There is a dreary predictability about the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, especially in the words that come out of people unsympathetic to the protest. I’m listing those I hear most often:
1. There are lots of non-Indians down there. They have no business here. They discredit (here’s the special kicker in this argument) “what otherwise would have been a perfectly legitimate protest.”First of all, the people who talk this way don’t actually think the Lakota have a legitimate reason to protest, so this is just posturing. But why do protest detractors get to decide who gets to show solidarity with the Lakota?
Does this mean NO white person has a right to join the protest? Does that mean that only Americans got to protest the Sept. 11 attacks or only Jews got to protest the anti-Semitic laws in Hitler’s Germany? Does that mean no male can walk in a women’s protest march? Does it mean that no German or Brit or Canadian can protest the treatment of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China? I’m with John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of himself … any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” I’m with Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out …” Etc.
It’s inconvenient to get to North Dakota, to live in a primitive camp, to be away from work, family, one’s own bed. It’s expensive to join such a protest. The weather in North Dakota, even in the temperate months, is often severely inhospitable. The wind blows like a son of a bitch. My view is that the overwhelming majority of the “outsiders” who have come to join the protest are idealists, not opportunists. Are there some schnooks? Of course. Does that discredit the protest?
2. The legitimate sovereignty protest has been hijacked by the anti-carbon crowd and they have discredited the protest. Well, yes and no. I would have liked the protest to stay focused on the issues of Native American (Lakota) sovereignty and the responsibilities of true intergovernment consultation. But once the word went forth that the Lakota were protesting an oil pipeline being sited on the northern perimeter of their sovereign-nation-state reservation, a wide range of people who believe the first world’s carbon addiction is not just damaging historically colonized places and peoples but impairing the health of the planet Earth, decided the Standing Rock crisis was an opportunity to gather people from the U.S. and worldwide to protest the continuing growth of the carbon-based economy at a time when we should be backing away from gross carbons.
The fact that the larger carbon debate could be coupled with the protest of a historically oppressed people was bound to get the nation’s and the world’s attention. So, from a strategic point of view, the anti-carbon forces made a very intelligent decision. Whether this was truly in the best interests of the Standing Rock Lakota is a question that cannot yet be sorted out, but I see nothing illegitimate about the widening of the protest.
For the Lakota the resource issue is more about water quality and the Idea of Water (white people don’t use those capital letters) than about oil per se, but it is after all a Natural Resources debate and oil is a very important natural resource, exploited by non-Indians as dis-spiritedly as water, grass, the buffalo, etc.
3. Unless you got to the Cannonball River on foot or horseback, you are nothing but a hypocrite. Really? The Al Gore Gambit again and again and again? According to this argument, you cannot legitimately worry about the effect our industrial carbon is having on the biosphere of the Earth unless you renounce carbon altogether.
This is formally known as the “law of the occluded middle,” or “reductio ad absurdam.”
Believing that professional football causes concussions and must be reformed does not mean that you can never watch an NFL game again. Believing that alcohol is a source of liver disease, domestic violence, and lethal driving does not mean you can never again have a beer or a cocktail. The most enlightened First World countries are addressing the carbon problem with intelligence and creativity. Germany has the most vibrant economy in Europe, and yet it has dedicated itself to a deeply significant investment in green technologies.
Very few individuals are arguing that humans should stop using carbon. The argument is rather that we must find ways to transition sensibly out of our carbon addiction, which has obscenely distorted our foreign policy for generations, increased economic colonialism, permitted an unwise and unsustainable product manufacture and delivery system, encouraged us to be much more sedentary (with all the ill effects that come with sedentariness), and — yes — unmistakably contributed to global climate change in ways that have already adversely affected third world populations that have the least ability to adjust. The argument of the “Al Gore = hypocrite” crowd seems to be “that you are either all in or entirely out of the carbon economy.” The truth is that moderate adjustments of our habits would not only attenuate the deterioration of our biosphere, but permit a more equitable distribution of the world’s limited resources and increase our physical and spiritual well-being. If you believe we ought to move toward a smaller dependence on carbon, buying a hybrid vehicle is better than driving a Humvee. Driving a hybrid almost certainly makes more sense than walking to New York or Los Angeles. Wanting to lower your carbon footprint and save money might inspire you to turn your thermostat down or wear a sweater, but it would not be intelligent to take your furnace to the dump to prove your purity.
There are, of course, hypocrites in all areas of human endeavor, but if you think someone you never met is indisputably a hypocrite for flying to a protest rally, you had better take a look at the hypocritical logs in your own eye before condemning — like Pavlov’s reactionary — the motes in the eyes of those you disagree with.
4. Celebrities have no right to protest. What is Leonardo diCaprio doing at Standing Rock? What can Bono or Sean Penn possibly have to say about current events worth knowing? What? They cease to be citizens because they are famous? These are people we follow in the gossip magazines and permit to shape a wide range of our habits: the jeans they wear, the cars they drive, the yoghurt they eat, the way they groom their hair, the computers they endorse. We feel free to make pronouncements about their mating habits, the appropriateness of the film and TV parts they take on, the wisdom of their subscribing to Scientology or Roman Catholicism, Islam or Quakerism, but at the same time argue that they are not permitted to use their hard-earned fame as a bully pulpit to advocate the world they wish to live in?
Of course some celebrities are vapid cultural faddists (unlike the rest of us), but most of them have actually done more homework about the causes they espouse than the great bulk of talking-point citizens. I would very gladly hear a debate about carbon or Native American sovereignty or sexual trafficking or Haitian poverty or Edward Snowden or Russia’s policies in the Ukraine between Leonardo diCaprio (or Sean Penn) and a right-wing talk radio host. Let’s see who has a better command of the evidence.
5. The misdeeds of the most extreme protestors discredit the Lakota pipeline protest. They certainly don’t do it any good, and I commend Chairman Dave Archambault, the Standing Rock tribal council and the elders of the Lakota for doing everything they can to keep the peace, to press for nonviolence and to insist upon respect for property and the law.
Any protest phenomenon of this magnitude is going to attract some undesirable people, perhaps even undesirable elements. We should all insist upon respect for private property, respect for legitimate law enforcement authorities, respect for our courts, respect for innocent people who are just going about their daily business. But we can hardly discredit the entire protest movement based on such irresponsible deeds as are inevitable in any large gathering, from Woodstock to a Clinton, Sanders or Trump rally.
I don’t remember the people who now make this “bad apple” argument using the same logic with those UND hockey fans who showed disrespect for the Lakota during the prolonged “Fighting Sioux” controversy. Logo and mascot defenders rightly said that the behavior of the larger community should not be condemned merely because a few drunk or irresponsible people misbehaved at ballgames. I don’t remember the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (or the conservationists) condemning the oil boom because of a few spills or the misbehavior of some of the oil workers who flocked to North Dakota. Quite the opposite: the adamantly pro-development crowd argued strenuously that we must look upon irresponsible behavior as a minor problem that must not be regarded as representative of the boom.
6. Until American Indians, including the Lakota, solve their drug and alcohol problems, their violent crime and domestic abuse problems, their truancy and school dropout problems, we do not need to take their protest seriously. In the last six months, I have heard dozens of people say, “So there are your great environmentalists, leaving trash around the encampment, using drugs, drinking and hurting innocent animals.” Whatever dysfunction exists in Indian Country is not without some pretty serious historical dynamics — displacement, colonization, conquest, cultural genocide, forced assimilation, etc. And the argument that Indians have no point of view “until they get their act together” is a little threadbare in a state where the white community has the highest youth binge drinking rate in the country, a serious meth and crack cocaine problem and a significant problem of domestic violence and spousal abuse.
If most white folks are responsible and law-abiding, so too are most Native Americans. We must all fight against the stereotypes and the optics of our tragic history. When an American Indian is drunk in a bar s/he is often seen as “a typical Indian.” But when a white farmer is drunk in a bar he’s just relieving tension or he’s just some guy making a fool of himself. But we don’t chalk it up to “typical white man.” Can we keep the focus here?
This is not the time to debate the dysfunctions of the Indian populations of America but to try to sort out the government-to-government responsibilities of the state of North Dakota and the Lakota Nation. There will be time to talk about social ills later. There is a significant history of drug and alcohol abuse in my family. I just did Ancestry.com and I have learned that I am entirely non-Indian. I doubt there are many non-Indian North Dakota families that don’t have some traces of drug and alcohol abuse — the stuff of human nature, the stuff of poverty, the stuff of mental illness, frankly the stuff of rural America.
On the other hand:
1. I also want to combat the argument, by those who are wholeheartedly sympathetic to the Lakota protest and Native American causes generally, that non-Indians are invariably wrong and American Indians are invariably right. In this, as in most human crises, there is no unambiguous right, no unambiguous wrong, no simple dichotomy between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. This is a very complicated situation.
Nobody is 100 percent right or innocent, and nobody is 100 percent evil or oppressive. There is plenty of responsibility and even blame to go around. My own sympathies are complicated and mixed; and my attitudes toward the pipeline controversy have wild mood swings. My analytic mind is often at odds with the workings of my heart. My critical thinking skills wax and wane. My capacity to make sense of a kaleidoscopic and fast-changing situation comes and goes, and every time I think I know what a responsible and caring North Dakotan or American should think about this crisis, some new information or rumor or statement or incident upsets my best thinking. On some days I have no idea what I really think about all of this.
But I know this much: I want to try to respect every point of view, even those that make very little sense to me. Because this land was theirs before we took it — almost entirely by chicanery and deception and broken treaties — and because American Indians have been historically oppressed (can anyone really deny that) and because I would not want an oil pipeline to be sited by Canada or Mexico one mile from my nation’s borders and because American Indians have been so unbelievably patient in the face of what Jefferson called “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” my basic sympathies lie with the Lakota.
But I also have great sympathy with the hard-working law enforcement officers who have tried to keep the peace in southern North Dakota in very challenging and frustrating circumstances. I have sympathy with state government officials who have tried to stay on top of this shape-shifting crisis. I have great sympathy with non-Indian property owners near the encampments who have lost property, livestock, gasoline, fences, their accustomed mobility and peace of mind over a crisis that they did nothing to create. Truth told, I even have sympathy for the pipeline company that just wants to fulfill its contract to site and build a pipeline to carry the oil we all use in great quantities to market. I believe that everyone and every entity has a point of view that we must respect, even when we disagree.
I certainly cop to my own deep addiction to carbon in every one of its industrial and chemical applications, and I know without question that my home sits on land that was once the very center of the Mandan Nation. I know that not everyone who reads this will agree with my point of view, but I remind all of us of Voltaire’s statement: “Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”