Fred Kowal: Standing Rock

Dec 29, 2016

One hundred and twenty six years ago, on December 29, 1890, the US 7th cavalry gunned down over three hundred Lakota women, men and children in one of the worst massacres in the long history of violence perpetrated by the United States against Native Americans.  It is vital that we all remember that day and that history. 

On December 4th of this year, fireworks lit up the nighttime sky several hundred miles northeast of Wounded Knee, over the Standing Rock protest camps hours after the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to block the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Over the past several months, thousands of protesters and members of the Standing Rock Lakota Nation stood against the planned Dakota Access pipeline which corporate interests are seeking to build. The nearly 1,200 mile pipeline that would carry crude oil from the Bakken oil fields to pipelines in Illinois. But the Standing Rock Sioux Nation warns the pipeline would harm the Native American tribe’s cultural lands and tribal grounds protected by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Standing Rock claims the pipeline would jeopardize the Missouri River, the primary source of drinking water for 28 tribes and 10 states.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the story. It’s more like a pause.

Everything could change—and quickly—once Donald Trump takes office. Rick Perry, Trump’s appointment as Energy Department head, is a board member of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the $3.8 billion pipeline.  Trump himself has links to the corporations building the pipeline and is committed to unrelenting fossil fuel development.  The Standing Rock tribe knows Trump’s intent, which is why many protesters were reluctant to leave their posts despite snow and frigid temperatures.

United University Professions has not remained silent. In October, our Executive Board pledged the union’s “unconditional support” to the Standing Rock tribe. I wrote letters to President Obama and to tribal leader David Archambault II informing them of our solidarity with the tribe’s struggle.  I would argue that all unions, even those that might gain temporary economic benefits, must stand in solidarity with those who would lose the most from this blatant disregard for the rights of those with the least in our society. 

You see, Standing Rock is more than just a protest about a pipeline. For the tribe, it’s about fighting for what’s theirs, and against years of injustices against Native Americans. It’s about the future, about protecting the upper Missouri River, their primary drinking water source.  Most of all, it’s about the sovereign right to their land recognized by treaty with the United States. 

For environmentalists, it’s a stand against corporate greed and for the ecological viability of our planet.  Again, labor must stand with those seeking to defend our environment since the survival of this species depends on that.  Furthermore, there is a better economic future for everyone through the development of green energy sources as opposed to a continued dependence on fossil fuels.

In the aftermath of the presidential election, I think those of us who believe in the importance of social justice, tolerance, and positive, progressive change, must unite.  The battles being waged by the Lakota are my battles and my battles are theirs.

In a perfect world, the pipeline would be history, and the Standing Rock tribe—and all Native Americans—would be treated with dignity and respect and their sovereignty respected

But that world doesn’t exist, which is why the Standing Rock Lakota stand ready to fight. I proudly stand with them.  I believe we in the union movement must stand with them defending their rights and defending our earth. 

And we must all remember Wounded Knee. 

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

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