As I grew older, however, I learned that on my father’s side of the family, a love of American Indian culture had a deeper meaning. My grandmother’s grandmother was full-blooded Chippewa. She died long before I was born, but my father met her when he was about 5. At my generation, that means I am only 1/16th Chippewa, but it is the strongest single ethnicity present in my genealogy.
As I continued to mature in my appreciation for the small amount of American Indian in my heritage, I became more aware of the sad history of oppression and violence against the first people to live here in the Americas. Games like “Cowboys and Indians” lost their appeal, and I began to read western novels through a different lens. I developed a love for bow-hunting as a way of connecting with my ancestors and getting closer to my own food sources.
My great-great-grandmother lived on the Indian reservation in Mount Pleasant as a part of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Though the initial reservation for this tribe (the Isabella Indian Reservation) had 130,000 acres of land, this land was slowly swindled away as eager lumber merchants bought land at a fraction of the actual value. This was the only way those living in the reservation could feed their families and, after only 70 years, only a handful of the original tribal member allotments remained.
The reservation my great-great-grandmother lived on was a mere 500 acres. This was all that remained.
I would imagine you share my sadness at this story, knowing it is only a fraction of the great injustices done to American Indians over the nearly 400 years since Europeans first made contact with the first people living here. However, we would all be mistaken if we thought this was the end and injustice and oppression of American Indians is now only a tragic footnote in American history.
In North Dakota, more than a thousand American Indian activists have halted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL). The activists are protesting this pipeline because not only is it a clear example of environmental racism, it also would result in the degradation of sacred sites and burial grounds. The original construction plans ran north of Bismarck but were moved because of potential dangers to the drinking water there — no similar consideration was given to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This is clear environmental racism.
The government has closed the main highway used by the Standing Rock nation, as well, creating a further economic sanction.
I am proud that my church is standing side-by-side with the protestors. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota joined a statement of protest on Aug. 19 from the North Dakota Council of Indian Ministries of the diocese. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has joined his own voice supporting the protest, saying in an Aug. 25 statement, “The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are calling us now to stand with Native peoples, not only for their sakes, but for the sake of God’s creation, for the sake of the entire human family, and for the children and generations of children yet unborn.”
An Episcopal Church deacon on the Standing Rock reservation said, “It’s not just a native thing. It’s not just an Indian issue. It’s a human issue.”
In our own State of Michigan, on Aug. 21, a group of American Indians in Marquette offered their own protest in solidarity with the North Dakota protestors. That group shares deep concern for danger to water in North Dakota. A saying in Sioux calls all of us to the truth that “mni wiconi,” or “water is life.” Those of us in Michigan, particularly in the Tri-Cities, blessed with an abundance of water, know this truth.
A similar environmental danger lurks close to home in the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Mackinac Bridge. This 50-year old pipeline continues to pose a great risk to the Straits of Mackinac. Eight Michigan counties or municipalities have called for the retirement of this line. Though Enbridge claims it is safe, the company has had numerous other spills in Michigan, the latest in 2010 spilled more than 1 million gallons into Talmadge Creek, going from there into the Kalamazoo River.
The American Indian activists in Marquette will be protesting the continued use of the Line 5 pipeline in Mackinaw later in September.
It is not enough for us to regret the history of European immigrants hundreds of years ago. It is not enough to regret the history of oppression from the United States government or the economic and environmental racism and injustices in the generations since we first signed treaties with American Indian tribes. These tribes call us back to the importance of earth as a sacred creation. They call us back to our duty to care for it wisely.
We must stand with the American Indian activists in North Dakota, seeking to protect their water with the same care that those in authority are apparently happy to provide for the capital of North Dakota. We must stand with them as their sacred sites come under threat of destruction, despite treaties that date from the 19th century. And we must be inspired the activists in North Dakota and be vigilant to protect our own waters close to home.
The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.