Stop Treating American Indians as Enemies

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 15, 2016 6:30 PM
Stop Treating American Indians as Enemies

It is the rare historian who can look back on the troubled history of the encounter between the white man and the Indian on this continent without rooting for one side or the other but instead recognize the tragic nature of the conflict. For one inescapable element of tragedy is its inevitability. Looking backward, it may seem that way, but it didn't have to be so.

It would take a genius like Edward Gibbon to tell the story of this country's Indian Wars and explain how they might have turned out differently and better given reasonable leaders on both sides. Such an historian is Peter Cozzens, who has titled his latest work "The Earth Is Weeping." And there is much to weep over, especially when it comes to the policies dictated by Washington instead of reason.

Such an earlier analyst was George Crook, an unusually far-seeing and senior military officer of his time. As he summed up the lesson of this country's Indian Wars at least for the Indians themselves: "All tribes tell the same story. They are surrounded on all sides, the game is destroyed or driven away, they are left to starve, and there remains but one thing for them to do -- fight while they can. Our treatment of the Indian is an outrage." As it continues to be to this day.

But there are some exceptions to this rule of unreason. The right-hand lede of a front-page story in a recent Democrat-Gazette begins with a wonderful dateline -- CANNON BALL, N.D. -- and it's all about how the feds won't grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota. It seems the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers has outgrown its old motto -- Keep Busy -- and recognized that just continuing to repeat its past policies would endanger both the Standing Rock Sioux's water and its culture. Hooray, hell's bells and how 'bout that?

As might have been expected, state officials in North Dakota decried this enlightened decision, with Gov. Jack Dalrymple denouncing the new policy as a "serious mistake" that will only "prolong the dangerous situation" of having all these protesters camping out on federal land as the dead of winter approaches. Just as the Indian tribes did in an earlier century. The governor's ahistorical approach indicates that the white man has learned little over time and, worse, still speaks with forked tongue.

The pipeline project covers 1,170 miles and is to come in at a total cost of $3.8 billion -- if only these pesky protesters could be swept out of the way. Just as their forebears, both ideological and biological, could be swept out of the way. The one remaining incomplete segment of this pipeline is supposed to run under Lake Oahe, a reservoir created for the mighty Missouri River, but the Corps has refused to grant a needed easement. Happily, discussions rather than battles are taking place among all sides.