As Indigenous peoples faced off against armed police and tanks near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Dakota, theirs wasn’t just a battle over a pipeline. It was a battle over a story that could define the future of America.
The Obama administration’s decision yesterday to refuse the Dakota Access pipeline permission to complete its construction has now shaken up that story. Its old version was that Indigenous peoples have always been in the way of progress, their interests a nuisance or threat, their treaties a discardable artifact. In that story, the American heroes forged on these high plains of the west were never the Indians: they were the gold-diggers or gamblers, the cowboys or cavalry.
But over the past months, it became impossible to watch peaceful Indigenous people and supporters attacked by snarling dogs, maced, and shot with rubber bullets and water cannons in freezing conditions, and still see in them a threat. It was impossible to look upon these young Indigenous men and women, in jingle dresses or on horseback, and not observe the courage that America desperately needs. It was impossible to listen to the cry of their slogan and not hear a rallying vision for all of us: Water is Life.