As perhaps you know, the Native Americans encamped on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation felt that they were perhaps being sprayed with tear gas yesterday, Sept. 28. They were not. Although Morton County law enforcement brought armored vehicles and a range of other paramilitary devices to the scenes of protest, the spray plane turned out to be a crop duster.
Which is an enormous relief.
Some of the folks that love to demean and degrade the protest movement have been smug and sneery about how “the stupid and paranoid Indians whipped themselves into a panic over a ‘routine crop dusting.'”
Leaving aside the question of whether aerial spraying of crops is ever really a good idea in a windswept place, I do not think the fear this moment caused was so very irrational.
If you examine the rhetoric of some state officials, including the lieutenant governor, the increasingly militarized presence of law enforcement personnel wherever the protestors camp or gather, the sorts of arrests that have been made, including arrest warrants issued against a licensed and bonafide journalist of national reputation, the helicopters, the overflights of surveillance planes, the infiltration of the camp by actual spies and the increasingly “paranoid” rhetoric of some non-Indians in North Dakota, it does not seem to me to be out of the question, in the minds of the Native Americans at the scene, that an aerial deployment of tear gas might actually happen.
Tragically, such a grave turn of events, however horrific and improbable it sounds, is not beyond the realm of possibilities considering the huff and puff, the threats and veiled threats, of some members of the law and order crowd.
When I looked at the photograph of American Indians with scarves and handkerchiefs over their mouths as they looked up into the sky, I did not think, “Stupid Indians, they don’t even know how to recognize a crop duster.” All I saw was fear or at least intense watchfulness. Which is how I would have probably responded under suchlike circumstances.
The “guard” dogs that were used at the protest site a couple of weeks ago were not harmless pets on holiday from the Westminster Dog Show. When an airplane flying over a tense scene drops visible chemicals, rational beings can be forgiven for jumping briefly to the wrong conclusion.
Things have ratcheted up to something approaching a flash point. We are only a blunder or an instantaneous misunderstanding away from an exchange of gunfire, and it need hardly be said that the overwhelming advantage in any exchange of violence lies with the heavily armed and increasingly aggressive law enforcement community.
I respect what the law enforcement men and women are having to do in this unprecedented situation, the stress they must be under and the fatigue of being diverted from their relatively benign routine work in keeping our communities safe; and I think, too, about how hard it must be to man the barricades, face some taunting and endure the occasional attack pantomimes (including, in a couple of instances, by Native Americans on horseback).
This is a moment of excruciating tension for everyone. Everyone is on edge. Almost everyone involved on all sides is innocent, peaceful, respectful of authority.
The leaders of every stakeholder in this crisis — by which I mean the governor, the lieutenant governor, Morton County, the FBI, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, assorted American Indian allies of the tribe, hotheads of all sorts who gravitate to flashpoint like this, Hollywood celebrities, journalists who occupy the overtly liberal end of the media spectrum, and average citizens at the water cooler (people like me) — need to call for calm, for mutual tolerance, for a backing away from the brink, for a reduction of force on all sides, for vows by each leader of each stakeholder group to keep this thing peaceful, if possible civil, and scrupulously nonviolent.
I believe that the non-Indian response has at times been heavy-handed and therefore provocative. American Indians have built into their cultural DNA that when things appear (in the eyes of white people) to be spinning out of control in Indian Country, all too often in the course of American history the result has been a state, local or federal rush to violent suppression of what, more often than not, has been an essentially harmless outpouring of honest frustration and grief.
Crazy Horse was killed by a panicky army private in 1877. Sitting Bull was killed by members of the Indian Police in 1890, when they might very well have brought the aging Hunkpapa leader to Fort Yates by less violent, certainly nonlethal, means. Wounded Knee 1890 was a sudden and almost inexplicable burst of spasmodic violence, precipitated maybe by an Indian, maybe by a white soldier, but so undisciplined when it erupted that white soldiers wound up killing each other in the nightmare crossfire. Not to mention the slaughter of more than 250 almost entirely unarmed Native Americans, many of them women and children bracing themselves for a December Plains blizzard.
These things can spin out of control in a nanosecond. We must all agree to pull back — not just in our actions, but in our words.
I repeat that I have great respect for the men and women who serve in police forces, sheriff’s offices, the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the National Guard and the FBI. And I know that the job of law enforcement is thankless and incredibly stressful and dangerous in this situation. I have deep respect for Gov. Jack Dalrymple and other government officials who are trying to do the right thing under extremely difficult circumstances.
I only have two strong convictions:
First, that cowering under what might have been a plane delivering tear gas was neither idiotic nor contemptible given the increasing “militarization” of the non-Indian response to the crisis. When I look at those photos from the field yesterday, I feel only tremendous and helpless sorrow and my sympathies are almost entirely with the unarmed Native Americans.
Second, we all need to ratchet this down, beginning immediately, or we will all regret this moment for the remainder of our lives.