Standing Rock camp is rounding up this week, after at least 10 months of activation to stop oil pipelines through North Dakota. At stake was the health and welfare of the Stand Rock Sioux who live on the Standing Rock Reservation. The encampment attracted upwards of 20,000 people who rotated in and out of the encampment, who wanted to protect the region from the probability of another oil pipeline breach, a fairly common problem for pipelines in the region. The pipeline was halted just before bridging the Cannonball river. The protectors faced severe opposition with state police and hired guards attacking the protectors in one of the most extreme examples of human rights abuses in the United States in recent memory.
Standing Rock occurred despite having a democratic president in office, a president who would not order the conflict to cease and who never insisted on finding an equitable resolution. The conflict occurred despite there being a broad cross-section of American support for Standing Rock’s plight. And in the midst of a highly contentious presidential election with neither candidate stating their support of the protectors. In fact, only the Democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders spoke in favor of the protectors and their cause.
To many Americans this event and conflict seemed shocking, an extreme example of what the oil industry will do with state support, to gain access to extremely lucrative resources. Yet this is not the only time the United States Government has worked against the tribes to gain access to resources. In the 19th century, American Indian tribes were made war upon, and removed to reservations to make room for American settlement, ranching and gold mining in the West. In Oregon, the native nations were removed from their lands, after signing treaties in 1853-1855, to reservations where the tribes were confederated. The removal of the tribes opened up millions of acres for Americans to claim and settle. Similarly, the Standing Rock Sioux were removed from their traditional lands in 1868, to the reservation, so that North Dakota could be settled.
In 1887, with most of the West settled and the tribes occupying large reservations, the United States Congress devised another scheme to take more of the lands. Then, the tribes had been settled on reservations on some of the worst lands for agriculture with much of the reservation lands going unused and unexploited for resources. Americans complained that the tribe still had millions of acres of land better used for farming or ranching. The Dawes Allotment act (1887) was passed which gave Native people their own permanent allotment. Once all of the people were allotted, the remainder lands were sold to Americans as surplus. Allotments occurred for most Natives by 1891, and by 1907 the surplus lands were sold.
Much of the land was not bought by American settlers, but by business interests that exploited the natural resources. In Oregon, the sale of the tens of thousands of surplus lands of the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations to logging companies sparked a logging boom in the Coast Range in the 1920s.
The next period of exploitation ocurred after World War II. After the war, the United States Congress worked to alleviate the federal budget. The massive budget of the department fo War caused a need to find money from other programs that were less essential. In 1947 United States turned back to solving many of the domestic agriculture issues that had gone unaddressed during the war. The big issue was managing water resources, so that the midwest and west could rebuild its poorly managed agricultural areas that had been poorly managed causing a collapse of the industry in the dust bowl of greater Oklahoma. Then California economy was growing exponentially, aided by the war industries, by 1947 needing water and power to fuel a large population and more growth.
The plan devised was to begin the process of “freeing the tribes from American oppression” by liquidating or termination the reservations. The plan was originally to terminate all reservations and eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Once Indian Affairs was gone and Natives assimilated into American society, their budget, some 40 million in annual appropriations, could be used for reclamation projects, dams, and water management projects. In the West, the plan was set in motion to dam up the massive water resources of Oregon, Washington, and northern California and redirect water and hydropower to central and southern California to feed to growth of their economy.
Indian reservation termination became national policy in 1952 and in 1954 some 60 tribes on three reservations in Oregon were terminated. In the midst of termination proceedings for other tribes, the Dalles Dam was completed in 1957. The dam was fought against by Native peoples from the Columbia River Gorge and once built it inundated and destroyed the oldest known fishing area for Native peoples, Celilo Falls, a place with more than 12,000 years of cultural use. Dams on the Columbia were being built from the 1930s to the 1970s and once completed the hydropower fed a huge power grid throughout the West, stemming for a time the thirst for electricity in the region.
These three past periods of Indian removal, expropriation of lands and cooption of water, were period of colonization for native people. Termination for many tribes was the last major period of colonization. The terminated tribes in Oregon had lost all their lands, the reservations were sold and the people were forced to assimilate into American society. In 100 years, through successive efforts, the United States got all their lands, took away their status and made them not unlike newly arrived immigrants in their traditional homelands. Beginning in the 1970s terminated tribes began working toward restoration, with many successfully restored tribes across the nation.
About a decade and a half ago, the technology for fracking shale oil became advanced enough to become a lucrative industry. Aided by new laws passed by President George W. Bush, fracking became a reality in many states in the union and Canada. In many regions, fracking for shale oil has become an invasion industry in the West, taking rights from citizens to resist and likely polluting water supplies in many area. Shale oil has now become a significant industry that has caused the price of oil to lower worldwide. In many ways United States shale oil and natural gas has helped the United States to exert greater control over the world wide oil and gas markets like never before.
It is the case now, that Indian reservations have large land holdings in the west and much of the natural resources remain untouched. Tribes resist polluting their lands for economic gains. Yet tribal reservation land is held in-trust to the federal government. Tribes do not own their lands outright, the in-trust status means that tribal lands are ultimately owned by the federal government and they could be taken and sold by Congress if they decided to do so.
It is now the case that tribal lands are highly coveted by the economic interests in the United States, The president of the United States has proven to be envious of tribal rights, and there are now rumblings that national Parks and agricultural lands protections could be lifted. Are tribal nations heading into a new time of colonization? A time when republican economic interests, seek to eliminate protections of tribal lands and declare the in-trust lands as being wasted and subject to sale as surplus lands to corporate interests?