Oil, Sovereignty and the American Indian Nation

David Smithers considers the Standing Rock protests and the evolution of Native American identity

Standing with Standing Rock (image via treaty4news)

As a white person, the notion that there is such a thing as an American Indian or Native American, and perhaps a people that fit that label, has been pretty much part of my political and geographical nomenclature since my hours of watching TV westerns during my childhood in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. But, what does “American Indian” or “Native American” mean to, say, a Lakota living in the modern Dakotas?

Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in 1990 started changing my world view of the American Indian, as did 500 Nations and reading about the American Indian Movement in the 1970s.  The Lakota is probably the iconic image of Native Americans to most Euro-Americans, of the horse, movement with the buffalo herds that provide their sustenance, and the grassland settings of the Dakotas.  And, of course, one of my dime summer movie treats, during childhood was a movie about  the Little Bighorn Battle in Montana, June 25-26 1876, known to most Euro-Americans as Custer’s Last Stand, and to the Lakota and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

Dances With Wolves actor Kevin Costner produced a 1995 TV series in April 1995, 500 Nations, in which Gregory Harrison narrates an account of American Indian history before and during the arrival of the Europeans.

As someone who came into adulthood in the early 1970s, I was one of many Euro-Americans who became aware of the protests organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM.) The first protest I was aware of was the occupation of the former island federal penitentiary Alcatraz in 1969-71. There was a march in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign. The group’s aim was enforcement of treaty rights promised but long neglected by the United States, and against anti-Indian vigilantes.

AIM fought police brutality and discrimination, not much different from today’s struggles, and loss of land sovereignty under the Indian Termination policies originating in the 1930s. The movement was associated with African American and liberal leaders of the era, including Martin Luther King Jr., Black Panther and Rainbow Coalition’s Fred Hampton, and Robert F. Kennedy during his ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968.

The notable testament to dialogue between Native Americans and Marxist activists I am aware of is the book edited by Ward Churchill, “Marxism and Native Americans,” 1983. Notable contributors included Russell Means, born on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, in 1939, an actor, activist, and libertarian, and Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader’s running mate on the Green Party ticket in 2000. LaDuke, born in Los Angeles, is of the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, known as a leader of the fight for water rights versus oil and pipeline infrastructure threats in the Midwest.  These two represent reservation and urban Indian, and are iconic encounters of tribal peoples with modern alienations in North America.

“On February 27, 1973, a team of 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized control of a tiny town with a loaded history — Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They arrived in town at night, in a caravan of cars and trucks, took the town’s residents hostage, and demanded that the U.S. government make good on treaties from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Within hours, police had surrounded Wounded Knee, forming a cordon to prevent protesters from exiting and sympathizers from entering. This marked the beginning of a 71-day siege and armed conflict.”1

So my education about the concept has evolved parallel with, but, certainly under vastly different circumstances than that of Native Americans. Perhaps the notion of a distinct American Indian identity came about after most tribes had been obliterated physically and culturally and confined to reservations, geographic places that Lakota activist Russell Means reminded us were concentration camps. Has there or is there becoming a common political and ideational concept, that there are now American Indians or Native Americans who look at themselves in that way?

These cultural artifacts of my life gives me clues that how Native Americans see themselves is complicated by the fact that term “American Indian” is not the first term any member of any of the tribal nations would assign themselves, even after the period when children were stripped from their parents and sent to distant Indian schools run by abusive church groups and social activists intent on transforming a generation of tribal peoples into a subservient form of white person, and even after many American Indians left reservations to live as urban Indians, perhaps living as white people, as much as they could or wanted to. An American Indian is a member of a nation, with both a native terminology and a Euro-American one.

So, the dawning of a notion of American Indian is not a natural thing for indigenous people in North America. It is a term, first, one assumed by the tribal person as one assigned by Euro-Americans and the Euro-American culture, even one often of abject poverty and estrangement, that is still the modern condition. So is there now, a recent historical phenomenon, an American Indian people or nation.

Stone Mountain is the latest of movements about the condition of tribal peoples in North America. It arises from a familiar threat to water and life.

Mining and the invasion by non-native workers is an existential threat to the inhabitants of the Lakota reservations in North and South Dakota. The environmental and cultural threat is illustrated by the 2013 documentary Red Cry.2 In the documentary concerns about uranium mine contamination mix with concerns about control exercised by Bureau of Indian Affairs’ influence over tribal government.

In a previous article3 I mentioned the sexual and physical abuse threat to young tribal people in their encounters with non-tribal workers, specifically in context of the Lakota. Also, I have discussed environmental and socio-economic sovereign disputes between corporate and capitalist interests against tribal peoples around the world, particularly in Brazil, Malaysia, and India.

The most recent and recognized iteration of the themes of lost culture and sovereignty, environmental threats, and encounters with mining and mining infrastructure is the anti-oil pipeline protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota. It is supported by many other tribes in the USA, and from elsewhere. It has attracted support from Black Lives Matter and community environmentalists.

“It started small. Back in April, a few Standing Rock tribal members set up camp in a small valley where the Cannonball River flows into Lake Oahe. They were protesting a pipeline designed to carry oil 1,200 miles from the Bakken oil fields to a distribution center in Illinois.

Fueled by social media, the protest caught fire, and the camp is now larger than most small towns in North Dakota.

Standing Rock Tribal Chair Dave Archambault said he’s been overwhelmed by the response to a carefully considered decision to fight the Dakota Access pipeline.”4

Protests and community actions against the Bakken pipeline project have occurred along its diagonal route through Iowa, too. Eminent domain usage as corporate economic favoritism over local community property rights are reflective of the sovereignty conflict and defeated nation situation faced by the Lakota and other tribal groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in the Midwest. (Winona LaDuke heads a water rights group on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, for example.) The protest in Iowa has attracted support from organizations such as Catholic Workers, Citizens for Community Improvement, and a former Democrat state legislator and gubernatorial candidate.

A significant portion of organized labor supports the pipeline project as part of redressing the trillions of dollars infrastructure maintenance shortfall and as an important source of union benefit jobs and union dues maintenance for labor bureaucrats. The Iowa Building and Construction Trades Council has even been doing the ruling class’s work for them, by defaming DAP protesters on social media! But labor unions and their members do show support, such as that from National Nurses United.5

The oil from the Bakken oilfield in western North Dakota and Montana is a thick bitumen, tar-like oil, much like the surface mined oil sands of Alberta, Canada, and it is not like the image of oil gushing from a well most of us are familiar with from media. The pressure to flow up and out is not there. It is certainly not the very cheaply had oil from Saudi Arabia, which fairly recently could be profitably drilled and sold at profit for as low as ten dollars per barrel.

The oil and gas industry in the United States is now nearly 100% involving fracking and its collateral technology of horizontal drilling. The drilling from one vertical drill with horizontal offshoots uses sand, carbon dioxide, much water, and chemicals such as benzene, to force open fractures in shale and sandstone to release natural gas or oil. While the use of fresh water, now contaminated, and release of methane (associated with natural gas), a potent greenhouse gas, and threat of secondary earthquakes are serious concerns, it is the upwelling of long buried brine water that is a most copious threat to the local environment. There have been suggestions to allow use of the brine for winter road snow-and-ice treatment and transport of the brine to the Gulf of Mexico.6

Moreover, mining of the sand, necessary for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, is done in scenic and fragile topographical regions such as the driftless area of northeast Iowa and nearby Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Sand mining has its own problems and safety issues. While providing promise of – though subject to market demand – local jobs, the mining, with attendant truck traffic stresses rural neighbors and local fragile roads.

If the frack oil, which must be heated during transit and is thus highly flammable, is not to be transported to refinery by pipeline, a comparatively more dangerous alternative has been by rail. Explosions of such bomb trains have been in the news during the past few years.7

And, finally, frack oil and natural gas has not insignificantly tipped the dependence of foreign oil importation to the USA. The United States, itself a top provider of oil and gas, depended at one point for about 55% imports. Now it is more like 45%. In fact, fracking and the Canadian oil sands present the opportunity to export oil and gas from North America to the World market.

Moreover, natural gas, a cleaner burning fuel compared to coal, is sought to be an electricity generating source to back-up solar and wind energy systems with the added benefit of having something that can be easily turned off and on (unlike, say, nuclear energy). Natural gas, a compound of hydrogen and nitrogen, does produce greenhouse nitrous oxides, but that category of greenhouse gas persists for a much shorter time than carbon dioxide, derived by burning hydrocarbon fuels such as oil, coal, or wood.

The trade-offs between another national source of fuel and the environment and human costs is not easy. Jobs and $2 per gallon gasoline are attractive to most Americans. And fracking is attracting interest and controversy in other nations.

But, back to the issue of American Indians. What does the newest protest, and the popularity of Standing Rock to fellow American Indians and allies mean? The prime question of how conscious this makes tribal peoples from different tribal nations in North America, and from around the world of their identity, and their place in the capitalist world.

The formula of raising worker consciousness gained from association on a common factory floor to a proletarian socialist anti-class movement resonates from workplace uprisings in the industrial United States, Europe, and now the world factory of China. How does it go with regard to the less class defined situation of tribal nations – in this case, with regard to tribal nations in the United States and Canada?

I believe that it is a combined national and oppressed common consciousness that has been steadily defining what “American Indian” or “Native American” means to descendants of the 500 nations that post-Columbian Europeans and Africans have encountered. What a Native American person is, whether such a person is of a newly defined and relevant nation or people, and even what such a concept is to North Americans, in general, who support or oppose, is what the real news is from Standing Rock, and all that has come before, and will come, in the future.

Is Standing Rock more than a symbol of environmental protest? Is it about the rising of the American Indian nation? Is it a core around which a multi-racial movement can be and is being built? The less than hopeful American presidential campaign season has heard much from the Black Lives Matter movement and, at least, the environmental aspects of the Native American protests over pipelines. It has a possibility of growing into a multi-racial peoples’ movement for community control, socialism, and the end of class rule. Becoming a people and being recognized as a people is one possible positive element of a much wider common struggle.



  1. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/occupy-wounded-knee-a-71-day-siege-and-a-forgotten-civil-rights-movement/263998/
  2. https://youtu.be/VfvAqCHpXgA
  3. http://red-party.com/mean-lives-or-mean-state/
  4. https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/09/14/standing-rock-protest-camp-becomes-movement
  5. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19475/afl-cio_backs_dakota_access_pipeline_and_the_family_supporting_jobs_it_prov
  6. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/as_fracking_booms_growing_concerns_about_wastewater/2740/
  7. http://www.nationalobserver.com/2016/07/04/news/flirting-disaster-scary-truth-about-bomb-trains-moving-through-your-town