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  • Ben Carter

Standing Rock, Native American Ancestral Lands... And Capitalism

Thanksgiving 2016 was wonderful. Family, gluttony and persistent guilt about not having been to the gym were at the centerpiece of my extended weekend. It’s very strange how it gets easier to avoid the gym when you don’t face the immediate prospect of attending a pool party, having to focus on flexing your abs to hide a more barrel shaped abdomen area. But in addition to not working out, I’d also been neglecting something that’s been on my list for at least two weeks. I’d been neglecting to fully educate myself of the matter of Standing Rock Sioux and Energy Transfer Partners’ proposed “Dakota Access” gas and oil pipeline. More than a few of my social media friends shared “awareness” posts reminding folks of the origin of our nation’s Thanksgiving Holiday. They point out the story of Native Americans and pilgrims having dinner together may have been mildly romanticized, and certainly glosses over a lot that has since followed. Lacking specific knowledge about Standing Rock, I Googled it. Standing Rock Sioux and Energy Transfer Partners If you’re not up on the latest, I’ll recap very quickly. Standing Rock Indian Reservation is a Native American land reserve whose people and allies are currently fighting to keep their ancestral lands from having a 1170 mile-long oil pipeline run through or adjacent to it. Energy Transfer Partners (a for profit company) wants to continue with its efforts to build the pipeline, but has been stonewalled (thus far) by protestors who’ve effectively set up camp in the path of the proposed pipeline, impeding further construction activities. If you want to learn more, read this Washington Post article by Steven Mufson. There are many feelings which arise for people when discussing sensitive issues like the theft and/or violation of Native American ancestral lands. However, I wish to focus on one particular thought that arose for me when reading and learning more about the history of these lands and how the United States has handled disputes like Standing Rock for many hundreds of years. Ancestral Lands and Capitalism There is a rich history of treaties between the United States and the folks who were here before the United States of America was a thing. A Wikipedia article points out “From 1778 to 1871 the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; every one of these treaties has since been violated in some way or outright "broken" by the US government.”

If Wikipedia is a reputable source for you, then Standing Rock is not new. It’s an old script playing itself out once again.

I’ll also highlight a particular portion of the Washington Post article:

“Native American disputes are not just history; they are still alive. In 1980, the Supreme Court affirmed a Court of Claims ruling and awarded $106 million to the Sioux tribes for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills. “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history,” the court said. But the Sioux rejected the money and continue to seek the return of the land.”

Native American culture places a huge amount of significance in land and the resources God provides; water, fish, trees and the like are seen as apart of an ecosystem that sustain life on ancestral lands. American culture on the other hand, places its value in economic activity and the ability to turn a profit.

Herein lies an incredible problem. On one side, we have an institution (in some cases) ready to provide monetary compensation for the violation of land rights and treaties. On the other is a group which places little to no value in the very thing (money) the first side desires to compensate the other with.

This raises very sharp questions in my mind.

Where do Americans draw their lines in balancing economic activities and culturally important touchstones? Is there a level of compensation which matches the cultural and spiritual significance of land to Native American people? Or does monetary compensation function more as “hush money” and a line item for companies crossing paths with Native Americans and their land?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I hope we can all spend some time thinking about them while gasping for air on the treadmill, rolling out cramps or struggling to keep from walking out in the middle of spin class. Ben Carter is the Host of Manage Your Damn Money, Creative Director at MYDM Creative and author of Fictitious Financial Fairytale: A Completely Untrue Story About Money, Friends and Moscow Mules.

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