Disputed land rights. Corporate enterprise at stake. The presence of quasi-military units. Native communities on the defense. Violent conflict just one misfire away. It’s a scene Native Americans have grown accustomed to through centuries of marginalization at the hands of the United States.
President Donald Trump’s support of the Energy Transfer Partners’ (ETP) Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota is the modern manifestation of a centuries-old conflict. Fortunately for Trump, his stance aligns closely with the United States’ historical record of dealing with native peoples.
The first British colonists to arrive on the shores of the Eastern Seaboard deliberately pushed native peoples from the coastal areas in order to establish small, self-sustaining settlements. Gradually, the settlements swelled as the colonists’ lust for land brought them further west. By 1763, they had successfully driven native peoples away from the east coast and beyond the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains. Westward expansion was temporarily halted by the coming of Revolution against Britain.
At the conclusion of the War, American settlers resumed their rapacious pursuit westward, masking mass genocide with the self-righteous guise of “Manifest Destiny.” Treaties were drawn up between native tribal chiefs and US government officials to exchange some land for respect and protection. Those treaties were subsequently violated when American settlers realized their imperial vision included all of the land, not just some of it.
Later nineteenth century policy did away with the deliberative process of treaty negotiation—officials simply offered two options: leave the land, or be subject to violent removal. It was hardly a choice for native peoples.
As the native population dwindled, the survivors were rounded up and put on reservations in the Midwest. Reservations were typically built in arid, barren regions and were barely suitable for any meaningful development. The consequences reach into the modern day.
Today, native peoples experience some of the worst standards of living of any ethnic group in the United States. Poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, unemployment, and alcoholism plague their communities and almost completely debilitate any attempt to achieve social mobility.
Donald Trump’s executive support of the Dakota Access Pipeline is not unique—it is a continuation of centuries of Native American subjugation in the United States. The pipeline is planned to run below Lake Oahe, a major source of fresh drinking water for the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. With no legally sanctioned means to protect themselves, the Standing Rock Sioux—accompanied by massive worldwide support—staged major protests to block the construction of the pipeline, fearing the danger it posed to their drinking water.
Like most Native Americans living across the United States, the Sioux suffer extreme living standards that fall far below what is expected in a developed society. According to a recent Time Magazine article, “Indian Country Today put the unemployment rate at Standing Rock at a shocking 86% in 2013, and many of the Sioux are without electricity, running water, or complete kitchens.” The inevitable humanitarian crisis that will result from destroying the drinking water of a community suffering so acutely should alarm anyone who cares about the basic welfare of other human beings.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, the former president offered some support to the Sioux by erecting barriers that were intended to force the ETP to consider the grievances of the Sioux. But Trump’s recent executive order reverses the Obama decision, removing those obstacles and clearing the way for the ETP to proceed with its pipeline. The decision severely threatens the future viability of the Standing Rock Reservation, and perhaps more troubling, questions the fate of its inhabitants.
Trump’s support of the Dakota Access Pipeline perpetuates longstanding policy disregarding Native American rights and welfare in favor of American corporate profitability. Despite worldwide protests against Trump’s executive order, his decision reinforces the notion that the United States’ position regarding its native constituents has changed very little since the earliest days of colonization.
When native interests and corporate interests clash, history shows that the United States unequivocally supports the latter.