In my long-ago school days, I learned from dog-eared and tattered textbooks of awful things that had happened in our country in earlier times. A president had been murdered. Native Americans had not only been driven from their ancestral lands, but had then been cheated and betrayed repeatedly, their treaties with our government broken when profit for the dominant culture was at stake. Many Americans, though not all, believed it was our “manifest destiny” to keep moving westward, spreading over the continent. As a youngster, I was relieved and comforted by the fact that these things had happened in the distant past. We were better people now, I thought. We no longer assassinated presidents and trampled on the rights of American Indians.
In time I would be jolted out of my childish complacency, of course. We certainly did still kill presidents. And we had definitely not outgrown our habit of violating treaties with Indian tribes, somehow still finding, as a nation, that their rights were not quite so important as those of predominantly white, corporate, profit-driven Americans.
This all came to mind recently when reports of Native American unrest in North Dakota began to hit the news repeatedly. Then my daughter, co-pastor of a Baptist church in Michigan that sees social justice as a natural component of Christianity, went to Cannonball, North Dakota, along with three young women companions, to join several hundred ministers of many faiths in peaceful assembly, standing with the Standing Rock Sioux whose water and sacred lands are being threatened by construction of an oil conglomerate’s pipeline.
I’m always interested in, and sometimes awestruck by, my daughter’s determination to practice what she preaches. So I absorbed everything she could tell me about her trip and the plight of the Indians who were so grateful for the support the visiting ministers offered. Such support is growing nationally.
The ministers gathered at the invitation of an Episcopal priest from the local area. He and representatives of several denominations that have renounced something called the “Doctrine of Discovery” read aloud formal declarations of that renunciation. And it was this key act of the gathering that grabbed my attention. Maybe you are familiar with this doctrine. I was not.
The Doctrine of Discovery was something settled upon by rulers and religious leaders throughout Europe five centuries ago. Simply, it decreed that whoever, of whatever European nation, discovered hitherto unknown land on the still mysterious globe, those persons could claim, on behalf of the parent nation, such land if its current occupants were not Christians.
In other words, those dark-skinned creatures whose ancestors might for centuries have occupied vast swaths of what would become North and South America could be swept aside and their land taken in the name of the Son of God. But for earthly ownership and profit by good Christians.
More than three hundred years after the birth of this doctrine, the United States Supreme Court still found it helpful, issuing a decision declaring that the doctrine “gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” Even five hundred years after its establishment, at the end of the Twentieth Century, the Catholic Church, under whose auspices it had been created, had still not officially revoked the doctrine, although the Vatican was considering the issue.
As for the threat to the water and the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux, the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that it is restudying the matter, looking for a possible alternative route and planning for additional input from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Interestingly, the Army included as part of the reason for special sensitivity in this case the history of previous dispossessions of the Great Sioux Nation. A refreshing statement from a government not historically apt to confess its abuse of Indian tribes or express remorse.
Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, has been told to stop until the Corps completes its analysis and new decisions, with Native American input, are made. Failure of some past instructions to actually result in a halt suggested that construction might or might not stop, depending upon whether fines for violation are greater than the costs of delay. Sure enough, as of the time I am writing this, construction has not stopped.
As for the final outcome of this battle, my heart is with the Indians. Based on long history, though, my money is on the white guys.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”