade. One elder went into cardiac arrest at the frontlines but medics administered CPR and were able to resuscitate him.”

This was not the first time that violence has been used to quell dissent on the front lines in North Dakota:

Their protests have routinely been met with an aggressive, militarized police force. Native American activists have been pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets while standing in water. They were reportedly kept in “dog kennels” after armed law enforcement cleared one of their camps. Water protectors praying by the side of the road were reportedly swarmed by armed police and threatened with arrest.

As a result, Amnesty International USA sent a group of human rights observers to monitor law enforcement’s response to protests last month, saying the group was “deeply concerned about what we heard during our previous visit to Standing Rock and what has been reported to us since.” The United Nations is also investigating reports of human rights abuses against Native American protesters.

These actions by the authorities in North Dakota are unconscionable under any circumstances. To watch this violent assault take place against Native Americans — during Thanksgiving week, of all times — makes it especially painful, however. It’s been clear for weeks now that President Obama and his administration, as one of their final acts, must act to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, much as the Keystone XL project was halted. But even more must be done. The Justice Department must intervene to prevent further abuses of police power against Native Americans who are only trying to assert their basic human rights.

Read more about the violent police assault on protesters in North Dakota from ThinkProgress:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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