From Standing Rock to Israel: We belong to the land

Reservation days were harsh. The enforced starvation, the degradation and hopelessness. The taking of children.

PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE against the building of a pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota on Thursday. (photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS)
PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE against the building of a pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota on Thursday.
Standing Rock Sioux Rez is the northernmost of the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota People.
A remnant of the 1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty lands apportioned to the North Plains Tribes in exchange for those tribes’ allowing lands ceded by them go to incomers in return for goods, rights (education and medical care) and most importantly, the promise that they would be left alone, no more of their land taken by the tide of landless people moving toward the setting sun like a blight of locusts. All the tribes gave up land in exchange for peace.
But there was no peace. The other Lakota-Dakota- Nakota tribes, known collectively as the Oceti Sakowin, had to go to war again against the United States of America. This time it was to enforce the 1851 treaty against the depredations of those seeking mineral riches in Montana and traveling across the Bozeman Trail, which is called Thieves’ Road in Lakota. The people who crossed it hunted, fed themselves and even set up villages and farms, ranches and trading posts. And then the US Army built forts along this road through Lakota country, to protect the US citizens from the consequences of their own actions in violating the treaty.
That war to enforce the 1851 treaty resulted in what became known as Red Cloud’s War, and during that war, my great-great-grandmother, a Jewish peddler’s young daughter, was taken captive by the Lakota. She was one of about 3,000 non-Indians taken as captives and one of the few of that 3,000 to prove smart enough and tough enough to survive, to be adopted into a Lakota family and become a Lakota woman herself. We found her parents’ ketuba in an old parfleche bag between old Chief Swiftbird’s log cabin walls when it was being taken down in the 1950s. There it was, concrete proof of the captive girl who was strong enough to survive. It was also concrete proof for her great-granddaughter, who was in her sixth year of conversion to Judaism, that her call to become Jewish had some basis besides her own intellect; she too had been present at Sinai.
Reservation days were harsh. The enforced starvation, the degradation and hopelessness. The taking of children. The reservations, post the Dawes Allotment Act, whittled down to next to nothing compared with what the Oceti Sakowin had once held. And worse, they were no longer a free people.
But they had themselves, and they had their traditions, despite physical and cultural genocide.
(Nowhere was America’s aim more obvious and Col. Richard Henry Pratt’s ideology more evident than when he set up Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, whose motto was: “Kill the Indian, Save the Child.”) The people survived. The pandemic diseases burned out, as did the harsh discipline of learning to be what you are not so that you can live, and some of your children can live. Yet families and whole societies were torn apart and crippled.
But the treaties, under the US Constitution, the “Highest Law of the Land,” were broken again, and again, and again. The Lakota were born as wards of a federal government that did whatever it desired with individually- or tribally-owned Indian land, auctioning off minerals and grazing leases for pennies on the dollar in sweetheart deals with private corporations. Many a US Corps of Engineers official, and those from Dept. of the Interior, did very well financially out of these deals.
And it isn’t over yet. The Saudis wouldn’t play patty cake with president George W. Bush and increase their oil output, and the Athahbaska Bitumen Sands became financially viable for the energy companies. No matter what sacrifices exploiting them might entail for locals.
Now as before, the corporations must make money, no matter what laws must be broken. So, another set of sweetheart deals with public official involvement – and yet... this time the tribes from all over the Americas have come together at Standing Rock to defend a people’s rights to maintain a supply of clean drinking water for themselves, their herds, their crops and for all of the 18 million people along the Missouri River, right down to the mighty Mississippi. And because they have stood up for theirs and others’ rights, now there will actually be a Environmental Impact Study. Perhaps the graveyards won’t even be dug up, and maybe there will have to be some honesty in the treatment of Indian peoples, and treaties.
To my Israeli brethren, I say this, as a member of an indigenous people for whom the land blooms: do not trade land for peace. It doesn’t work.
Organize for success, and don’t let others take over your people’s story. And never believe the picture of you they hold is anything but a lie (although don’t forget to self examine). You will always have enemies who want to take what belongs to you.
There will always be wars. Win them. Understand that not all people share your values. Do not expect them to, no matter what they say. Look at what people do, not what they say.
Remember that water is life. You cannot drink oil or gas.
Remember who you are, and remember to pray.
The Water Protectors in the prayer camps at Cannonball at 10 below zero with the snow blowing sideways in the dark have this in common with Israelis: they belong to the land.
As the Jews are the first indigenous people in the world to have regained their ancestral homelands, sovereignty and self determination, you give hope.
Pray for us.
I’m going for some sufganiyot.
The author is a retired member of the US military and a Lakota Zionist.