Trevor Herriot is a naturalist and award-winning author. His latest book, Towards a Prairie Atonement, was just released by University of Regina Press.
The Sioux people of the Northern Plains know the dangers of dancing and praying with the military watching nearby. This week the long shadow of Wounded Knee is brooding over the people of Standing Rock as they continue to defend their unceded lands and the Missouri River from a pipeline designed to convey a half million barrels of crude across the prairie every day.
The cavalry—reprised as National Guardsmen and police in riot gear and flanked by Humvees on the ground and helicopters overhead – is enforcing laws that say the land under the feet of the Sioux water protectors now belongs to a corporation: "You are on private property and must move."
The Sioux, for their part, are following their own laws which tell them that they belong to the land and always have. One kind of law justifies colonizing and taking from the land; the other asserts an indigenous understanding of home and an ethic that defends it.
As the Cree people of Saskatchewan's James Smith First Nation learned this summer with the Husky Oil spill, once a pipeline crosses a river, there is little you can do to protect that river from a rupture. Such concerns are dismissed within the logic of the petro-state and its employees who make camp, take from the land, and then move on.
The failure to recognize the legitimacy of indigenous title and land ethics continues to stir the toxic blend of ignorance and bigotry that has been brewing on the Great Plains since employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the continent's first multinational, came inland on northern rivers. Kept simmering with the lid on tight somewhere in the cellar at the foundation of settler culture, it has been out of sight but not out of mind.
The beneficiaries of colonization go down there for a private sip from time to time, but now, with indigenous peoples mobilizing to protect burial grounds and rivers and settler farmers rushing to defend one of their own charged with shooting an unarmed Cree man from the Red Pheasant reserve, the lid has blown off and the fumes are coming up through the floorboards.
Comments that once were muttered only in private are now made public through social media, with farmers stating what they believe is worth protecting – private property – and how they plan to protect it: with rifles and shotguns stowed in their trucks and combines. "We carry guns, and we want the criminals to know it," said one farmer in a news report.
In a place where indigenous people are 33 times more likely to be incarcerated than anyone else, there is no mistaking the dog whistles in Saskatchewan – threats that will surely cause sleepless nights for the mothers of the indigenous youth who travel the back roads where these farmers live.
There will be some tossing and turning in the sheets too for those who fill the executive offices of Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, and TransCanada.
In late September, the Standing Rock Sioux joined with 50 other Canadian and American indigenous groups to sign a Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. In coming years, more Standing Rock-style blockades will be erected between Big Oil's pipelines and the tankers they seek to fill and no amount of rubber bullets, riot police, and pepper spray will resolve these standoffs.
In a decolonizing Canada now awakening to the tragedy of what unfettered petro-capitalism has done to the land and indigenous peoples, the work of reconciliation must happen across this moral gap between those who would colonize and those who defend and protect. The good news is that if we do it right, we may develop the social and cultural capital that will help us address the land-use conflicts and climate-change crises awaiting us all.
There are those who look at Standing Rock or the call to reconciliation and see nothing but zero-sum economics in which indigenous people will gain while everyone else loses.
Beneath the "water is life" slogans, the dancing, praying, and the battle for public favour, and beneath the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action, though, there is the original zero-sum of the earth, her rivers, forests and prairies. In the spirit of their ancestors, the proud people of the Northern Plains are calling us to consider what will be lost if we do not find ways to revive that indigenous sense of rootedness, and the community-based land ethic that our treaties say we are supposed to honour.
The protectors of the prairie, broadcasting live from smartphones, have put out the call from Standing Rock. How will we answer?