Dakota and the Geography of Racism

75-fb-497-moving-houseWhen the Army Corps of Engineers drew up its development plans for the Missouri River in the 1940s and 1950s, its officers repeatedly traveled from their headquarters in Omaha to Pierre and Bismarck to consult with the governors, senators, and business leaders of North and South Dakota.  At the time, the upper echelon of the Corps consisted entirely of middle-aged white males, as did the political and economic elite of the Dakotas.  Behind closed doors, these men collectively agreed to build five of the world’s largest earthen dams at locations, and to heights, harmful to the interests of the Missouri Valley’s Native American inhabitants.  After the dams went into the river, and the reservoirs filled to capacity, a string of Native American communities from Fort Thompson, South Dakota, to Sanish, North Dakota, sank beneath the dark waters of the Missouri.  Not surprisingly, the Pick-Sloan Plan spared from inundation the off-reservation communities of Chamberlain, Fort Pierre, Pierre, Bismarck, and Williston.

Native Americans did not accept the loss of their Missouri Valley bottomlands and communities without a fight.  In the 1940s, the tribal council at Fort Berthold tried to stop the construction of Garrison Dam.  When that goal appeared unattainable because North Dakota’s federal and state officials fully supported the dam’s construction, the council attempted to persuade the state’s leaders to alter the dam’s location and height so as to minimize the amount of land inundated by the dam’s planned reservoir.  The tribe lost that fight too.  In the end, Garrison Dam flooded all of the reservation’s bottomland.

In the late 1950s, the Lower Brule tribal council urged South Dakota’s congressional delegation, led by Senator Francis Case, to move the site of the planned Big Bend Dam in order to spare the Indian community of Lower Brule.  Case, who two decades earlier had proposed that Big Bend Dam be built upstream from the town of Lower Brule and operated by the Department of the Interior for the benefit of the tribe, ignored the tribe’s petitions.  Eventually, the Corps built Big Bend Dam at a location and height that maximized it hydropower output, spared Pierre and Fort Pierre, and drowned Lower Brule.  Native Americans in the Dakotas lost their lands and communities to the Pick-Sloan for a whole host of reasons, including their lack of representation at the federal and state level, their purposeful exclusion from the decision-making process, and most importantly, the racism of white officialdom.

People often think of racism as a set of beliefs or behaviors.  But it’s more that.  In the Dakotas, racism is a geography – its imprint is upon the land- and waterscape.  The Corps’ big dams and reservoirs along the Missouri are clear representations of institutional racism and of White America’s centuries-old attempt to subjugate Native America.  Look at any map of the Dakotas and it will reveal in contour lines and place names the record of White America’s racist policies toward Native Americans.

In the present dispute over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the key players have assumed historical, timeworn roles.  Today’s North Dakota is largely run by a cabal of conservative, middle-aged white men.  Apparently those men, in consultation with the Corps and the heads of Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, insisted that the pipeline not cross the Missouri where a future oil leak could threaten the water supplies and quality of life of Bismarck’s predominately white residents.  Consequently, the Corps and Energy Transfer agreed that the pipeline should cross the Missouri near the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation.  That crossing point ensures that if the future pipeline ruptures and pours oil into the Missouri, Native Americans will pay the steepest social, environmental, and economic costs – as they did when the Corps constructed its Missouri River dams decades ago.

The Native Americans, like their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s, are protesting the Corps’ plans and the threat those plans pose not only to their water supplies but also their sacred sites.  But as in the past, the white-male dominated order along the Missouri possesses the wealth, legal tools, and institutions to stymie the Native Americans’ efforts.  Although the Obama Administration’s Justice Department recently ordered a pause in the project’s construction, there still exists a good chance the pipeline will be built near the Standing Rock Reservation.  And if that happens, the pipeline will be yet another example of the geography of racism so prevalent in the Dakotas in place names, dam sites, reservoir levels, and shrunken reservation boundaries.

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