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October 24, 2017

Mile-marker from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests makes the point that U.S. treaty history is still being written

On Tuesday, October 24, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., added a mile-marker post from last year’s Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest to the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Now the final section of the exhibition, the eleven-and a-half-foot-tall mile-marker stands as a powerful symbol of the fact that American Indian treaties remain U.S. law, and that their stories are not finished.

John Richard Edwards at the mile-marker installation
John Richard Edwards (Onondaga) takes part in the installation of the mile-marker post from the Dakota Access Pipeline in the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Washington, D.C., October 24, 2017. Photo by Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian

The mile-marker also serves as a symbol of modern resistance. More than 350 tribes came to rally opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux  maintain that the pipeline threatens their lands and water. Originally the pipeline was to cross the Missouri River above Bismarck, the state capital. But citizens deemed that route unsafe for the city’s water. As a result, the pipeline was redirected to cross the river above the drinking water source of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, just south of the city. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests began in the spring of 2016 after young tribal members organized a run to bring awareness to the issue. In addition to protecting the water, key issues for the Standing Rock Sioux include protecting treaty rights, protecting sacred sites, and exercising the tribe's right to consultation with the United States government. Representatives from other tribes, along with celebrities and allies from around the world, joined the protest. Protesters called themselves water protectors and established three camps near the pipeline construction site on the Missouri River. A new rallying cry was born—Mni Waconi, Water Is Life.

Mile-marker at Oceti Sakowin
Protesters quickly covered the mile-marker with signs showing where they came from and how far they had traveled. Near the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, Standing Rock Indian Reservation, North Dakota, winter 2016–17. Photo courtesy of Konwenni Jacobs, used with permission

While at the camps, visiting water protectors proudly displayed their tribal flags, protest signs, and other objects to show solidarity. Hickory Edwards (Onondaga), one of the water protectors, raised a mile-marker post in the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) camp, the largest of the three camps. Handmade signs quickly covered the post, showing the participants’ cities, states, tribal affiliations or countries, and how far they had traveled to join the protest. The mile-marker became a focal point within the camp, as well as a popular site to take selfies and photos of other water protectors.

On February 27, 2017, a day after the deadline to leave the reservation, the Oceti Sakowin camp was cleared. Edwards took the mile-marker post with him when he left, with the idea of donating it to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Edwards and fellow protesters Konwenni Jacobs (Kahnawake Mohawk) and Bryanna Patinka delivered the mile-marker to the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Maryland. In 2021, when Nation to Nation closes, the mile-marker will go off public display, but it will remain in the museum’s collections, where it will be cared for and where researchers, tribal representatives, and others will be able to see it upon request.

Hickory Edwards at the mile-marker installation
Hickory Edwards speaks at the installation of the mile-marker. Washington, D.C., October 24, 2017. Photo by Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian

Nation to Nation focuses on the historic treaties made between the United States and American Indian nations. The U.S. Senate ratified more than 370 treaties with Indian nations before the treaty-making process was replaced by executive orders and acts of Congress. The mile-marker serves as a powerful reminder of the exhibition’s themes, and especially of the never-ending struggle American Indians face to preserve their treaty rights.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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