DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
Water protector, O'Shea Greyeyes (Diné/Cherokee), holds his hands up before a line of militarized police the day before
protest camps at Standing Rock, North Dakota were razed in resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline, February 23, 2017. (Jenni Monet)
Five years ago this week, militarized police and National Guard troops in North Dakota razed the protest camps at Standing Rock. Bulldozers
were used to level tiny houses and officers slashed teepees open like fresh kill. Some water protectors exposed to the intrusion shot their hands in the air, shouting "Don't shoot!" Officers standing mere feet away could be seen hovering over the last remaining campers, their
high-powered guns pointed at their faces. The raid was mentioned at that day's White House press briefing after reporters asked if the situation was being monitored by President Donald Trump. "Of course," said the press secretary.
During his first week in office in January 2017, Trump wasted little time revamping the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) while delivering blows to a months-long movement to try and stop it. By executive order, he overturned an earlier decision by the Obama administration to pause the crude-oil line until a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) could be conducted. But the review never happened and oil started flowing beneath treaty-protected water bodies that
spring. It's still flowing despite one court hearing after another declaring that the DAPL has been operating illegally in absence of the EIS, and without meeting a federally mandated permit - a clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand these lower court determinations about the EIS when it denied a petition to hear Dakota Access v. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, et al. The rejection means that the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE) must finally move forward with the delayed environmental review of the DAPL, though the pipeline will not be forced to shutdown in the meantime as was previously court-ordered.
For water protectors, the news is seen as
another small win within a much bigger battle; they still want the project nixed because of credible threats the pipeline poses for poisoning their water supply - Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. “This is a victory for Standing Rock, but the fight is not over,” said Janet Alkire, the newly-elected Chairwoman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. (The DAPL litigation has so far spanned three tribal and U.S. presidential administrations.) “The Supreme Court’s announcement demonstrates that we were correct all along,” she said in a press release.
Alkire- an Air Force Veteran and the first women elected to lead the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in more than six decades - is not embracing the EIS process; in fact as one of her first acts in office last month, she withdrew the tribe as a "cooperating agency" with the
USACE after it was revealed the agency hired a firm that filed an amicus brief in association with a petroleum lobby in direct opposition to Standing Rock's pipeline fight.
According to Alkire, she now has a meeting set with the Corps next week, March 2 - and here's where things get interesting: She'll also be meeting with none other than newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Micheal Connor, who descends from a lineage of Indigenous water protectors.
An enrolled citizen of Taos Pueblo, Connor, 58, was raised under his grandfather, Patricio Romero, who served as Pueblo governor and helped establish the tribe's water rights task force. The era was marked by the unprecedented return of the sacred Blue Lake in 1970 - "symbolically the source of all life and the retreat of souls after death," according to tribal leaders in describing their religious site, the water. This shaped Connor's career path.
White House photo taken July 8, 1970. From left, Jim Mirabal, Taos Pueblo Tribal Council member; Walter Hickle,
Secretary of the Interior; Taos Pueblo Governor Quirino Romer; President Richard Nixon; Paul Bernal, Taos Pueblo Tribal Council secretary. Nixon and Hickle gave tribal leaders support for the tribe's claims to Blue Lake. Nixon did not sign the Blue Lake Bill until December 1970, after senate approval.
Decades later when he was nominated to serve as the second in command to the Secretary of the Interior Department in 2013 - at that time, the highest-ranking Native American at the DOI - Connor centered the significance of water in his confirmation testimony. "Water sustains both the lives of our citizens and the economic activity that is the foundation of our communities."
As Assistant Secretary of the Army, Connor is now poised to make #LandBack history like his forebears in convincing President Biden to protect promised waterways and shut down the DAPL, a corporate energy project built upon broken treaties, environmental racism, and violent government collusion. Whether he will make the bold determination that Standing Rock wants may depend on how well water protectors court him.
Few are aware of Connor's background. When he was short-listed along with Deb Haaland to become "the first Native American cabinet secretary" in November 2020, progressive activists diminished his decades-long track record of water wins for Indian Country as a way to boost Haaland's chances. Some labeled him as "corporate." Others attacked journalists who
dared to compare his expertise to Haaland's relatively thin policy record. No one acknowledged his leadership at the DOI when the department, through its Solicitor, Hilary Tompkins, concluded that the DAPL was in violation of Standing Rock's 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The December 2016 opinion is what led to the Department of Army to temporarily halt the pipeline - a major victory at the time.
If any of this has weighed on Connor, he hasn't showed it. He addressed the National Congress of American Indians during its annual winter session about the need to improve the Army Corps' relationship with Indian Country. "There has been tension in the way the Corps has historically gone about the rest of its portfolio, permitting activities that impact the interests of tribes and tribal treaty rights," he said. "We want to improve these
Micheal L. Connor (Taos) United States Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works
Whether these improvements begin with stopping the Dakota Access pipeline is as riveting a prospect as the timeline of the movement at Standing Rock, itself - a fight that quite simply has never faltered. In every way it matches the 64-year-long perseverance of Taos Pueblo to
reclaim its holy Blue Lake.
In the spirt of these original water protectors, I'm sharing a few links to bring you added context to the 1906 taking of Taos's religious site by presidential order under Theodore Roosevelt - a total of 48-thousand acres.
- For starters, here's a short film from the Richard Nixon Foundation of the speech the president gave upon signing into law the protective Blue Lake Bill H.R. 471 in 1970
- This piece from Taos News marking the 50th anniversary of the return of Blue Lake in 2020 is a quick primer
- And for more anniversary goods, there's this fine archive collection compiled by the University of New Mexico - Taos
- To really dive in, consider Frank Water's The Man Who Killed the Deer, a book penned in 1942 that brought the Taos Blue Lake struggle to national attention - a story of criminalizing sacred lifeways and a wake-up call for Taos
I covered the anti-pipeline demonstrations at Standing Rock intimately for several months (you can peruse my archives here). Like a good book, the plot-twists of this winding story make it difficult to turn
towards other pressing topics - especially in meeting such heartbreak as Ukraine. Here's hoping this newsletter has given you a kind break from darkness of war.
Mni Wiconi, Water is Life 💧
In June of 1970, the Youth of Taos Pueblo traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before members of Congress in support of Blue Lake Bill H.R.
471. Gilbert Suazo was then the group's president and served as its spokesman. He struck home to lawmakers the importance of the reclamation.
"Our tribal leaders have been criticized that their tribe and traditional way of life is deteriorating; that their young people are not interested in the traditional way of life. Let these people who voice these opinions look and listen - we are the young people of Taos Pueblo who will carry on our tribe," said Suazo.
"Our way of life is centered around this homeland."
Those words were practically echoed at Standing Rock before the camps formed or the glossy media coverage followed. For members of the Standing Rock Youth Council, they had been driven by the same beliefs of their Elders when it came to the Dakota Access pipeline
- a deep relationship with the land and a genuine worry about threats to their drinking water - a looming environmental crisis that they were set to inherit.
Like the Youth of Taos Pueblo, members of the Standing Rock Youth Council also traveled to have their voices heard in DC, and they got there by running. One trip involved a relay run across almost 2,000 miles in which they hand-delivered a petition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters demanding a stop
to the DAPL.
They continue to inspire, even in times of tragedy. Last month, members lost one of their most loyal leaders, William Brown Otter pictured above in the center, and paid tribute to to him by - what else - a run in his honor.
You can find and follow them on Facebook, including any and all prompts they share about calls to action, causes to support, and of course, running to literally save their lives; to stop a pipeline.
Doug, Washington, D.C.
I heard from a good many of you following last week's edition about the Cherokee Freedmen. Many emails
ranged from those learning about this legacy for the first time to others who are Cherokees themselves and have long-wrestled with this dark truth. What's incredible is that my reporting on this topic was ripe a decade ago, though it was too weighty for my industry to understand. For that, it would take George Floyd, a pandemic, and the polarization of Donald Trump. Either way, I am so glad what I write here reaches you now, including you, Doug. Dawaa'e.
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