There is an ongoing clash in what is known as North Dakota; an event that is more than simply a protest, it is an intersection of many different ideas and values that transcend the issues that appear to be at the fore: water, land, and oil.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of this growing intersection is that the deeper meaning, the long-standing issues that have contributed to the confrontation, are being ignored and therefore forgotten by the press, and by those who rely on the popular media for information.
By framing discussions and reporting of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Water Protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters as a legal question, the mass media not only overlooks the colonial and assimilatory aspect of such arguments, they actively participate in them.
That a definable rule of law, as codified by a judicial body and overseen by agents of that body (often a police force), is universal and, therefore, universally applicable, let alone fair, is a colonial construction.
As actions in and around Cannon Ball escalate, there is a growing discussion in the popular press as to the legality of these actions. Treaty rights, private property, and violations like trespassing have all become central issues to how the grievances of the Water Protectors and their allies are being portrayed, particularly on the ground, ignoring the very idea that the imposition of a colonial legal structure is, by its very imposition, an act of colonization.
Pre-Columbian North Americans were not a lawless group, despite such portrayal. Nor are their descendants. What was at issue during the early stages of colonization was the inability for Euro-North American governments to recognize indigenous concepts of law (Sally Falk Moore, Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), Introduction).
Imposing Euro-American legal structures on Native Americans not only created the conditions for dispossessing indigenous peoples from their traditional lands, it also set the stage for all future arguments. Basically, in creating a legal system in the European model, the U.S. is able to choose the language of all conversations it has with Native land defenders, and Native territorial disputes.
It has been suggested in the press that the treaty governing the disputed territory opens the land to development, and that the Water Protectors and their allies are misinformed. Other articles argue that eminent domain was never employed in this area, pointing out that much of the property in question is private. In what is typical of the propaganda rhetoric offered by the mainstream media, it is what isn’t said, or omitted, that needs clarification.
Private property, insofar as this context is concerned, is a colonial import, making the point moot when talking about industrial development. That the press and conservative commentators point to the rule of law and legislation by an assimilatory judicial body as justification for continued dispossession, and the unending marginalization of alternative systems of justice, forces the conversation to take place within the colonial framework.
As police escalate the violence at encampments near Cannon Ball in what can only be described as the next wave of cultural genocide through Manifest Destiny, aspects of the greater conversation over assimilation and colonialism remain off the table.
At the very least, grassroots and social media have forced the issue into the mainstream. At most, the way this moment in history is represented, and the conversations this action is producing, are not addressing the underlying issues that continue to undermine reconciliation, leading to an even greater divide between the colonial government and its marginalized and forgotten citizens.
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