For months, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota has been protesting the construction of a $3.8 billion (paywall) oil pipeline that would cut through four US states. Last week, the protests reached unprecedented size. Hundreds of environmental activists joined the local community of about 8,000. The BBC reports that the largest gathering of Native Americans in over a century, with over 90 tribes represented, is currently underway in Cannonball, North Dakota.
The Native tribes and environmentalists say the pipeline would disrupt a sacred burial ground, as well as threaten water quality in the area. They say that the Army Corps of Engineers should never have granted permits for its construction.
Those that support the pipeline, which would carry crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation to Illinois, claim it will be spill-proof, and argue that its construction will generate thousands of jobs.
Because of the protests, which led to the arrest of the Standing Rock Sioux chairman among others, work has temporarily been halted, and a judge who has heard arguments against the construction is expected to rule by Sept. 9.
Things turned tense on Sept. 3. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman reported from the scene, where protesters clashed with security forces, who had dogs and reportedly used pepper spray or mace:
The image of Native Americans being attacked as they try to protect a land that is sacred to them shocked many, among them the commentator Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC whose damning condemnation of their treatment on Aug. 26 has been widely shared:
“Dakota means friend, friendly,” he begins. “The people who gave that name to the Dakotas have sadly never been treated as friends.”
In his short, poignant message, O’Donnell calls the events in Standing Rock a “morally embarrassing reminder” of America’s history of mistreatment of Native people, noting that those who lived in the country before European settlers arrived have been “dealt with more harshly than any other enemy in any of this country’s wars.”
“The original sin of this country is that we invaders shot and murdered our way across the land, killing every Native American we could, and making treaties with the rest,” he says. “This country was founded on genocide.”
Even after the killings stopped, deals and treaties made with the tribes have been consistently broken. “We piled crime on top of crime on top of crime, against the people whose offense against us was simply that they lived where we wanted to live,” he says.
He counts the current events at Standing Rock among those crimes. “That we still have Native Americans left in this country to be arrested for trespassing on their own land is testament not to the mercy of the genocidal invaders who seized and occupied their land,” O’Donnell says, “but to the stunning strength and the 500 years of endurance and the undying dignity of the people who were here long before us.”