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Two stories of the black snake

By October 28, 2016 4 Comments


Last night, late, I crossed “the black snake” three times on my way home from Rock Valley. Things have changed in the last few weeks. For months, the wide scar through neighborhood farmland looked raw and painful, especially after rain. But last night I couldn’t help notice that the precious topsoil had been spread back over the wound. 

Roads run square in Siouxland, and that meant that I came up on triangular signs that mark the pipeline three times. Energy Transfer, the Fortune 500 company that’s doing the heavy lifting, has encountered no problems in our neighborhood. Just down the gravel, less than a quarter mile from home, a dozen trailers fill the lot, all of them belonging to Energy Transfer employees. In Alton, right downtown, barely a mile away, there’s a dozen more, another camp of pipeline workers. They’ve been here a couple of months. 

If Energy Transfer could grow corn and soybeans overnight, you wouldn’t know the pipeline is there. It’s buried. Bare ground will be there until planting next spring, but when the corn is knee-high you’ll never know all the pipes are down there and whirring with North Dakota oil.

We’re all capitalists here, and few, if any in the area considered what Energy Transfer was doing to be any kind of invasion. Real card-carring environmentalists–the kind who paint protest signs–don’t live here. Land-owners loved the money, I’m sure. Had to be plentiful.

Isn’t that way in North Dakota, where some  5000 protesters are making life miserable for Energy Transfer, most of them Native, banded together to keep “the black snake” away. Two of my friends described what a joy it was to come together out there on the broad empty land along the Missouri, what spiritual nourishment they got from the company of all kinds of Native people, biggest get-together since the Battle of Little Big Horn, someone said. 

I’m sure there are angry North Dakotans. I’m sure they see protesters (not all of whom are Native) as agitators and thugs, people determined to hold back progress. I’m sure they’d love to unleash the dogs as they did one day a couple of weeks ago. They’d love to arrest the city people who’ve come to North Dakota only for headlines, the do-gooders who don’t know what’s good for them. And how is it they can just show up out there? Lazy bums don’t even have jobs. 

I’ve not heard that rhetoric, but I’m guessing it gets played. 

I just happened to come across this passage last week.

The Indians knew as well as anyone that if peace was accepted it would mean extinction, it would mean peace at a terrible cost, it would mean death and destruction and the end of the race. Their land was coveted and would sooner or later be taken. The wild game over a thousand hills that meant life to an Indian would be all a thing of the past. The wild life of roaming in fresh fields free from diseases, camping on the perfume of new-grown flowers, the pure air of the prairie, the breath of the pines and sparkling streams–what God had given the children of the prairies–would have  to be exchanged for goods that they were not used to, foods that did not satisfy, foods robbed of the natural vitamins, minerals, and proteins. 

Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun wrote that paragraph almost eighty years ago when she was herself almost 90 years old. She’d seen first hand much that had happened west of the Missouri River during the Great Sioux Wars.* 

If you want to understand at least some of the differences between my people’s acceptance of “the black snake” and Native defiant rejection, go ahead and walk through that paragraph again.

I don’t slap righteousness sticky notes on movements. I’m not saying 5000 Native people are acting in their own best interest or that my neighbors and I should be out there down the road lying in front of earth-movers in a non-violent protest of locked arms. I’m not even much of a tree-hugger.

But if you want to understand why a raucous encampment of people from the Standing Rock reservation doesn’t want the pipeline, listen to the words of old Lakota woman writing eighty years ago about a lifetime she spent not all that far away from the neighborhood where Energy Transfer wants to bury that black snake. 

If you don’t hear her voice in the North Dakota protest, you’re not listening. 


Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun, With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History, p. 85-86.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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