Native Americans & the Dakota Access Pipeline: Caring for a forgotten people

The controversy sparked by the Dakota Access Pipeline has united Native Americans across the country, as representatives from different tribes have gathered in North Dakota protesting the desecration of ancestral hunting and burial grounds and warning of the dangers posed by a potential oil leak into the waters of the Missouri River.

Thanks to intervention by the Obama administration, construction has been halted for now, despite the decision of a United States District Court that threw out a temporary restraining order on construction, filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. However, protesters still occupy federal land near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, gathering each day to show unified and largely peaceful resistance of any attempt to continue construction.

Hollywood stars, including Shailene Woodley and Leonardo DiCaprio, added their voices to the protest, along with various other celebrities and politicians. They joined with the ReZpect Our Water movement, a name coined by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, supporting Native Americans while expressing environmental concerns.

The question then becomes, why has it taken a crisis of this magnitude to elicit such support for Native Americans and their rights?

Native Americans are one of the most underrepresented minorities in the United States, often overlooked and forgotten even by those who stand against institutional racism in the African American context.

According to a White House study conducted in 2014, “One in three American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty.” Native American youth have the lowest high school graduation rates and the highest suicide rates compared to all other ethnic or racial groups. In the adult population, the unemployment rate in 2014 was higher than that of African Americans or Hispanics.

In addition, the report stated that “these data may mask more severe disparities for some Native communities,” citing the fact that some communities had low poverty rates while others had rates that exceeded 60 percent.

In spite of this, many Americans are unaware of the plight in which many Native Americans find themselves, born into a reservation system that often limits opportunities due to extreme poverty. Drug abuse and alcoholism are almost a constant in these environments. Schools routinely fall well below government standards.

But these are simply facts. The heart of the issue lies in the need for awareness and compassionate action.

Why does it take an environmental crisis for mainstream Americans to align themselves with Native America? Why do celebrities and politicians appear to care more about pipeline leaks than they do about the brokenness that afflicts many Native American communities?

These are our neighbors — our first neighbors — and they are a beautiful people with a beautiful culture who have been disrespected and forgotten time and time again. Perhaps if we took the time to build relationships with them, we would learn from Native Americans what it means to respect land, to love others, and to value our elders and those who have come before us. These are lessons that many of us desperately need.

So I challenge you — when the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline has ended, when the protesters go home and the press stops its coverage — do not forget the people of Native America. They have been forgotten for too long.

*The opinions expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of the Geneva Cabinet.

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