The standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota over the construction of an oil pipeline that threatens to contaminate water and ceremonial sites has focused attention on native peoples. Who knew that American Indians, along with thousands of supporters from around the world, would risk physical harm from authorities and endure harsh weather conditions in order to take a stand against corporate America and the U.S. government?
To most Americans, the clash between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline seems like a rare, even surreal, resurrection of a last-century American Indian uprising. Once mythologized as war-driven savages (mostly by Hollywood), today's image of the Indian is one of victims-turned-survivors. The culture now recognizes the decades of oppression, albeit mostly as something that has happened in the past.
But it is in fact part of a never-ending dynamic, one that has raged since the arrival of the first Puritans on the country's eastern shores. It is a conflict that continues to define the broader relationship between tribes and the U.S. government. Standing Rock is only the latest example.
The history of Native Americans is clouded in illusions of transcendence, by Indians and non-Indians alike. Yes, even many Indians like to think of the first Thanksgiving as a peace offering feast to starving Pilgrims. But it was not long thereafter, as those early Europeans began settling the "new world," that it became clear that there was an "Indian problem." In the course of finding a solution, a number of those welcoming East Coast tribes were either obliterated, assimilated, or pushed farther west.
And when Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, which included most of the continent's western land, the mission had a deeper, darker agenda. Plains tribes were greeted by the expedition with medals from the President. But they were more than salutations of good will. They were meant to signal a new social order.
A few Presidents later, Indians were told to regard Andrew Jackson as their "Great White Father." Some father. Jackson, in defiance of a United States Supreme Court ruling that upheld the rightful claim of these tribes to remain in their homeland, forced thousands of Cherokee on a Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma. This deadly forced relocation became the first of many oppressive federal policies to...