On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Sovereignty, Energy, and the Rosebud Sioux: Land Claims and Pipeline Politics (December 24, 2014)

Returning from my deadline-imposed blogging break, I wanted to return to a subject that has been attracting much of my attention (and reading) lately—the complex play of sovereignties and jurisdictions created by the almost bewildering array of Native American “nations” within United States territory. The latest incident to leap out to me from current events is, as the India Country Media Today Network reports here,  the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (AKA Sicangu Lakota Oyate) identifying the United States House of Representatives’ vote of November 14, 2015 on the Keystone Pipeline an “act of war.” President Scott’s full statement can be found on the Bold Nebraska site.

Although the Keystone XL bill ultimately died—well, at least temporarily—in the Senate’s November 19 vote, and although US President Obama may well veto it even if it passes, the official Rosebud Sioux reaction is very striking in its challenging of assumptions about territorial rights. The President of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe[1]  did not use ambiguous words in identifying the political space from which he declared the US House’s vote for unilaterally developing the Keystone Pipeline across “our lands”: “we are a sovereign nation, and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” This is unambiguously the language of a sovereign power holding territory with exclusive rights, and—no matter whether this flies in the face of what, from a US federal perspective, is the United States’s simultaneously de facto and de jure hold over the reservation lands in South Dakota claimed by the Sicangu Oyate),  it is striking how intensely this rhetorical statement calls into question standard notions of authority.

As an integral component of a transnational economic enterprise involving co-operation between Canadian and American interests in the movement of fossil fuels for sale on the international market, the Keystone XL Pipeline http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Pipeline is generating a massive amount of controversy. Reports regarding concerns about the injurious environmental impact of this project are numerous; here are some sites that collect these vital questions: the US Department of State’s environmental impact report, the National Wildlife Federation’s environmental impact assessment,  and the Friends of the Earth assessment.  As readers of this blog will already intuit, I am more focused on the issues of territorial rights opened up by this transnational project that involves the crossing of various kinds of jurisdictions—US federal, state, county, city, and reservation, Canadian federal and provincial, etc.—across various types of geography. Debates about this project will surely generate more posts and thoughts about how notions of territory adjust to economic demands. Insofar as areas become critical either for resource extraction—or, as in the Keystone XL Pipeline case, simply as areas for profitably siting a pipeline that needs to continuously spread across much of center of North America—they often generate fierce competition to lay claim to space.

In speaking on the Keystone XL Pipeline project, Rosebud Sioux President Scott refers to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty—  which specifically refers to the parties involved as “nations”— and the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which seems on a quick reading to register a more aggressive and organized territorialism in referring to “parties” rather than “nations.” President Scott does not do the sort of hair-splitting that is required to separate the notion of a nation-state with full sovereignty—including, say, air-space rights and the ability to close borders—with the potentially ambiguous notion of “nation” that has been perennially appealed to (as far as we can translate it, of course) by peoples claiming a perennial integrity that is more often than not attached to some sort of land-claim.

Among statements made to Nicole Hensley of the New York Daily News, President Scott says “When it comes to treaties, they forget about us…People forget we’re a sovereign nation” and “Everybody else…they’re just guests here.” These are not just powerful words, but a clear challenge to the clearly dominant assumption that US Indian lands are inherently secondary to US federal jurisdiction, with full sovereignty only an illusion maintained when economic or military interests (or indeed others) do not intervene. As I have been reading a lot these days about the legal history of Indian lands, as well as reading works that try to reorient the typically Euro-American perspective in US historiography, I will be paying especially close attention to the resolute Rosebud Sioux revolt against the Keystone XL Pipeline—and other economic, ecological, and geographical crises that will invariably be illuminated as this struggle continues.

[1] I use “Tribe” here since this appears to be the way the Rosebud Sioux refer to themselves in English, at least as far as I can gather from the ICTMN reporting; I am fully aware of the great controversy that some see in the use of the term “tribe,” with many following anthropologists’ critique that this can connote a kind of primitivism vis-à-vis standard political units such as nation-states; on this subject in an African context, see this helpful pedagogical guide put out by the SPLC,  [I am grateful to Rob Barrett for this link, as well as for some enlightening discussion about the stakes of identifying tribality)