The ongoing dispute that Energy Transfer Partners, in cooperation with the federal government, is having with several Native American tribes over the Dakota Access Pipeline section that crosses the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota brings up questions about water and its importance to everyday existence. Obviously clean water is essential to life, which is apparently why the Army Corps of Engineers moved the original path of the pipeline from north of Bismarck, North Dakota, where it would threaten the integrity of water supplies there should the pipeline fail and leak oil. How is clean water then less essential to life on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation south of Bismarck, because that is where they relocated the pipeline? Besides the issue of trespassing on sacred grounds on the Reservation, there is the elemental matter of maintaining the integrity of clean water for the Reservation’s animal and human inhabitants.
Dakota Access Pipeline reroute; map by Carl Sack.
The Sons of the Pioneers were the first to perform this song written by one of their own, Bob Nolan, in the 1930s, and since then other artists have covered it dozens of times.
The Dakota Access Pipeline stretches from the oil shale fields of northwest North Dakota to an oil tank farm in southern Illinois, crossing much privately owned farmland along the way. The controversial use of eminent domain to gain access for a privately owned corporate partnership is another subject. The issue at hand here is how the elders of Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which technically speaking in the language of treaties with the federal government represent the interests of a sovereign nation within the borders of the United States, can fend off this challenge to their land and their water. Does the federal use of eminent domain apply in their case? The common sense answer would be “no.” History has shown, however, that the “sovereign nation” bit in treaties between the United States and Native American tribes was a mere sop not worth the paper it was written on, and intended only to placate the tribes until such time as we needed their land for one reason or another. All bets were off then, and might made right. That’s what the current controversy comes down to, and after a brief stay from the Obama adminstration in continuing construction of the pipeline across Indian land, the new administration under Supreme Leader has weighed in with a sadly predictable decision.
Since the 1980s, when bottled water first started showing up in quantity in supermarkets in the United States, Americans seem to have taken for granted the rare and precious resource that is clean water. Particularly in the eastern half of the country, where (Flint, Michigan aside) municipal water supplies have been plentiful and largely free of problems, Americans have become deluded by the strange idea that the water coming out of their taps was somehow deficient and that the bottled water they bought from the supermarket was better. At first, due to the aura of prestige surrounding European bottled water brands like Perrier and Evian, people bought and sipped bottled water as a matter of status. Eventually it became just a thing to do. This proved to be a type of madness, particularly after the water in bottles proved to be no better, and in some cases worse, than the water coming out of most people’s taps, at least in the eastern half of the United States. People in the western half of the country often have had to cope with tap water that was unacceptably hard, and have had more reason therefore to turn to bottled water.
The Washita River Massacre portrayed in the 1970 film Little Big Man. Anti-war and anti-government sentiment of the time influenced this film, but its portrayal of Native Americans and their distressing relationship to their conquerors was a welcome corrective after decades of stilted, one-sided inaccuracies in Hollywood movies. The tune is “Garry Owen”, an Irish quickstep adapted as the marching song for Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” ― Joni Mitchell
In some cases, buying and consuming commercially produced distilled water, even in the United States, the land of mostly wholesome public drinking water compared to much of the rest of the world, is not a bad idea. Other than that, the idea of giving international conglomerates like Nestlé and Coca-Cola more money and control over water supplies, a resource far more precious than oil, is foolish and insane. The Native American protesters and their supporters at Standing Rock have the sane and sagacious idea of protecting the water that courses through the Reservation, and considering the vital importance of that resource the rest of us had best pay attention now because it will flow our way in time.