Saddle Sore: From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Dec. 29, 1890. The Wounded Knee Massacre, only 347 miles away from Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Cannon Ball is on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The wind blows hard in North Dakota and the cold cuts deep to the bone. Recent winter snowstorms and cold weather make it difficult to separate Wounded Knee from the Standing Rock protest, and it’s impossible to get the photograph of Lakota Sioux Chief Big Foot’s frozen body, hands and head raised in defiant protest, out of our minds.

Maybe you’ve heard of the Standing Rock protest, a group of Native Americans concerned about the trajectory of the Dakota Oil Access Pipeline, or Bakken pipeline, a project being developed by Dallas company Energy Transfer Partners. Like most big deals, ownership is hard to pin down, it’s complicated and it has a lot of government involvement, namely the Army Corps of Engineers.

It’s called the Standing Rock protest because it’s taking place on land adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. I say “adjacent to,” but Sioux who live there would argue vehemently that their protest is taking place on land they were awarded in the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851. Interestingly, part of the pipeline route runs through the 1851 territories of tribal bands that make up the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and the Yankton Sioux tribe, as described in the 1851 treaty, also referred to as the Treaty of Horse Creek, a much more colorful term.

It’s hard to pin down facts about this fracas, but one thing is reasonably clear: Even though ensuing treaties trimmed down the size of the original Indian territories as defined in the 1851 agreement, none of the subsequent treaties referred to amending the 1851 treaty as required by U.S. law. Most legal scholars would tell you that the Standing Rock Sioux have every right to protest the Dakota Oil Access Pipeline through land that was given to them by the U.S. government, simply because the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution makes any treaty the “supreme law of the land,” and the terms of treaties remain in place unless specifically repealed by Congress. The Sioux might feel a little squeamish about this legalese nonsense — the U.S. has never reneged on a treaty it signed with Native Americans. Or has it?

This protest has gained national attention, although not enough is being said about it, from either side. But one thing does need to be made abundantly clear: The Sioux Reservation did not ask, nor does it want, to carry water for all the environmental groups attempting to ride on the backs of Native Americans for their own benefit.

To the Sioux, their concerns are only two: potential pollution of their water source in the event of a pipeline spill and the disturbance of burial and other sacred sites. For them, it is about their sovereignty as a nation, not about national politics, environmentalism or racism. It is about protecting their home and the futures of their children.

If you study up on it, it seems that although the facts can be murky, the Army Corps of Engineers has seemingly made every effort to override the concerns of the Sioux, including ignoring a request from U.S. governmental agencies for the Corps to conduct an environmental impact assessment. The Corps claimed there wasn’t time and fast-tracked the needed permits. The final permit is awaiting issuance.

This particular protest, encampment if you will, called Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) in the native tongue, has been going on since April, and it’s getting a little long in the tooth, which eventually becomes a taunt to the government to “do something” even if the Sioux are a sovereign nation. No doubt you’ve heard that history has a proclivity of repeating itself, which brings us back to Wounded Knee.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the state of North Dakota have given the Sioux until Dec. 5 to end their protest and strike their camp. It is rumored that supplies will not be allowed in, roads in and out will be closed and if nothing else happens, the Sioux will likely give it up, freeze or starve to death. Sounds ominous, but in all likelihood, the Corps or state will not enforce this demand. But that doesn’t mean that local law enforcement or the Corps will not spray the protestors with fire hoses or rubber bullets, things that have recently occurred under the auspices of private security. Or that some other egregious act will ignite a deadly confrontation.

The wind blows hard in North Dakota and the cold cuts deep to the bone. It’s impossible to get the photograph of Chief Big Foot’s frozen body, hands and head raised in defiant protest, out of our minds. And the Standing Rock impasse rages on.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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