Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

President Obama answering a question about Standing Rock in Laos

Mark Trahant / TrahantReports

I’ve been thinking a lot about the silence from the White House on the situation at Standing Rock. There have been so many calls to get involved, including a direct plea from Chairman David Archambault II.

So on Wednesday President Obama finally spoke; answering a question in Laos. He cited the stellar record of his administration and then he said: “And this issue of ancestral lands and helping them preserve their way of life is something that we have worked very hard on. Now, some of these issues are caught up with laws and treaties, and so I can’t give you details on this particular case. I’d have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this one.

But what I can tell you is, is that we have actually restored more rights among Native Americans to their ancestral lands, sacred sites, waters, hunting grounds. We have done a lot more work on that over the last eight years than we had in the previous 20, 30 years. And this is something that I hope will continue as we go forward.”

Of course this has been an amazing eight years. Or should I say almost eight years. The president was on the other side of the world answering a question when he had not been briefed. The president doesn’t have the time to watch the news, or read newspapers, so issues even as important as this one can slip by. But there should have been a paragraph, a short memo, something that was placed in front of the president. Instead the president, who has done more for Native Americans than anyone else, had a deer-in-the-headlights moment, not unlike George Bush or Ronald Reagan.

What should the White House be doing? Ideally propose a solution. President Obama’s executive order on tribal consultation is clear about what should be done. It says: “History has shown that failure to include the voices of tribal officials in formulating policy affecting their communities has all too often led to undesirable and, at times, devastating and tragic results. By contrast, meaningful dialogue between Federal officials and tribal officials has greatly improved Federal policy toward Indian tribes. Consultation is a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

There are hundreds of people camped near the Standing Rock Reservation, ready to engage in peaceful, civil disobedience, who are trying to avoid those devastating and tragic results. Meanwhile elected North Dakota government officials — who cannot even bring themselves to visit the camp and learn about what’s occurring — have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the protest and are calling for more law enforcement action, including the National Guard.

Some history: Over the years I have interviewed a number of people who have worked in the Nixon White House. There were three major crises involving Indian Country: the occupations of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters, and Wounded Knee.

John Ehrlichman and Leonard Garment both told me about the tension between those who would use government power — law enforcement and troops — versus those who wanted to find a peaceful resolution

This is only the story as remembered by government officials, not the full account. Thart said: Alcatraz was first. The California island was occupied in November 1969 by a group of college students would form “Indians of All Tribes.” Goals ranged from inter-tribal ownership to the creation of a new university, museum and cultural center. But the federal government wanted the island back.

“What I sensed,” Garment told the Nixon Library in 2007, “was that the administration did not want any bloodshed. That there was already a lot of trouble in the country. I mean, later on when there was Kent State, I mean, all of these problems were … quite explosive.”

But Bob Kunzig, who was the federal official responsible for the island, wanted the Coast Guard to land on the island and remove students by force.

“When I heard about that,” Garment said, “I said tell him to forget about it so there was a kind of a little bit of a battle, not a battle royal, a battle royalette, a miniature battle, because he didn’t have the standing to do anything nor did anybody want bloodshed over Alcatraz. So it turned into a very interesting symbolic issue, which worked well for the Indians and it worked well for the administration. It worked well for the processes of history because here was Alcatraz, this prison island, lump of rock, and here were these people, Indians, out on the island, and here was the federal government withholding its powerful, its armed fist, and waiting them out. And it was an interesting time, learned a lot, had a lot of people who were very angry, wanted us to provision the island and it was a way of sort of, at least for me, of striking a balance between trying to enforce the law and also not to be so heavy handed that we wind up in a mess, in a bloody mess. So that was, that was Alcatraz.”

The same parameters were in place during the BIA takeover. The Nixon White House looked for solutions, one even as unconventional as paying the occupiers to leave town, money that was supposed to be used for people to buy bus tickets home. Garment told me “we were condemned, investigations were held, hearings, but there was no bloodshed.”

Wounded Knee was different. Nixon wanted action. We know from his secret tape recordings that he wanted the White House visible. He suggested lots of meetings where officials would be “going out and finding every camera you can get your hands on to put across a foundation. It would show the White House in operation.” But if that didn’t work, the president was willing to use military force.

“I think we ought to move tanks, the whole goddamned thing. Put a division in there, if necessary,” the president said. “It’s time for action on it. If some Indians get shot, that’s too goddamned bad. If some Americans get shot, that’s too bad, too.”

Garment said the 82nd Airborne and the Marshals were ready to move in “and that would have been bloody because they did, there were weapons.” But it was a general, Volney Warner, who talked the White House down. “He just went through what would happen. The number of troops that would be used, the tear gas, the number of deaths that were likely and when he finished there was no more talk about taking them out by force.”

Of course Standing Rock is different.

And one of those ways is frightening: Instead of debating the power of the federal government, we’re already seeing the use of a private security force who do not answer to civilian authorities. Indeed one of the problems here is that the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline cannot wait for a peaceful resolution to unfold; the partnership’s entire strategy is to build the pipeline quickly before the regulatory process can catch up. The partners want banks to know this can be done fast and without political interference, avoiding the kind of delays that killed the Keystone XL pipeline and more recently, the Sandpiper Pipeline.

Energy Transfer Partners were clear about this plan. In May, for example, a spokesperson told The Forum News Service that its “depth of experience and relationship with regulatory agencies has made the company confident enough to start construction before all permits have been granted.”

And the state of North Dakota is eager too. Statements by the governor, county officials, and the company all acknowledge that protests are protected by the First Amendment. But they also frequently use the word “lawful.” They see protest as holding a sign, not holding a line. They misunderstand the nature of civil disobedience and the long-term presence of people who are willing to disobey an unjust process and unjust laws. The key to successful civil disobedience is moral authority, not “lawful” slogans.

How much government power will be used to protect the Dakota Access Pipeline? Or will that be a private security force that uses attack dogs and more? Is the state, the company, willing to kill to enforce its outcome? And now, potentially, the National Guard. As Nixon once put it, “if some Indians get shot, that’s too goddamned bad. If some Americans get shot, that’s too bad.”

The White House has two great powers. It can shine a light on the story, the whole story. It can also convene. Bring together the Dakota Access Pipeline partners, the state, the tribes, and make sure that the outcome does not end up a bloody mess.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

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