Should We Also Drill Under Arlington So Washington DC Can Get Cheaper Energy?
“The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.” JOHN MUIR
Once there was a man so bewitched by water that he managed to put a halt to the massive Grand Canyon dam project. That man was Martin Litton. A river runner and conservationist at his core, Litton was articulate and impassioned. Though he almost single-handedly changed the course of the Grand Canyon’s destiny, he was not alone. He had the backing of the media, of a trio of MIT graduates, the Sierra Club of course, Hollywood stars, and – most importantly – ordinary people like you and me. Articles popped up like mushrooms in the most revered of magazines – Life, Newsweek and Outdoor Life. The graduates worked out the negative cost effectiveness of the dams. Dump trucks filled with letters arrived in Congressmen’s mailboxes. The Sierra Club took out a public newspaper ad back in 1966 asking: “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer The Ceiling?” to galvanize the public to demand a stop to the damming and consequent flooding of the Grand Canyon. And it did. Politicians, public figures, film stars all jumped on-board to see for themselves what it was exactly that they’d saved. That’s when the Grand Canyon became an American landmark.
With the fate of Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL) still undecided, a similar question needs to be posed to the American public to stop the destruction of sacred tribal lands, arguably every bit worth preserving as the Grand Canyon. “Should we also drill under Arlington so Washington DC can get cheaper energy?” To us a flooded Grand Canyon seems blasphemous and to this day Litton’s act is held up as one of the most important environmental victories for the American people. And yet, the construction of the DAPL continues to be debated. How did we allow ourselves to come so far off course that we cannot see the similarities between the Grand Canyon dam project and the DAPL.
Like the GC dam project, the construction of the DAPL promises many economic benefits to populations at large, not the least of which – jobs and cheap fuel. But also like the GC, the DAPL carries incalculable costs to the American people.
There are two issues at stake in the construction of the DAPL – the first is an environmental issue which concerns itself with a threat to the purity of the river water, and the second, more esoteric issue, is one of preserving the Native American scared tribal lands. At first reckoning, these may seem like two separate issues, but for a people who identify water with life*, they are in fact one and the same issue.
The Missouri River that rises in the Rockies of western Montana is the longest river in North America. With a drainage basin spanning more than half a million square miles, the Missouri River’s catchment encompasses nearly one-sixth of the area of the United States. Native Americans have lived along the Missouri for hundreds of years and have historically had access to ample food, water, and shelter. A $3.7bn pipeline known as the DAPL, built by a subsidiary of the private Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), is underway at nearly 1,200 miles long to transport some 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day across four states, from North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois, where it can be shipped to refineries. The pipeline is supposed to provide a more cost-effective, efficient means of transporting crude, rather than shipping barrels by train and increase profits, jobs, and margins for oil companies while crude prices are low. Eminent Domain is one of the arguments that has been used for the acquisition of the land in question. There is already a natural gas, not oil, pipeline running beneath the Missouri river close to the proposed new pipeline.
The pipeline is well underway, but the section closest to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation is stalled because of months of passive resistance by the Water Protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters who set up a number of spiritual camps – Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, and Rosebud Sicangu – near the Missouri river, arguing that the project would contaminate drinking water and damage sacred tribal lands. The US Army Corps of Engineers suspended the project last year, but in February 2017 said it planned to grant final easement for the remaining section of the project. Construction sites are technically just north of the tribal lands given to the Sioux in an 1868 treaty but later taken away illegally by the government.
News coverage of the Dakota Pipeline has been blindingly frugal (I would have liked to see the Oscars handed out on a floating platform on that stretch of river). Perhaps this is so because the media considers this a “battle lost.” But I argue that the DAPL project is no more a battle lost than Gandhi’s “Salt March” or Martin Luther King’s “Manhattan Bus Boycott” was a battle lost even if the pipeline is laid under sacred tribal lands and millions of gallons of oil pumped through it. This is because the DAPL is more than just a conduit for oil; it is a metaphorical delivery system for a powerful new idea, a participatory and spiritual idea that appeals to humans on an atavistic level.
The protests** represent a paradigm shift in the way communities communicate. The Native Americans have not used the race card, the economic disenfranchisement argument, nor have they belabored the point about stolen land and broken treaties. They have risen above every empirical argument in a spiritual and sacred way and have simply insisted that their drinking water and sacred tribal lands not be threatened. As we all know, pipelines do spring leaks and they do burst. The probability of this happening may be low, but the consequences for all communities up and down river are huge enough to warrant it being called an “Impact Event.”***
The issues highlighted by the DAPL are now in the collective consciousness. It is only a matter of time when future generations will demand a more collaborative approach towards the development of shared resources like water and air, where actions up (or down) river or up (and down) wind have an enormous impact on people and places thousands of miles away. Perhaps the elements of Eminent Domain will be reexamined and “for public use” and “just compensation,” will come to be judged on an infinite timeline.
The idea of Nature as a thing of beauty to be loved and enjoyed – not tamed, not changed nor studied, or used as an asset, but simply enjoyed – by non-nomadic, settled, non-indigenous, urbanized humans is an American idea perpetuated by the likes of John Muir and Martin Litton. It is, in fact more than an idea; it is an ideal, thought so worthy that it has been emulated by nations round the world. The Sioux tribe’s passive resistance ties right into this American ideal. By protecting sacred water in perpetuity, what we are doing is in fact upholding the American way of life. The Water Protectors don’t just speak for the Native Americans; they speak for each one of us, and how we resolve this issue will ultimately determine how we are judged in posterity.
The most compelling reasons for the long-term preservation of our natural resources are spiritual and emotional ones. Only when we admit this to ourselves, will we be in a position to participate in our world as if it truly belongs to us.
*The Lakota language has a phrase “Mni Wiconi” – Water is life that encapsulates this concept.
** I use the word “protests” only because that is how the passive resistance of the Native Americans has been referred to in the few and far between articles in the press though the Native Americans refer to themselves as “Water Protectors.”
Impact Event *** events of small probability with huge consequences like a collision between astronomical objects.
Note: Wife and husband Phyllis Baldeagle and Amos Cook together with many of the last remaining Water Protectors in Oceti are starting up a new camp in South Dakota, called “Native Roots.” Native Roots, established on non-disputed private property, is not a resistance camp, although it will be about 15 miles from a new planned protest camp near the Keystone path. The camp will foster organic gardening, permaculture, cultural studies (including Lakota language classes), and equine therapy, native crafts, etc. This is a new venture directly born out of the Standing Rock movement, and one that the Roaring Fork valley is most connected with. The Carbondale organization, “River Stands with Rock” has supported Amos and Phyllis with firewood, food and supplies for nearly a year at Standing Rock.
To learn more about Native Roots contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
** Read the story and watch the interview with David Starbear Avalos, activist of dimensional shift and awakening quadrivium resonance, who spent weeks with two of his friends packing two sizable trailers with frozen food, propane, tanks of water, and other necessary materials.