The Dakota Access Pipeline, an 1172 mile oil pipeline that is complete except for a 1 mile disputed section, has become a fierce battle involving some, but not even close to all, members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their environmentalist allies. (On 12/5/16, CNN reported that “the Army Corp of Engineers announced it will look for an alternate route for the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Donald Trump has said he will review the decision. Bloomberg, citing a Trump spokesman, reported that “President-elect Donald Trump backs the Dakota Access Pipeline and will review a decision by the Obama administration to deny a permit for the project.”)
I’m not going to dive into the specifics of the pipeline issue, which involves property rights and Federal Government permitting of the 1% of the pipeline route under federal jurisdiction (The other 99% is on private land). I don’t know enough about it at this point, although I oppose reactionary environmentalist obstruction of projects that deliver reliable energy.
What I do want to focus on is a New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial backing the American Indian opponents of the pipeline. The Star-Ledger anchored its position in a historical context which essentially promoted primitive tribal dictatorship over constitutional government.
Leaving these people [American Indians] alone would be nice for a change. For centuries we've done the opposite: We've betrayed them, slaughtered them, broke treaties, reduced them to abject poverty. Per capita, Native Americans are even more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group. What else can our government do to them exactly?
Since 1776, the U.S. has seized 1.5 billion acres from its native people. That's a dozen Spains. We don't often think of that grave injustice. Most Americans cannot identify the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee. Most don't consider those events important to our history.
But the relentless dispossession of Native American land - much of it through genocide - made the U.S. a transcontinental power. And the events in North Dakota make you wonder whether there will ever be an end to this appalling forced deprivation.
First of all, these protestors were not victims. They weren’t even around during colonial times. That said, the idea that the so-called “Native Americans” (I don’t like that term) can claim ownership over a continent is based on a racist premise; that a race can own a continent to the exclusion of all other races. Nothing can be further from the truth. Only individuals, separately or in association with other individuals, can own property. The American Indians—or indigenous people, if you prefer—had no right to exclude settlement by other people of the world on the North American Continent any more than today’s so-called alt-Right can claim America should be a white nation.
As to legal jurisdiction, if the American government were a dictatorship, there might be some plausibility to the claim that our government stole the Indians’ land. But America is not a dictatorship. It is a nation Founded on the moral principle that all people of all races and national origins, as individuals, are equally free before the law. That those principles were slow to extend to all people does not change that fact. Change is slow. It takes more than a statement of principles in writing. Extending freedom and political equality takes continuous action by courageous activists. Women, blacks, American Indians, and homosexuals all had to wait for their political equality. But get it they did, thanks to America’s founding principles stated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Yes, American Indians were sometimes treated horribly by white settlers. But the reverse was also true. That said, we need not excuse the atrocities committed against the American Indians to recognize that the replacement of tribal rule with American constitutional government, often against fierce and bloody resistance from the Indian tribes, was a great advance for human political progress. The overriding of tribal jurisdiction was justified by the fact that tribal rule doesn’t recognize individual rights while American constitutional governance does. If individuals have rights, then only a rights-protecting government can legitimately claim jurisdiction over a territory.
The European settlers starting with Columbus found a land mired in a stagnant Dark Age of superstition, poverty, and dictatorship. What the Europeans brought to the American continent was a New World of Enlightenment and scientific progress. The alleged American “seizure” of 1.5 billion acres from its native people was not an act of aggression but a giant leap forward in the moral/political development of mankind—the principle that all individuals anywhere on the globe possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that government’s only purpose is to secure these rights through just powers based on the consent of the governed. To think otherwise would be to hold to the age-old belief that the average person was born to be subservient to an ruling elite born with the inherent right to dictate—and that that should never change. That view is a repudiation of America.
The Enemies of Christopher Columbus: Answers to Critical Questions About the Spread of Western Civilization—Thomas A. Bowden
Was America 'made possible by stealing Indian land and the labor of slaves?'