The Trump Administration is breaking with tradition on so many fronts—renting out the family hotel to foreign diplomats, say, or imposing travel restrictions on the adherents of disfavored religions—that it seems noteworthy when it exhibits some continuity with American custom. And so let us focus for a moment, before the President’s next disorienting tweet, on yesterday’s news that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline will be restarted, a development that fits in perfectly with one of this country’s oldest cultural practices, going back to the days of Plymouth Rock: repressing Native Americans.
Just to rehash the story briefly, this pipeline had originally been set to carry its freight of crude oil under the Missouri River, north of Bismarck. But the predominantly white citizens of that town objected, pointing out that a spill could foul their drinking water. So the pipeline’s parent company, Energy Transfer Partners, remapped the crossing for just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This piece of blatant environmental racism elicited a remarkable reaction, eventually drawing representatives of more than two hundred Indian nations from around the continent to a great encampment at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, near where the pipeline was set to go. They were joined, last summer and into the fall, by clergy groups, veterans groups, environmental groups—including 350.org, the climate-advocacy organization I co-founded—and private citizens, who felt that this was a chance to begin reversing four centuries of literally and figuratively dumping on Native Americans. And the protesters succeeded. Despite the German shepherds and pepper spray let loose by E.T.P.’s security guards, despite the fire hoses and rubber bullets employed by the various paramilitary police forces that assembled, they kept a nonviolent discipline that eventually persuaded the Obama Administration to agree to further study of the plan.
More remarkably, it was the U.S. Army that took the lead—the same agency that had massacred and harassed Native Americans since its founding. On December 4th, Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, announced that the easement required for E.T.P. to dig beneath the Missouri would not be granted. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers would prepare an environmental-impact statement, a lengthy process that effectively put the pipeline on hold. “It’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Darcy said at the time. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” So the Corps set about organizing public hearings and taking testimony; until Tuesday afternoon, we were in the middle of that period, with signatures coming in by the hundred thousand. But at three o’clock yesterday, acting on the President’s suggestion that the environmental review be “expedited,” the Army reverted to ancient form, shutting down the public-comment process and issuing the permits that E.T.P. needs to begin digging again. Suddenly there was not “more work to do.” Somehow, in the eighteen days since Donald Trump had taken office, Robert Speer, the acting secretary of the Army, had obtained “sufficient information” to grant the approval.
One feels for the Army brass. Had they continued to act responsibly and in line with their previous commitments, their careers likely would not have progressed. (Speer is apparently no Sally Yates, though those of us worried about the choleric Trump and his proximity to the nuclear-launch codes must hope that someone in the Pentagon is.) In any event, digging is scheduled to begin as early as this afternoon. There should, and will, be substantial protests. The first demonstrations began in major cities today, and the Standing Rock Sioux have asked Americans to descend on Washington, D.C., on March 10th. By that point, the pipeline may be all but finished, but the tribe and its attorneys at the environmental group Earthjustice have vowed to keep fighting it in the courts, even once it is carrying oil.
The bigger battle, however, may be in the tribunal of public opinion. The pipeline is a bad idea on many grounds, none of which is likely to sway Trump. (The fact that the oil it carries has the same carbon footprint as nearly thirty coal-fired power plants would perhaps seem a plus to him.) Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, recently noted that Trump has yet to meet with any Native American leaders since taking office, which is possibly for the best, given the casual racism that might ensue. But the protests at Standing Rock have reopened the question of how the rest of America, those of us not in the White House, will treat the continent’s original inhabitants. In this standoff, we have confronted our oldest and one of our most shameful stories. That shame will deepen now—which may, once Trump is gone, allow us to move closer to real reconciliation. At any rate, we owe a great debt to the protesters, who have acted with a dignity conspicuously lacking in the Oval Office.