An Interloper's Observation of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest
Growing Up Dakotan
Born in South Dakota, I am the fifth generation of a family that made its appearance in this harsh country in 1861 with the arrival of William Jayne of Springfield, Illinois. Doctor Jayne, a cousin of my Great Grandmother, was Abraham Lincoln’s personal physician and a close friend of the Lincoln family. He was appointed by the President to the post of Governor of the Dakota Territory on May 27, 1861.
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I witnessed significant friction between the Native American People and the descendants of Western Europeans who had occupied the land for less than 150 years. The Wounded Knee Massacre that occurred in December of 1890 was a historic event taught to me in high school but one I never paid much attention to. The lesson was lost in the false images of John Wayne movies and biased representations of the plight of Colonel Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. My impressions of the Native American people were formed in those images and I became convinced that the white settlers were always the victims and owned the moral high ground in every battle.
The Wounded Knee incident I did pay attention to began in late February of 1973 when 200 followers of the American Indian Movement, led by Russell Means and Dennis Banks, seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. I was a young teenager at the time and simply did not understand the issues behind the event. To me, I saw radicals breaking the law and felt confidence that "the good guys”, in the form of US Marshalls and the FBI, were coming in to make it all better. For duration of the occupation, the news coverage was constant and sensational and, in the end, I could only surmise that the right won out over the wrong. The price of the event included two people killed, 15 wounded and various bad guys ending up in jail. My impressions formed at that time have been in question ever since. Even today, the "Free Leonard Peltier" banners fly over the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Camp as the last of the Wounded Knee combatants serves out a life term for murder.
As a student of history, I learned to be more objective about the real issues behind the insurrection. The injustices doled out on the native people in the name of Western Expansion during the 1800’s and 1900’s were suddenly in stark contrast with the John Wayne movies of old. The impressions of my early years were proven wrong and I was left with a sense of guilt for the white man’s destruction of a proud culture that was in conflict with their own.
Today, so many elements of the Wounded Knee occupation are manifested in the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest. Long festering wounds have again found their way to the surface and the perfect storm has occurred. In this storm, well-meaning protestors have gathered to stop yet another infringement on the lands of their ancestors. The merit of the protestor’s claims seem to be secondary to the event itself and the protest has developed a life of its own. An army of Law Enforcement Officers and National Guardsmen has mobilized and holds vigil on the activities of the protestors. A steady stream of celebrities are frequent visitors to the encampment and the news coverage of the protest has created worldwide interest.
Let's face it, this is the coolest of the protests taking place at this time, taking some of the steam out of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Professional protestors from all over the country are finding their inner Native American and are making their way to North Dakota. They see an opportunity for publicity here and are milking the event for all its worth. To the activists in the world of entertainment, this is what they live for. To travel to a site of conflict; to put on beads and paint, to march arm and arm with the oppressed against “the man” is the pinnacle of expression for them. It means press coverage, international exposure and “street cred” amongst their peers.
The problem is that a peaceful protest does not garner headlines for long. Those in conflict find that the longer they wait to "take it up a notch", the more likely they will be forgotten. Unless there is fire to go with the smoke, their cause ceases to be relevant to the immediate gratification world on the other side of the camera lense. Right now the protest is at a turning point. An Imperfect Storm in the form of a North Dakota Winter is right around the corner and time is running out for the protestors. With a sense of urgency, the protesters have begun to push the envelope. They understand that resolve and press coverage will diminish when the temperatures go below zero and the flimsy tents and shelters in the DAPL Camp are not made for the harshness they will face.
Evidence of this escalation began yesterday when, in a significant action, the protestors were evicted from private property owned by the Dakota Access Pipeline. They had claimed it as part of a long-broken treaty that was ignored today as it was back in the 1800's. State Highway 1806 was blocked in multiple places, cars were vandalized and set afire and shots were fired by one of the protestors. Law Enforcement and National Guard troops traveled in a column to confront the belligerents and, for a brief moment in time, it looked like press coverage of Desert Storm. Even though the protestors were forced to return to their original encampment, the stage is set for the inevitable. The only way that this can end is that someone will get hurt or killed. There are too many personalities basking in this opportunity and leveraging it for their own gain. Like the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, it is destined to end with live fire. The Law Enforcement Personnel assigned to the protest have shown amazing restraint to this point but when threatened with violence, destruction of property and other crimes, they will not be able to stand idly by. Unless a compromise can be reached, the DAPL Protest will make headlines for years to come as the site of yet another tragic confrontation between Whites and Native Americans. Nothing will be won and lives will be lost. The pipeline will still be built and money will win out over the will of the Native American people.
Protestors sent a message to the world that resonates with many. For the sake of the innocent who will be exploited as the violence erupts, It is time to chalk it up as a win based on the publicity garnered and move on. Don't wait till someone is killed to call it a day.