Spartacist Canada No. 191
Standoff at Standing Rock
Defend Native Protesters!
Marxism vs. Environmentalism
On January 24, four days after taking office, U.S. president Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). A month later, on February 23, dozens of U.S. National Guard and police staged a military-style takeover of the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, erected in late August 2016 in protest against the DAPL. More than 40 protesters were arrested as cops marauded through the camp, many with guns drawn. From the start, the Standing Rock protesters faced intense state repression and some 600 activists are now facing trial. Drop the charges!
About 35 miles of the DAPL route crosses land stolen from the Sioux in the late 19th century. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie recognized the Heart tributary of the Missouri River as the northern boundary of Sioux territory. The current border of the Standing Rock reservation lies roughly 30 miles farther south, along Cedar Creek and the Cannonball River. As we noted in “On Standing Rock and Land Theft” (Workers Vanguard No. 1102, 16 December 2016), the Sioux are owed substantial compensation for the theft of the land between the Heart and Cannonball Rivers, which is now inhabited by other people.
Contrary to the utopian notions pushed by many environmentalists, as the article reprinted below from WV No. 1096 (23 September 2016) explains, it is not possible to return to the days before the colonial settlers arrived. The destruction of tribal society—marked by unspeakable violence and centuries of broken treaties and land seizures—cannot be reversed. In an 1893 letter, Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote:
“But history is about the most cruel of all goddesses, and she leads her triumphal car over heaps of corpses, not only in war, but also in ‘peaceful’ economic development. And we men and women are unfortunately so stupid that we never can pluck up courage to a real progress unless urged to it by sufferings that seem almost out of proportion.”
Only the destruction of capitalism through socialist revolution and the inauguration of an era of socialist development will redress the great historic crimes against Native peoples, lifting them from material scarcity and oppression.
The ongoing protest encampment on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota has been described as the largest gathering of Native American tribes since the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer met his deserved end. Thousands of people, including from 280 tribes, have gathered to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The protests have also drawn activists, environmentalists and bourgeois politicians looking for a photo op.
Protesters have faced racist arrogance and brutality from the capitalist state and goons for the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners. On September 3, security guards attacked protesters with dogs and pepper spray; six demonstrators were bitten by dogs. The state has hit seven protesters with reckless endangerment charges for having attached themselves to pipeline construction equipment; they face up to five years in prison. Over 60 other people have been charged with misdemeanors (including Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman, charged with trespassing for reporting on the September 3 attack on protesters).
On September 8, North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple activated the National Guard to back up the state troopers by manning roadblocks, with 100 more guardsmen on standby. One protester, who had driven to Standing Rock from California with his wife after they saw the brutality on September 3, described to WV one of the ominous roadblocks. There were 10-15 National Guardsmen with a large military truck and “the highway was blocked with several concrete road barriers forming a narrow s-shaped path” where cars were waved through at a crawl after being forced to a complete stop. He said it looked as if “they were expecting civil war or something.” Drop all the charges against the Standing Rock protesters! National Guard out!
The pipeline, to carry oil from the Bakken shale formation to Illinois where it would link up with other pipelines, is to pass under a dammed section of the Missouri River known as Lake Oahe half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock reservation. On September 9, just minutes after a federal district court judge refused to grant an injunction requested by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt construction on the pipeline, the federal government moved to defuse the situation. It announced that the Army Corps of Engineers would hold off on issuing permits to dig on federal land bordering or under Lake Oahe. On September 16, a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel granted a temporary administrative injunction halting work on the pipeline for 20 miles either side of Lake Oahe. On the same day, the Corps of Engineers granted the tribes a permit to allow demonstrations on federal lands managed by the agency.
Environmentalists and the Standing Rock Sioux are opposed to the pipeline altogether. As Marxists, we neither oppose nor support the DAPL. Many have raised concerns about potential contamination of the area’s water supply, though it does not appear that this pipeline is any less safe than others of modern design. In fact, oil pipelines, in addition to serving a socially useful function of transporting fuel, are safer overall than shipping fuel by rail or road.
We do not counsel the capitalist ruling class on the most effective way to run its economy. Thus, our position on the DAPL, which is essentially the same as our attitude toward the Keystone XL pipeline and toward fracking in general, reflects a norm for matters relating to bourgeois energy policy. But it is not universal. In the case of the Northern Gateway pipeline in western Canada, our comrades of the Trotskyist League of Canada rightly oppose the project because it brazenly flouts the land rights of the Native peoples who are the predominant population in the remote regions that the pipeline would traverse. That is not the case with the DAPL.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist and founder of the anti-fossil-fuel campaign 350.org, wrote an article in the New Yorker (6 September) falsely asserting that the pipeline is to be built “across land that was taken from the tribe in 1958.” This statement has been picked up by numerous other media outlets to draw an explicit link between tribal land rights and the pipeline. Indians in the region lost 160,000 acres of land in 1958 when the Oahe Dam was built, against Indian opposition, flooding the area along the Missouri River, including the best farmland. These Indians suffered a grave injustice in that land grab. But, in fact, the DAPL goes north of land seized in 1958 and does not cross it.
Many Indian protesters have argued that the pipeline infringes on what they consider to be sacred, ancestral land. Before European colonization the only occupants of what is now America were Indians. Of course one understands the resentment toward that displacement. But there can be no return to days before the arrival of the colonial settlers. That life was extinguished in a series of unspeakably brutal crimes against the indigenous population, but it was in fact extinguished and displaced by a capitalist economy.
Capitalism and Native American Oppression
In cases where socially useful developments like railroads, hydroelectric projects and oil pipelines run up against treaty agreements or land rights, we would fight for the Native peoples to receive generous compensation for any deprivation of land or disruption of activity, based on completely consensual agreement. Only a workers government can guarantee these conditions.
The labor of black chattel slaves and the acquisition of land through the near-extermination of Native Americans were at the heart of the consolidation of American capitalism. Throughout the 19th century, the U.S. government subjected Native peoples to land theft and genocide. The survivors were herded onto reservations, where poverty was rife and employment opportunities almost nonexistent. Many look for a better life off the reservations; today close to 80 percent of American Indians do not live on reservations. Overall, poverty and unemployment for Native Americans are much higher than the national rates and are comparable to those of black people.
On reservations, the conditions are even more grim. In recent years, the poverty rate at Standing Rock was over 40 percent and the rate for people over 16 who were unemployed was more than 60 percent. In 2014, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported that, as a proportion of their population, Native Americans were killed by police between 1999 and 2011 at a higher rate than any other racial group.
The Standing Rock reservation was originally part of the Great Sioux Reservation established under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. That treaty gave the Sioux people (who had earlier been forced out of Minnesota) nearly all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. However, the government soon broke that treaty, as it did with most treaties.
The Black Hills were taken from the Sioux in 1877 after gold was discovered there, and more land was stolen in 1889 when six separate reservations (including Standing Rock) were carved out of the Great Sioux Reservation. Resistance to this land theft was met with vicious repression and massacres. The Sioux were the victims of two of the most infamous, the 1863 Whitestone Hill massacre and that at Wounded Knee in 1890. In each of these incidents, U.S. troops slaughtered hundreds of Indian men, women and children.
In more recent times, government suppression of Indian resistance is typified by the case of Leonard Peltier, who has spent over 40 years in prison for a crime the Feds know he did not commit. Peltier was a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which fought the enforced poverty of Native Americans and the continued theft of their lands. In June 1975, a massive assault involving 250 FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, SWAT cops and vigilantes was launched against the Pine Ridge Reservation. Two FBI agents were killed and Peltier was framed up and convicted of their killing. It was a textbook case from the FBI’s notorious Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of surveillance, disruption, frame-up and murder.
In his four decades behind bars, Peltier has been subjected to supermax hell, punitive prison moves, long stretches in solitary and brutal beatings. He has been eligible for parole since 1986, but his applications have been denied at every turn. Now 72 years old and in extremely poor health, Peltier is asking for clemency from President Obama in order to, as he poignantly said in a September 16 solidarity statement with the Standing Rock protesters, “permit me to live my final years on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.” (More information about Peltier and his case can be found on his defense committee website whoisleonardpeltier.info.) Free Leonard Peltier now!
For Socialism, not Reactionary Green Utopias
So long as the productive wealth of society remains in the hands of the capitalist class, technological progress and economic development serve to amass profits at the expense of workers and the oppressed. It will take a socialist revolution to uproot the system of capitalist exploitation for profit. Only then, through the inauguration of a collectivized, centrally planned economy, will the techniques of modern science harness vast productive wealth in the service of human need.
Such a perspective is counterposed to petty-bourgeois environmentalists like McKibben and the small-time capitalist Green Party. All variants of environmentalism are an expression of bourgeois ideology. The fundamental problem is not fossil fuels but the capitalist order and its drive for profit. Unable to look beyond the capitalist framework, environmentalists can only promote liberal, idealist and even reactionary schemes at the expense of industrial and economic growth.
Many environmentalists see a superficial affinity between their reactionary “back to nature” utopias and the interests of Native peoples. Today, opposition to various pipeline proposals often places American Indians and environmentalists conjuncturally on the same side, with both opposing any pipeline development.
Such opposition runs directly against Native interests, serving to deepen the isolation and poverty of the Indian population. Indian rights to control their resources must include the right to seek their development. In fact, many tribes have benefited from resource extraction, in particular during the shale boom. The Southern Utes in Colorado; the Mandan, Hidatsa and Sahnish Nation in North Dakota and the Navajo are among those who have earned considerable amounts of money in recent years from oil and gas production. As the head of a Native-owned oil corporation put it, “Shut down oil and gas, and you would be turning out the lights in our villages.” Of course, under the capitalist system, the oil revenues have benefited tribal elites far more than the rest of the populations on the reservations.
Some reformist socialist groups pander to the environmentalist movement, while giving it a thin Marxist veneer. A prominent example is the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which is calling for people to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein for president. A September 15 statement on socialistworker.org declares: “The International Socialist Organization stands in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in support of their right to self-determination and sovereignty, and against the continued extraction of fossil fuels.” To just stop accessing fossil fuels would be catastrophic for society, which is dependent on electricity, transport and other features of a modern economy. As we noted in “Capitalism and Global Warming” (WV Nos. 965 and 966, 24 September and 8 October 2010):
“The capitalist magnates and their governments are not about to just write off their historic investments in fossil fuels. Neither would a workers government. While a planned, collectivized economy would carry out scientific research to develop safer, more efficient sources of energy, it may well have to run for some time on coal and hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas).”
Marxists are not indifferent to the environmental impact of technological progress, but our concern is tempered by our dedication to the eradication of scarcity and human misery. The victorious proletarian revolution will utilize science and technology to provide the material basis for massively improving the standard of living for all of humanity. Only in the context of an international socialist economy that relegates hunger and poverty to the past can a rational plan be hammered out to minimize the human toll of climate change.
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
We seek to build a Leninist workers party that will act as a tribune of the people, one that combats every instance of oppression, including that of Native Americans. We look to mobilize the social power of the proletariat in defense of all the oppressed, as part of making the class conscious of its historic task to overthrow the entire capitalist system. The working class is shackled by a pro-capitalist leadership that, rather than pursuing a class-struggle fight for the interests of workers and the oppressed, pushes the lie that workers share common interests with their capitalist exploiters.
Grotesquely, the leaders of construction unions involved in the DAPL project have condemned the protesters. The presidents of the Operating Engineers, Teamsters, Laborers and Pipefitters unions wrote a letter to Governor Dalrymple on August 22 claiming that the Indian protest “threatens the safety of our union brothers and sisters” and calling on the governor to “utilize the authority of your office” to “stand up to the demonstrators.” According to the Bismarck Tribune (7 September), Operating Engineers business manager Glen Johnson even said the governor might have to call out the National Guard.
The role of the National Guard is to maintain racist law and order, and that includes the many times it has been used against striking workers, from the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike to the 1982 meatpackers strike in Dakota City, Nebraska. The guardsmen who gunned down anti-war protesters at Kent State in 1970 had been sent directly from strikebreaking duty against Cleveland Teamsters. It is an indictment of the labor traitors who currently sit atop the trade unions that they disappear the bloody class line that divides workers from the capitalists and their state power.
Instead they subordinate the workers’ interests to the profitability of the companies. A class-struggle union leadership would insist on full pay for the workers every day, whether construction is carried out or not. Workers shouldn’t suffer if the pipeline is delayed—the company should! Such a leadership would also fight for union-run preferential hiring programs to provide union jobs and skills training for Indians from the reservation and to integrate them into the proletariat. It would fight for union control of safety standards and practices in construction and maintenance in order to combat the bosses’ cost-cutting schemes, which are often the cause of pipe leaks and other industrial accidents.
It is only through forging the unity of workers and all the oppressed that attacks by the capitalists can be beaten back. A political struggle must be waged within the workers movement by class-conscious leaders contesting the whole panoply of wretched class-collaboration, nationalism, protectionism and racism exemplified by the labor bureaucracy.
What is needed is a revolutionary workers party to lead the proletariat, standing at the head of all the oppressed, in the struggle to overturn capitalist class rule and establish a workers government. Such a government would immediately spend the money to provide a decent life for those who have suffered most under capitalism, not least Native Americans and black people. It would ensure the social emancipation of American Indians, promoting their voluntary integration on the basis of full equality while providing the fullest possible regional autonomy for those who desire it.