Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 15 December, 2016)
Centuries of pain and guilt were distilled in an extraordinary encounter that took place on December 5, in the improbable venue of the auditorium of a casino in the Midwestern state of North Dakota. With a blizzard raging outside, a group of US army veterans assembled before the elders of the Lakota Sioux, an indigenous Native American people. Dressed in 19th century military garb, veteran Wesley Clark Jr (the son of a retired general and former supreme commander of Nato) delivered an apology on behalf of American soldiers.
“Many of us are from the units that have hurt you over many years,” he said. “We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills… We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways, but we’ve come to say we are sorry.” He knelt before the Sioux spiritual leader, chief Leonard Crow Dog. “We are at your service and we beg you for forgiveness.”
It’s impossible to expect absolute “forgiveness” from Native Americans for what remains the original sin of the American nation, the killing, dispossession and immiseration of its indigenous people. But even as a symbolic act, I found Clark’s clear and forthright statement quite moving.
Indigenous people live with the constant reminder of their conquest and subjugation, but most Americans don’t have to reckon with the history of that loss. Surviving Native American populations are small, their “reservations” (parcels of land allocated to indigenous peoples by the US government) often out of sight and out of mind. The myth of America’s creation out of an empty wilderness remains ingrained in the national DNA, obscuring the long histories of the indigenous peoples who were displaced and eradicated in the making of the country. Clark’s apology was bold not only for its honesty, but for the way it confronted a difficult truth that many Americans can safely ignore.
The veterans who supplicated themselves before the Sioux elders had come to frigid North Dakota “in defence” of an ongoing protest against an oil pipeline. For months, people have camped on the now frozen plains of Standing Rock reservation to block the completion of the nearly $4 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. The remaining section of pipeline is supposed to pass under the Missouri River, close to the Standing Rock reservation. Indigenous activists claim it will endanger the local environment and violate the sanctity of their sacred lands.
This month, an existing pipeline further up the river leaked 100 barrels of oil into the water. Several friends — journalists and activists — have spent time at the encampments, sending reports of remarkable resolve and apocalyptic snowstorms. Authorities deployed significant force in trying to quash the protests, including using attack dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons that, in the below freezing temperatures, have the surreal effect of turning human beings into icicles.
Unbowed and aided by a wide array of sympathisers, including Clark and the army veterans, the activists won a temporary victory on December 4. The Army Corps of Engineers (who have jurisdiction over the contested area) put a stay on the construction of the pipeline pending further review. Supporters of the Standing Rock protesters celebrated the decision, but it is only a reprieve, not a final verdict.
The incoming administration of Donald Trump will likely try to encourage the completion of the pipeline. A common refrain of Trump’s campaign was his fatigue with environmental regulations and his desire to expand the domestic extraction of fossil fuels. His prospective appointments to numerous government agencies all promise to roll back Barack Obama’s modest environmentalism and the halting attempts to wean the American economy away from carbon-intensive fuels.
The protest at Standing Rock is continuing through the desolate North Dakota winter. It draws together various strains of disquiet in American politics. People have come to Standing Rock to defend indigenous rights, to protect the environment, to urge action on climate change by curbing the use of fossil fuels, and to check the influence of energy corporations in local and national politics.
There are ready parallels for Standing Rock in the mineral-rich regions of central India, where tribal groups wrestle with the promise and peril of resource extraction in their lands, the prospect of mines and mills pockmarking once sacred geographies. It can be very easy for those of us who live in urban centres (as I suspect many HT readers do) to be oblivious or, worse, indifferent to the way our lives and our habits of consumption affect other places and other peoples.
Clark’s apology reached across a chasm of both power and visibility. It was a sign of something more fundamental that has been achieved at Standing Rock: A triumph of moral imagination.