This week we are studying a confluence of tragedies that signaled a turning point for Native American life at the end of the 1800s.
Our college lessons just happen to fall in the same week as Thanksgiving, and some classmates want to know how or whether American Indians celebrate the holiday.
I explain that, for Indigenous and settler folk in North America, October and November represent harvest time.
Traditionally Native Americans would dig root vegetables, gather squashes, pick late-blooming fruits, and hunt foul, game and fish, and then share the bounty with relatives in autumn.
No wonder textbooks seized on the image of peaceful Native folk joining the Pilgrims at the harvest table because it softens the more sordid story that “tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.”
I steer my students to the heart of the week’s lesson, which focusses on the prosperity quote taken from David Archambault’s editorial in the New York Times titled, “Taking a Stand at Standing Rock.”
Taking a stand, Archambault says, means resisting trespassers on lands guaranteed to Native peoples in documents like the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.
“The government broke [the treaties] before the ink was dry,” he writes.
Archambault and thousands of relatives and activists gathered in North Dakota in 2016 to demonstrate contempt for the construction of a 1,172 mile crude oil pipeline through territory promised to the tribes in the Fort Laramie Treaty.
The pipeline was rerouted around the city of Bismarck to spare residents the risk of having crude oil run too close to their water supply.
Instead, the pipeline tunnels through the Missouri River and crosses underneath Lake Oahe: the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and neighboring communities, according to Archambault.
And while the courts ruled that a proper environmental report still needs to be completed on the pipeline’s impact on humans and nature’s ecology, it continues to operate, producing about 570,000 barrels of oil each day, according to the company’s website.
The price per barrel currently is about $43, which means Energy Transfer Partners rake more than 24 and one-half million dollars-worth of oil daily from this pipeline alone.
When Archambault writes about America’s prosperity, I think about disparity: the imbalance between folks who prosper from oil drilling, who use electricity from dams built for hydropower, and who mine for gold on traditional Indian land.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reaped no benefit from the Dakota Access Pipeline, while the creation of a dam at the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s decimated the veritable and cultural landscape for Indigenous peoples whose lives are entwined with the river.
And when gold was discovered in the sacred Black Hills in the mid-1800s, treaties—which the US guaranteed sacrosanct—were roundly ignored by military and miners alike.
After news of the Seventh Calvary’s expedition to Sioux territory confirmed the presence of gold in the summer of 1874—a journey led by George Armstrong Custer—pioneers swarmed into the Black Hills.
By 1876 the population of settlers seeking “yellow metal” rose to 10,000.
Black Elk, a Lakota holy man whose words were interpreted by a translator and by a non-Indian editor in the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, recalled the rush of migrants hunting for gold:
The Wasichus had found much of the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy, and they wanted to have a road up through our country to the place where the yellow metal was; but my people did not want the road. It would scare the bison and make them go away, and also it would let the other Wasichus come in like a river …. These lands are becoming smaller, for around them surges the gnawing flood of the metal; and it is dirty with lies and greed.
While the book translates “Wasichu” as “white people,” writer Nick Estes notes the nuances of the term.
“To be called Wasichu was the highest insult,” Estes writes.
“It meant that a person behaved selfishly, individualistically, with no accountability, as if they had no relatives.”
When I join my relatives at the dinner table this week, I will consider my prosperity and ask: what am I grateful for, and at whose expense?
Thanksgiving Day 2020
Dedicated to my students, who are reading about environmental justice: Scott, Gio, Isabella, Siri, Colby, Luke, Jovanna, Cassidy, Greer, Jordan, Christian, Annie, Izabella, Yan, Lily, Sabrina, Brian, Jamie, Jackleen, Emily, Katie and Audrey
With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations
Image from Indian Country Today