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Standing Rock Sioux Nation vs. the Pipeline

My Navajo friend Valerie Taliman has written an excellent article about the standoff regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline and the recent arrest of Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation at the pipeline protest.

When I saw the news of Chairman Archambault’s arrest, it made me think of something our great Shawnee leader Tecumseh said to an audience of Native people:

"The Great Spirit in His wisdom placed you here and gave it [this land] to you and your children to defend. But ä-te-wä! [alas !] the incoming race, like a huge serpent is coiling closer and closer about you."

Of the pipeline, Chairman Archambault says, “We don’t want this black snake within our Treaty boundaries.” He continues, “We need to stop this pipeline that threatens our water. We have said repeatedly we don’t want it here. We want the Army Corps of Engineers to honor the same rights and protections that were afforded to others, rights we were never afforded when it comes to our territories. We demand the pipeline be stopped and kept off our Treaty boundaries.”

The proposed pipeline will carry millions of barrels of crude oil. It only takes one break and a massive release of the hydrocarbons to poison sacred waters for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with toxicity. The Standing Rock Hunkpapa know that water is the basis of life and ought to be held in the highest regard.

Ms. Taliman says the conflict is taking place in “Hunkpapa Territory near Cannon Ball.” To an extent this is what the Dakota Access pipeline project comes down to: Whose territory is it, and whose values shall prevail in that territory? The values of the American empire? Or the spiritual and ecological values of Original Nations such as the Standing Rock Sioux Nation?

RELATED: The Louisiana Purchase and the Doctrine of Discovery

The Hunkpapa Nation (including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) is part of the larger Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Teton Nation), sometimes known as “the Great Sioux Nation.” The United States regards the entire geographical area of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota (Oceti Sakowin) territory as part of the national territory of the United States.

The United States sees itself as a nation that possesses the territory of original Native nations “in full sovereignty and dominion.” And, as Justice Sandra Day O’Conner said for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association regarding the spiritual value original nations place on the land: “Whatever rights the Indians have to the use of the area, however, those rights do not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.”

The U.S. argument is that the U.S. government, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do after all what it wants with land it claims as the national territory of the United States because making such heavy-handed decisions is a prerogative of U.S. “national sovereignty,” which trumps (no political campaign pun intended) “tribal sovereignty.” Jonathon Havercroft’s book Captives of Sovereignty lists a host of political philosophers who have concluded that such “sovereignty” is “an unjust form of domination that limits human freedom.”

Some history is in order: France, by means of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803, is said to have transferred to the United States the rights that France claimed in relation to that vast area.

France declared in that treaty of cession that she did “cede to the United States, in the name of the French Republic, forever and in full sovereignty, the said territory with all its rights and appurtenances.”

That area includes the territory of the Oceti Sakowin, including Standing Rock which is now up against the U.S.’s claim of a right of ascendancy or domination in relation to the land. The Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling of 1823, which is regarded as the cornerstone of U.S. property law, called this “the power to grant the soil while yet in possession of the Indians.” Extend that to the power to grant permits for projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion investment.

Once France had purported to cede to the United States an area considered inclusive of the territory of the Oceti Sakowin, the United States then considered itself entitled to claim “sovereignty” (an unjust domination) over the territory and resources of the Oceti Sakowin. It claimed the territory of the Oceti Sakowin as “the territory of the United States” on the basis of the doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.

President Thomas Jefferson considered the Louisiana Purchase territory mostly Spanish in origin as a colonial possession because of Spanish claims to the continent. The Spanish crown is said to have had possession of the Louisiana territory from 1762 to 1800, which was then retroceded to France. We’re talking about a period of some 40 years under Spanish Crown law based on Pope Alexander VI’s grant to the Crown of Castile of non-Christian lands “discovered and to be discovered.”

What Chairman Archambault II and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are now facing off with, in other words, is a language system of domination now used by the United States. That language system is traced back to French claims to the continent, and Spanish claims to the continent based on a foundation of Vatican documents issued by popes in the fifteenth century.

The dispute over the pipeline is a conflict caused in 2016 by Western Christendom’s tradition of dominating those nations and peoples considered to be “heathen” and “infidel.” The Oceti Sakowin is an original free and independent nation. The Oceti Sakowin is one of those nations that Chief Justice Marshall characterized in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling as “in fact independent” in the Louisiana territory.

However, as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story pointed out in his writings, from the viewpoint of the Christian world, American Indians were regarded as “brute animals,” and were not “allowed” to remain free nations. “As infidels, heathens, and savages,” wrote Story, “they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives [superiorities] belonging to absolute, sovereign, and independent nations.”

The religiously premised reasoning about “heathens” and “infidels” that Joseph Story’s quote demonstrates, is the basis upon which the United States government and its Army Corps of Engineers now claims a superior right to the territory and waters of the Oceti Sakowin. The history of the overall system being used against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is traced to the mindset of Christendom.

That mindset claimed that “Christian people” (as quoted in Johnson v. M’Intosh) have the divine right to “diminish” and “subject” “heathen” and “barbarous” non-Christian nations, and force them under a prevailing “Christian” and “human” system of domination. In this case, that system is euphemistically called “American civilization.” It is what Tecumseh called “a huge serpent,” and it has an insatiable appetite for oil.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author ofPagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie,The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.